Book publishing insiders reveal systemic racism in industry: ‘I was tossed out like the trash’
'Authors of color were often not a priority therefore there was no budget for them, whereas that was not the case for white authors,' says one former exec
Her voice still gets choked up when she talks about it. After working her way from an assistant position to a senior level publicist at a major publishing imprint, Robin* (who chose to withhold her identity for fear of retaliation) was proud to have worked her way into a competitive field as a black woman in an overwhelmingly white field.
She worked tirelessly, sacrificing personal relationships for the company, traveling mercilessly at a breakneck speed—giving everything to her job. Even as a debilitating illness painfully ravaged her body, and she went into the office under the effects of the medical treatment, Robin dedicated herself to the book publishing company, telling herself that if she had their backs in turn, they would have hers. And then, at what should have been the height of her career, her position was eliminated.
“After many years of stellar performance reviews, all of a sudden I was having performance issues that were never fully explained and there was NO plan for how I could improve. When I was also denied a cost of living raise, something I had gotten every year, I knew the writing was on the wall. I wasn’t surprised when I was told my position was eliminated. It was a ‘business decision’ which I came to understand to mean that they were no longer going to publish as many books by authors of color. How could they? Many of the editors of color who acquired those books had moved on and the list became more and more white which reflected the staff that was left. The imprint no longer felt like home and in many ways they freed me to pursue my passion elsewhere.”
It was a painful reminder of how far the industry needs to go in terms of creating true equality for people of color who work in book publishing.
“I felt like I was tossed out like the trash, like something that was no longer useful or relevant and had to go. I know I was let go to make room for a white staff member,” she says, “I was laid off along with another sister of color. My imprint went from being very diverse to being one that reflected most imprints in the industry. My imprint was no longer publishing authors of color as they had in the past. I witnessed a huge shift and there was no longer a firm commitment to publish authors of color who were not celebrities.”
Her story is not unusual. Black, indigenous, and people of color have had an arduous fight to make their mark in book publishing, a fight that has long been silent.
Not everyone who came forward for this piece was able to do so publicly for fear of backlash and blackballing that the book publishing and entertainment industry is known for. Others have left the industry all together and were in a position where they could speak for those who could not.
Yes, Institutionalized Racism Exists in Book Publishing
The world got a small glimpse into the publishing world’s racial disparity as the social media hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, started by LL. McKinney, a Black author in the young adult genre, caught fire, trending globally. With it, authors volunteered the numbers for their advances, showing starkly the financial disparities between white authors and authors of color. This behind-the-scenes peek into the publishing industry exposed a host of inequities affecting virtually every person of color in publishing, at every level. It was something that had almost never been discussed publicly and certainly wasn’t known to many outside the halls of the world’s leading publishers.
Advances, unlike royalties, aren’t based on the number of books sold, but the number of books the publisher is confident it can sell. As former Simon & Schuster editor turned editorial consultant Marcela Landres points out, “The publishing industry is not designed to nurture writers who need help honing their craft or building their platforms.” This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which BIPOC authors aren’t given a marketing budget which leads to decreased sales, which leads to new authors of color getting smaller advances.
As confirmed by Robin, “Authors of color were often not a priority therefore there was NO budget for them, whereas that was not the case for white authors…You couldn’t even offer a poster for an event for an author of color unless you charged it to another title.” The effect on Black publishers and agents was two-fold: it not only sent the crushing message about the value of nurturing new Black talent, but it also boxed them in as well, as they were often pigeonholed into taking Black projects. By setting up Black books for failure, they, intentionally or not, also set up their editors, agents, and publicists for failure as well.
It’s what inspired Tiauna Jackson to found the Jackson Agency, to give Black A-list talent a place to go for Black representation. To this day, she struggles with Jackson Agency being seen as a legitimate agency. “It continues to be me and my clients against the world,” she says. She’s disheartened at the lack of support from her white colleagues in the industry, even as they are profiting off the labor of Black talent. “Blaxploitation is still the currency,” she explains, “They just put a Gen Z/Millennial face on it this time. And when they really want to be hip, they put a Black Queer face, front and center.” She is especially pained when she talks about the way that many Black potential clients have internalized this racist message, often choosing not to work with a Black agency.
Racism in the industry exists on every level, even if not apparent at the time. “My best friend at Simon & Schuster planned a small birthday gathering for me and to celebrate the first book I had acquired. She gave me a small watermelon pin as a present. Unfortunate,” says literary agent, Marlene Connor Lynch of the Connor Literary Agency.
Multiple sources spoke of racially charged incidents such as when a major New York Times bestselling author who is biracial and known for his iconic Afro, was greeted by the CEO of a Big 4 publishing company in front of the entire staff in an Afro wig, a form of black face and yet nothing was done.
Despite the reported low pay in the industry, there are many people of color who are passionate about being in it. Unfortunately they are faced with issues their white counterparts may be unaware of or do not face. “No matter how many times I submitted an application for a job at a publisher, I never made it past the first interview,” says a woman of color who worked in book publishing whom we’ll call Shanda, “It took me a long time to accept the reality that there were many obstacles for a person of color to enter into the world of book publishing.”
“I’ve dealt with humor that’s a bit “microaggressive” from literary personalities who like to be “provocative,” adds Jerome Murphy, an undergraduate programs manager at NYU Creative Writing Program. “For instance, I once had a visiting writer recite to me a poem (not their own) with the N-word in it, in such a way it was almost as though to see what they could get away with.”
Caren Johnson, former literary agent, says the process for change is “slow and frustrating. It took years to be taken seriously and [years] of being ignored. A prospective [white] author wanting me to represent him, upon hearing I was from the Bronx and my background (Puerto Rican on mom’s side and Jamaican-Chinese on dad’s side), blurted out that he was so surprised I could read.”
The challenge is real in all aspects of publishing, Kristina LaFerne “Zane” Roberts says from the perspective of a multiple New York Times bestselling author, television producer and Publisher with an imprint at a major publisher. “Most of the bookstores are gone or existing on vapor. A lot of Black authors that were being published when I started are no longer writing. Some just stopped and others lost their deals and gave up. As far as employees of various publishing houses, a lot of people of color have been let go.”
Book publishing’s unwavering focus on its profits at the expense of building Black community that not only hurts Black authors, but hurts the whole of American publishing. As a former senior publicist at a major book publishing company whom we will call, Denise Lewis recalls about her early days working at a major media company, “I was always aware of the fact that I was on a plantation. I mean, corporations are plantations, all companies, all not for profits, all businesses are plantations. It’s the founding tenet of this country. And if you really kind of sit and look at corporate structure, it’s set up like how plantations are set up.”
In making the important decisions surrounding the details of publishing works of Black literature, publishing houses, which are 80% staffed by white employees, have become de facto gatekeepers of the Black American narrative with very little input from any actual Black people. As Lewis says, “[The publishing industry] lives in a vacuum of its own whiteness. And that’s what publishing likes to do. It likes to sit on their very high ivory tower, and decide what culture is, when they are actually mostly out of touch with people. They sit in their little offices, and talk to each other, and navel gaze, and they actually think they know what people like, because they’ve occasionally had a hit.”
The lack of Black representation within the publishing system has a huge impact on the tenor of conversations around Black acquired properties from the ground up. Alvina Ling, VP of Little Brown Books For Young Readers, recalls, “A former colleague had Tweeted about his experience—when he was at another publisher he was trying to buy The Hate U Give which went to a huge auction (one that I participated in), and he had a high-up sales person tell him that ‘black people don’t read’ and ‘white teens won’t want to read about a black teen’ or something to that effect. That’s definitely something I’ve heard over the years—this or that group doesn’t read or buy books, so why publish books for them, which is wrong on so many levels. I’ve heard stories of booksellers who carry all of an author’s books except for the book that features a black teen on the cover, because their customers don’t read ‘those books.’ It’s really a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Karen Thomas, the CEO of New York-based Creative Minds Book Group, also mentions the hesitancy on the part of white editors to champion Black authors: “One editor-in-chief told me not to put too much faith in ‘black books’ because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into one genre. I later learned that was code for ‘these black books probably won’t work.” Several in the publishing world have mentioned the proliferation of publications on Black trauma, often overshadowing a more nuanced perspective of a broader Black American experience.
The reactions to the cultural windfall of Black representation in the current 2020 summer landscape are varied. Is it a passing cultural moment or a harbinger of lasting change? It’s easy to be critical in light of so many past disappointments. Tiauna Jackson dismisses the bulk of the white publishing world and the entertainment industry’s promises for a more diverse future: “Once I saw behind the curtain, it killed me inside. Everyone and everything is fake. Everything. People will post Black Lives Matter and Black squares on Instagram, but really give zero fucks about building a proper Black Community. So yeah, I’m mad at myself. How could I be so stupidly optimistic that I could bring us together and build an unbreakable new world with Black economic status, empowerment, and wealth? I now realize, I started a fight that I just can’t win. Because the truth is no one who has the means to actually do something about it cares.”
Literary publicist Yona Deshommes says that it is not enough for publishers to simply acquire works by Black authors only to functionally abandon them for marketing. She says, “The houses will scramble to acquire authors of color now that there is a spotlight on the issue. But when you look at the team that is working on a title, there are virtually NO people of color, so they will be at a loss as to what to do with it. They basically throw it against the wall and wait to see what sticks. They will only give it attention if there are significant sales.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and publisher now Sirius XM talk show host, Karen Hunter was similarly dismissive of empty promises from the major houses: “So, right now, everyone’s scrambling for diversity. You can’t get diversity tomorrow. That’s a relationship. That’s like a commitment that you should have had for the last 10, 15, 20 years. And you wouldn’t be in a situation had you forged those relationships instead of throwing diversity money.”
Is Change Coming?
Not all in the publishing industry are feeling as defeated about the future of these diversity initiatives. Book publicist and agent Dawn Michelle Hardy, The Literary Lobbyist, is hopeful about the seismic cultural shifts happening on the horizons: “Overall, I believe we are all optimistic. There is a loud rumbling happening across all industries right now. The stakes are high for a lot of brands and companies. Our culture is reaching a breaking point that threatens the downfall of those who do not set stronger practices in place for racial equality. Lines are being drawn and I believe the publishing industry is a collective that will rise to the occasion and lead the change. We have already proven in every area of entertainment that our stories matter and can generate revenue. I understand that the white world of publishing will read this so I am making it known that they need creative genius to help right this ship.”
Ling does believe that things are slowly taking a turn for the better, with the publishers starting to listen and pay attention to the perspective of people of color. She credits them, “I think one positive change I’ve seen in the industry is that books by BIPOC are getting more marketing, publicity, and sales attention [than in the past].”
She notes that the changes in staff diversity often vary by level, with the greatest diversity at the lowest level: “In terms of BIPOC on staff at publishers, I’m not sure if much has changed either positively or negatively. When I started at my company over twenty years ago, the junior staff was very diverse, but senior-level and upper management, not so much. When I look at the Executive Management Board and Senior Management Board, the latter of which I’m a member of, it feels overwhelmingly white to me, especially in key departments.”
The reasons for this are varied, from untenably low entry-level salaries that shut out a sustainable early career path, to the often-cited feeling that people of color are required to work twice as hard and prove their value twice as much just to keep pace with their white colleagues in career advancement.
Marcela Landres echoes her support in actively fostering an environment to grow Black publishing talent all the way up to the executive levels. She claims that a commitment to diversity means a commitment to investing time, energy, and money into building a publishing system that is specifically equipped to do that: “Publishing is a machine that is not designed to be diverse. To create—and maintain—diversity requires building a new machine, not tweaking the existing one. Deliberately fill every open position, especially at the highest levels, with people of color even if you have to go outside of the publishing industry to find talent. Reward hiring managers for meeting diversity goals.”
“The companies today have hired black editors way more than when I began. But those editors, it seems, have been pigeonholed into publishing exclusively, or mainly, black writers/books,” says Marlene Connor-Lynch.
A publishing professional who asked not to be identified said, “Today, there’s much more willingness to acknowledge systemic racism throughout the industry.” But when asked if she was taken seriously in the industry, she responded, “Absolutely not…Early in my career, I was clearly a token hire. I didn’t realize it until much later, when my boss paid little attention to me except for when she wanted to show me off to authors she thought would appreciate my presence.”
This systemic challenge has not gone oblivious to those outside of the community. There are white colleagues who have gone above and beyond to fight for different voices to be heard in publishing, both authors as well as editors and agents. Multiple professionals who are people of color have mentioned the late Carolyn Reidy, Publisher Judith Curr, literary agents, Victoria Sanders, Theresa Park and Celeste Fine and others who give hope that impactful change is possible by partnering with others.
“In my publicity department, fellow publicists like Michael McKenzie, Paul Crichton, and Katherine Beitner were awesome,” added an indie publicist who also works in publishing whom we’ll call Nancy*.
However, says Shanda, there is a long way to go, “I can’t think of one black author that I ever saw speaking on a panel or at a book signing, and I’ve attended many of them in the last ten years.” When she tried to make a living wage, she discovered that there were tremendous payment inequities. “I have been paid insultingly lower than my peers when compared to my white colleagues, especially if the person was a male… When I confronted my boss, I was told that the reason he did that was because he was a man who had a family and he was head of his household and that I was a single mother who had access to other resources at that time.”
“I think the increased diversity in representation in positions of authority in literary organizations has been very heartening, but not enough,” says Jerome Murphy. ” But there needs to be greater diversity among agents, editors, and publishers. Then maybe we’d avoid situations like the American Dirt debacle, though perhaps not entirely.”
There is a lot of work to be done still. “I was more tolerated than respected overall,” says Shanda. “I asked to interview an editor to see if she would answer a few questions for my audience in South Florida. She told me no because people in Florida were mostly illiterate.”
The Changes That Are Needed
For the few people of color who are able to fight their way in through the doors of the publishing world, there’s also the issue of a very real pay gap across both race and gender lines. Deshommes describes her salary from her time in a major publishing house as “grossly underpaid compared to my white colleagues… I have heard of cases where employees of color have had to get offers from other companies or have had to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to get significant raises and promotions. Many feel they have had to go through hoops to get the recognition they deserve.”
Lewis recalls suffering through pay inequity for years “until it became glaring to one of my bosses, that one day I got called into the office and said, ‘we’re going to give you a raise in your salary because you should be on par with your colleagues.’”
When asked about what changes they would like to see in the industry, certain themes kept recurring. One was to invest seriously in the future of publishing by nurturing talent at the college level, providing a clear path into a paid internship and sustainable entry-level position. Another was to allow greater flexibility for Black publishers to work on projects beyond their white colleagues’ preconceived ideas of Black literature, trusting their opinions, and giving them the resources for their projects to succeed.
Shanda suggests, “I think that if publishers started a pilot program that allowed a certain number of minorities to come into the industry, and perhaps oversee books that would be representative of their culture, national background, language, etc vs handing those jobs over to white people, it would be helpful to everyone in the long run.”
Caren Johnson says, ” I’d love to see more seats at the table in all ways: editorial, publicity, production, etc.”
“Do I think publishing houses should publish more books by people of color? Absolutely!” says Roberts. “There are so many stories to be told. Do I think that there need to be more African-American imprints and acquisition editors? Without a doubt. Most of the ones that were around when I started are long gone. Open the floodgates and take more chances with black authors. There can be no progress without discussion, and I hope this will spark some change.”
“In terms of more seasoned professionals, there is still not nearly enough representation,” Nancy says, “My hope is that the young professionals will be given the opportunity to go the distance and be part of the next generation of book publishing executives and leaders. Give us the opportunity to really sit at the table, not just so it looks good in meetings with authors you want to convince to come to your house, but because it is a meaningful, valuable and necessary business decision.”
Many also brought up the notion that Black hires were brought in for visibility, to showcase the company’s diversity, while never being given the support to actually bring to fruition any of the goals they’d set out to achieve. Karen Hunterwas frank in discussing what she’d seen: “There were so many impotent Black folk, as in, with no real power. I can’t tell you. There was one Black woman that I never got to work with, and I think she was at Random House. I think she had retired or they had put her out to pasture, who was a powerhouse.”
There is Hope … But for How Long?
There are Black imprints, though fewer than years ago including Amistad, One World, Dafina Books, 37 Ink—the hope is that their doors will remain open. This month ushers in the possibility of major changes in the publishing world with Lisa Lucas, the presiding executive director of the National Book Foundation taking on a new position as the publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books and Jonathan Karp’s appointment of Dana Canedy as the first Black woman to lead a major publishing house as she takes the reigns at the top of Simon & Schuster.
The Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS 2.0) showed some improvement, but not much. In 2019, 76% of persons in publishing were white. Black employees staffed in the industry increased to 5%.
Publishing companies such as Sourcebooks have been vocal in its support of Black publishing and vows to continue to do the work beyond performative declaration: “The work is literally hour to hour and 24/7 and there are many of us deep in the middle of it. And there is much more to do.” Their upcoming initiatives include new programs designed to address the systemic issues of access to opportunity from within. Both Penguin Random House and Hachette Book Group pledged to make public their workplace demographic information, in an effort toward transparency.
It’s a change that has come decades later than it should have, but the winds of change are on the horizon. What could the future of publishing look like when it makes an earnest effort to become an industry determined to provide a path for Black excellence?
As Karen Hunter emphatically states, pride unwavering in her voice, “In the Black world, our boundaries are not so clearly defined. We roll in between classes. We code switch. We have a fullness. We can break out into song, and at the same time, sit and eruditely break down and dissect Letter from Birmingham Jail, right? We are versatile like that and nimble. [In not publishing these works,] they don’t see the interlocking material that makes it so powerful.”
Robin has hopes things will change too, she has taken the bull by the horns and became an independent publicist freelancing. Using the same tenacity she used to beat her illness, she intends to fight racism in book publishing. She maintains hope that things will change and echoes the reason why other BIPOC still stay in the industry despite their struggles, long after others would have given up, “I love what I do.”
Jeff Rivera is a writer/producer and author of Forever My Lady, originally published by Grand Central Publishing (Hachette)
Stacey Garratt is a journalist who has written for Los Angeles Times, Public Radio International and other outlets.
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