Stories are cornerstones of culture, whether they be communicated orally, by manuscripts copied by hand, or through the modern publishing system. What we produce is said to be a reflection of who we are as a society. So what does the lack of diversity in publishing say about the industry and its important role as a promoter of culture?
Publisher’s Weekly held a panel discussion on October 16th to discuss diversity in the publishing industry workforce and the effect it has on what books are published. Publishing is not well-known for its racial and cultural diversity, and the discomfort regarding this problem is increasing. We Need Diverse Books, a “grassroots organization created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature” (Source) was launched last spring in a three-day campaign that was designed to raise awareness, brainstorm solutions, and take action on behalf of diversity. Even Buzzfeed and NPR have contributed to the discussion on why diversity is important to readers, culture, and the publishing industry.
One of the highlights taken from the discussion was the issue of power within publishing. Publishers often explain the lack of diversity in books as a problem of an unwelcoming market, but authors who are trying to wade into these controversial waters pin it on an unwelcoming industry. Blame for why there is a lack of diversity can be pinned on anyone and anything imaginable, but pointing fingers won’t bring change. As Jim Milliot, PW’s editorial director, said, “It can’t just be one segment of the industry working on this. We all have to get involved in changing this situation” (Source).
Daniel José Older, a contributing writer at Buzzfeed, agrees that the responsibility to promote diversity falls on the shoulders of everyone who is involved, but he goes a step further. “Ultimately, editors and agents hold exactly the same amount of responsibility that writers do in making literature more diverse,” he said. “The difference is, editors and agents have inordinately more power and access in the industry than writers do. As Arthur A. Levine’s executive editor, Cheryl Klein said: ‘It’s important to have advocates at every stage, from editing to marketing, from librarians to authors, so it’s an industry-wide effort'” (Source). There’s something to be said about agents and editors who recognize the need for diversity and seek out ways in which they can affect change for both the author and for the industry as a whole. Agents and editors may not have the most power, but they are the ones that stand between authors and the publishers; they are the ones who have the power to make the industry listen.
“Your ability to imagine that there is a market has to do with your ability to imagine that those people exist. And if [you] can’t imagine that people of color actually exist and can buy books, then you can’t imagine selling books to them. That’s not just about a company corporate diversity policy; it’s about actually knowing what’s going on in communities of color.”
Ken Chen, poet and director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop
But what if the industry refuses to listen, and instead relies on the traditional, and increasingly out-dated, way of doing business? Johnny Temple is the founder of Akashic Books, an independent publishing company that is “dedicated to publishing urban literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers” (Source). “If the industry doesn’t get more economically and ethnically diverse, it’s just going to be a pit that people are not going to be able to climb out of,” Temple said, “as this certain cultural sphere becomes less relevant to the population at large” (Source).
What good is a publishing industry that doesn’t maintain its responsibility to the culture as a whole? Diverse voices are relevant and necessary to shaping and reflecting modern culture as it really is. Diversity shouldn’t remain an option, or a “mission,” so to speak, but should become something that occurs organically. We’re not there yet, but with the changes that the digitalization of publishing is bringing, what better time to do some restructuring?
Also, check out our post on the 2013 Publisher’s Weekly Salary Survey.