Saturday, April 18, 2015

why aren't there more people of color in publishing?

Not long ago, I was at an MIT Press sales conference dinner and was surprised to notice that I was the only man at the table.  In fact, MIT has made incredible strides in gender equality.   Most of the key sales, marketing and administrative positions are held by women, and the editorial department is way more balanced than those of many other publishers.  Publishing in general has been transformed over the past few decades by women assuming leadership roles.

So why is the record on racial inclusiveness in publishing still so appalling?  Why do I sit at sales conference tables with dozens of very smart people season after season where the non-white representation is nil, or almost nil?  Why does book publishing still seem like a place where, as a friend of mine described it, “white people talk to white people?”

I can’t speak for other publishers, (and can’t even really speak for my own) but I’ve been in the book business long enough to know that the racial demographics in terms of employment is abysmal.  The paucity of African-American faces is one of a couple big elephants in the publishing room, and the lack of acknowledgment and apparent progress makes it seem as if we’ve just given up.  

The irony here is that the university presses I represent- Harvard and Yale in particular- routinely nurture the most extraordinary scholarship on African-American history, slavery, economic inequality, the criminal justice system,  urban issues, and education.  Their roster of author talent is an A list of contemporary Black public intellectuals and academics, who are doing groundbreaking research and constructing profoundly important arguments.  Their work stands to materially improve quality of life and to leverage change.  It’s a signal contribution made by university presses every season.  And the fact that these stellar books have been brought to life by talented, thoughtful white editors shows that if racism is at work, it’s of the institutional variety, not personal.

A sales conference is an assembly of the key in-house players, a conversation about the ideas in forthcoming books, and a strategy-session on how to present them to the public.  When a title has special valence for the Black community, it seems strange for members of that community to (literally) not have a chair at the table.  (I feel similarly uneasy when the recent cascade of books on Islamism is discussed without input of Muslims.)

The point is not diversity for diversity’s sake, as if it’s enough to just feel good about ticking that box.  It’s not even simply about making it possible for Black voices to be heard on marketing strategies for books on “Black” topics, whatever that may mean.  We’re missing the perspective that African-American sales, marketing and editorial personnel would bring to the entire publishing program.  Why wouldn’t discussion of environmental studies, classical music, digital humanities and ornithology titles not be just as enriched by a more representative staff?  How might the seasonal lists look different had the books been acquired and shepherded through the pre-publication gauntlet by black editors? 

In truth, nobody at any of the presses I work for would dispute this.  But diagnosis is easy.  Attracting, hiring and keeping non-white talent is a challenge, and I’m certainly not the first book person to have thought of advocating it.
The most common explanation I’ve heard for why the problem is so intractable goes something like this: there’s a lot of competition in the corporate and financial world for strong African-American candidates, and publishing simply can’t compete on salaries.

I’m sure there’s some truth in that, although leaving it there seems a little convenient. If the book industry in the US is to survive and grow, publishers have to find ways to increase the number of nonwhite professionals in their ranks at all levels- administrative, editorial, marketing, publicity, book design, financial, digital, sales reps.

There’s an obituary written for legacy publishing just about daily.  The causes cited are technological, or competing platforms, or e-book pricing, or self-publishing, or a dozen other predictable villains.  But I think there’s a bigger threat to the future of books: the prospect of publishing houses that, internally, look less and less like the country.  White people talking to white people. 

Sorry, I don’t have a killer app to solve this.  But I don’t believe in the notion that you can’t talk about an issue unless you do. More headway might be made by starting with the obvious- acknowledging the problem, designing plans and benchmarks to measure progress, and- most importantly- making sure that everything possible is being done to make the working environment a welcoming one for people of color.  Perhaps these things have made it to someone’s agenda, but I haven’t heard the issue addressed in years, and the results speak for themselves.

My presses have been incredibly great places to work, and book publishing is a fantastic way to spend a career.  People tend to stay in their positions for a long time.  But we’re in the midst of a great generational turning of the page as the valiant sixties generation begins to cede the reins.  It’s a perfect time for publishers to renew their commitment to actively finding non-white talent to fill some of those slots.

Hard to do.  But the presses have broken ground in all sorts of ways, and I don’t doubt their capacity to lead on this one.  They have some built-in advantages: the resources of three great universities; a battery of African-American authorial talent; and the ability to still do the long-term, big picture thinking that escapes most other enterprises in our short term quick buck age.

We might take a page from some of the booksellers who have faced the same challenge of staffing their stores in a representative way. 

The vast majority of booksellers I visit every season are, like my colleagues at the sales conference table, white.  But Left Bank Books in St Louis has always stood out for its multiracial, multigender, eclectic bookselling staff.  The composition seems organic, not token.  When the horror of Ferguson unfolded, Left Bank responded- as readers, as booksellers, as citizens.  Co-owner Kris Kleindienst was surprised when their efforts got so much attention, since “it just felt like what you do.”  One thing they do is to think hard and often about serving their entire community.

I asked Kris why she thought the issue of racial composition in publishing and bookselling gets such scant attention.  

“So many white people who are very well-intentioned have actually spent very little time talking about race, confronting privilege, examining implicit bias,” she said.  “Very articulate people stumble when asked why there aren’t more people of color in their professional worlds.  But the language about race, the meaningful conversations, have to be learned. If we want to address it, we have to commit to doing some hard looking at ourselves, commit to un-learning that racism, and also to interrupting it where we see it in action. This is a life-long process that doesn’t stop. But it is so worth it.”


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