The publishing industry is old, old, old. Most of the Big Five publishers in America have roots reaching back to the 1800s and 1700s, and Oxford University Press, the biggest academic publisher in the world, dates back to the beginning of book printing itself. The evolution of book publishing has been mostly that: gradual changes over a long period of time. But over the span of just fifteen years (from 1992 to 2007), publishing underwent a profound transformation that has left it shattered in fascinating ways. One of these is an unprecedented freedom from gatekeepers with any sort of bias at all, and a starkly-illuminated systemic racism that is difficult to perceive among those within that system, but difficult to miss for those outside it.
The publishing industry today is a weird mix of deeply conservative and wildly innovative, and for good reasons. Especially since the turn of the millennium, it is innovative because its survival depends on it. Yet it is conservative in many ways too, because ...its survival depends on some of that too. Especially the parts of "tradition" that emerge for practical reasons, not cultural ones: using gatekeepers of some kind to provide quality control and to curate excellent content for specific reading audiences, for example.
The hurricane of innovation that tore through the publishing industry between 1992 and 2007 has opened up a vast raft of opportunities for the traditionally disenfranchised: there are myriad small presses and publishers for African-American, Latinx, LGBTQ+, progressive, alt-right, neopagan, white supremacist, radical ecologist, and transgressive authors and illustrators than ever before. Just reading a list like that feels jarring; it isn't a door of opportunity for one disenfranchised faction, but for all of them. Through the power of the search engine, the festival, convention, or conference, and social media, even the smallest coherent audiences can find—or be found by—their favorite authors and creatives.
However, the old keepers of the gates to mainstream success are mostly still at their posts. And both anecdote and evidence show that conventional publishing wisdom still holds that "Black folks don't buy books." Oddly, conventional publishing wisdom steps from that demonstrably false premise into demonstrably false logic, concluding that because there isn't a large Black book-buying audience, Black editors and marketing directors aren't needed to serve that group of readers, and Black authors certainly won't "find a wide audience." All of this tacitly assumes that Black editors and marketing directors understand nothing but their own Black communities, and Black authors write only about Black issues or from Black perspectives that only Black persons will find interesting. And since Black persons don't buy books...
This way of thinking is a textbook example of invalid reasoning resting upon untrue assumptions. It is delightfully simple to demolish. Unfortunately, since it goes mostly unquestioned in the distracted high-pressure publishing world, "find a wide audience" means, in the minds of most agents, "find a white audience."
It is true that the big publishing houses have created or purchased small "niche/ethnic market" imprints to cater to minority audiences that seem profitable enough to be worth the effort, but the books those niche imprints publish must also be "innocuous" enough not to alienate the core audiences by association. This limits the effectiveness, reach, and profitability of their efforts—which supports the big publishers' assumption that these are "small niche markets."
The big literary review houses (Kirkus, Library Journal, Booklist, Publishers Weekly) are even less interested in diverse perspectives than the big publishers—they won't even take a token step toward inclusion. Courtney Milan, in an online conversation with one influential book reviewer at Kirkus, discovered that "with only a tiny number of exceptions, they don't review romances except those written by white authors." This stance is not peculiar to Kirkus, nor limited to the romance genre. Unless a non-white author purchases a review for their book, it simply will not be chosen for review by any of the big reviewers that fuel the bestseller lists and library stocking orders.
This systemic discrimination among reviewers is arguably worse than that of mainstream publishing and agents who appeal to "diverse authors" and then funnel their potential wide-market bestsellers into small niche markets according to the identity of the author. On the other hand, the increasing maturation of self-publishing as a professional field, with coherent, affordable, and empowering infrastructure, means that traditional publishers—at least 45,000 of them in the USA alone—are merely one option, not the only option. But when a large part of the traditional distribution network relies upon the big review companies to guide their decisions, and paid reviews are not considered in those decisions...
So, there's a lot of work still to do. But simply hiring more ethnic minorities in management and executive positions, both in publishing companies and review houses, will not solve their systemic racism. As dczook points out, shattering the "glass ceiling" has much less impact on systemic racism than shattering the "glass walls" and working more closely with minority colleagues.
The best place to begin is where each of us is right now in the constellation of the publishing world. Whether we are authors, illustrators, editors, coaches, agents, publicists, publishers, reviewers, printers, distributors, booksellers, or readers/fans, look around. Who are the overlooked or disenfranchised or minority members of the publishing world who are our colleagues or peers? Reach out to them. Get to know them and their work. If you find something delightful, something of quality, recognize it publicly. Embrace that. Become an ally.
For authors and illustrators, this means making sure you go to lunch with the unknowns or the outsiders at the writers' conference or [insert your favorite gathering of creatives here], rather than jockeying for a seat at the popular writers' table. But if you are one of those unknowns and outsiders, approach the popular writers' table yourself. This is your invitation. Take a seat. Join the conversation. Those of us who are insiders won't know who needs an ally until we see who gets shut out. Be patient with us: we might not realize at first what has happened. But begin with the most popular and successful of your peers and work your way through the ranks looking for your allies. We are in here somewhere.
For the "author services" crowd (editors, agents, scouts, publicists, attorneys, you know who you are), build relationships with colleagues who aren't like you. (Just because they aren't like you doesn't mean they won't like you!) If you are part of the majority, look for ways to include colleagues who aren't. More than that, join conversations about diversity and inclusion, as a listener and a learner. Ask questions. Seek friends. Be honest. Don't be fragile.
This goes for the independent publishing world as well as the traditional publishing world, and all the odd hybrid and crossover and subsidy options in between. Bias is contagious. It can spread if it goes unnoticed and unresisted.
But inclusion, welcome, and embrace is contagious too!
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