Don’t Blame White Guys for Publishing’s Diversity Problem

An inaugural survey of 70 percent of publishing houses and reviewers reveals some surprises.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jan 27, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When an 11-year-old black girl from New Jersey gets so sick of reading books about “white boys and dogs” that she starts a campaign to collect and distribute stories that feature black female characters, it might be a sign that the literary world needs more diversity. The results of an unprecedented survey by publishing house Lee & Low Books also reveal that the challenges within the industry go well beyond predominantly white authors penning novels about white characters.

For its Diversity Baseline Survey, the 25-year-old New York City–based publishing house, which specializes in diverse children’s books, surveyed eight review journals and 34 publishers in North America about the race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status of their employees. “Some people might be surprised that white women really dominate the industry. White, straight, heterosexual—not differently abled,” says Hannah Ehrlich, director of marketing and publicity for Lee & Low Books.

RELATED: Publisher Pulls George Washington ‘Happy Slave’ Tale After Backlash

The survey results, which were released Tuesday, indicate that 79 percent of the publishing and review journal staffers are white, about 78 percent are women, 88 percent identify as heterosexual, and 92 percent say they don’t have a disability. The data on executives tells a slightly more male story, but not by much. A full 86 percent of executives are white, 59 percent are women, 89 percent are heterosexual, and 96 percent are not disabled.

Some might think that because women are so heavily represented, we’d see more diversity in the books published and the authors promoted. But Ehrlich explains that although white women are part of a marginalized group, that doesn’t mean they can relate to diverse experiences.

Inside The Business of Organics

Inside The Business of Organics

“Just because you are a woman, that doesn’t make you an expert in the marginalization that people of color face or people with disabilities face,” says Ehrlich. “Do not assume that because women are successful or are in positions of power that it means that success or power will automatically be offered out or shared with other marginalized groups.”

That sentiment is echoed by Tamara Winfrey Harris, the Indianapolis, Indiana–based author of The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America.

“Straight, white, cis-women are as susceptible to bias as anyone else. Bias toward our own experiences is sadly human. And racism, sexism, and other ‘isms’ are sadly an ongoing feature of our society,” says Winfrey Harris. “So, if we want the universe of books to reflect the rich diversity of humanity, then the publishing industry must proactively work toward looking like humanity rather than a privileged slice of it, as well as making a real effort to find and nurture projects by writers with varied backgrounds.”

RELATED: 10 Books That Bring Diversity to Children’s Libraries

Lee & Low came up with the idea for the survey in 2015 after being inspired by the call within the tech industry for greater transparency about employee diversity. “We like to think of ourselves as an activist company. In addition to publishing diverse books ourselves, we are always trying to figure out how to push the larger conversation in the publishing industry forward,” says Ehrlich.

To that end, Lee & Low decided to gather information from its peers through an online survey. Ehrlich describes the process as “an uphill battle.” Review journals, such as Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, were some of the first to agree to participate, and smaller publishers came onboard next. “Small publishers have always been especially supportive of diversity in publishing and have been on the cutting edge of that, even before it became as prominently discussed as it is now,” she explains.

There were also fewer bureaucratic layers to go through with smaller outfits that didn’t have complex human resources and legal teams requiring approval. Partnering with Sarah Park Dahlen, an assistant professor in the master of library and information science program at St. Catherine University in Minnesota, helped alleviate the anonymity concerns of some larger companies. The data collected over the course of 2015 represents about 70 percent of major publishing and book-review companies in North America.

Is the literary version of Black Girls Code, which was created to address the diversity problem in Silicon Valley, in the works? Ehrlich says Lee & Low plans to release a list within the next two weeks of initiatives to recruit diverse candidates—for example, the Association of American Publishers’ new partnership with the United Negro College Fund to acquire students from historically black colleges and universities.

The publisher of Winfrey Harris’ book, Oakland-based Berrett-Koehler Publishers, did not participate in Lee & Low’s survey, but the independent company is taking several steps to bolster the diversity of its employees and authors. Shabnam Banerjee-McFarland, a sales and marketing assistant for the company, says “paying interns, which opens the door to students, those changing career paths, and those who can’t afford to take on unpaid work,” can help. The company is also conducting a self-assessment to see how well it works with authors who come from varied backgrounds.

RELATED: Emma Watson Kicks Off New Feminist Book Club With Gloria Steinem’s Memoir

“We want to confront the microaggressions and systemic biases that may alienate authors from underrepresented communities that are present within traditional publishing,” says Banerjee-McFarland.

Ehrlich cautions that companies shouldn’t merely launch initiatives to boost the number of diverse candidates being hired in a given year. They should also examine what people need to have them stay. “It’s important to think about both how you get diverse people and at what rate are they being promoted. Are they staying, or are they leaving? If they’re leaving, why are they leaving?” she asks. “And especially in an industry where the majority of people are white women, how can publishing houses create a culture that is more welcome or comfortable to someone who doesn’t fit that template?”

Doing so would seem to be in the best interest of book publishers’ bottom line. “College-educated black women are the most likely group to read a book, according to a 2014 Pew study. I know firsthand that women like me are thirsting to see more of our experiences represented in literature,” says Winfrey Harris.

Ehrlich stresses that consumers should “vote with their dollars” and read, buy, and recommend more diverse books: “It can feel like it doesn’t make a difference, but publishers are businesses, and they look at the bottom line, and if books sell, they make more of them.” Although she notes that the survey results alone don’t change anything, what “they can do is help point us in the right direction and measure progress,” she says. “This is a pretty big step for the publishing industry to take. It has traditionally not been super transparent on this issue, so it’s something to celebrate.”