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PEN America: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing

Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing

By PEN America Experts James Tager and Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf

Introduction

In 2020, the publishing industry entered a moment of moral urgency about the persistent lack of racial and ethnic diversity among employees and authors. The industry is disproportionately white, and the canon of published books from trade publishers is overwhelmingly so. According to one analysis, 95 percent of American fiction books published between 1950 and 2018 were written by white people.1 While that analysis looks at a broad sweep of time, more recent figures indicate that both the publishing industry, and the books it puts out, remain disproportionately white. The lack of diversity in the ranks of publishing professionals and in the works brought to market are linked: In a cultural industry like publishing, where subjective interpretations of what constitutes good or marketable literature are a major determinant of what gets published, the whiteness of the industry’s staff has accompanied a largely white cadre of published authors.

Not only is the United States a demographically diverse nation—as of the last census, an estimated 42 percent of the country are people of color2—it also boasts a demographically diverse readership. The National Endowment for the Arts estimates that approximately a quarter of America’s regular adult readers are people of color.3 For decades, voices within and outside the publishing industry have called on publishing houses and bookstores to more fully reflect this demographic diversity.4 In response to calls for publishers to heed and support employees and authors of color, the publishing industry has gone through waves of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. But over time, many of these gains have turned out to be temporary or insufficient. Industry experts and longtime editors have occasionally aired their frustrations with these cyclical, transient attempts. As fifty-five year publishing veteran Marie Dutton Brown put it in a 2020 interview: “Black life and Black culture are rediscovered every 10 to 15 years. Publishing reflects that.”5

Over the past several years, major publishers have ramped up their efforts to diversify the racial and cultural composition of their workforces and author lists. They do so while facing — and in part spurred by — a groundswell of activism, including from authors and editors of color, calling on the industry to change. At the same time, activists have seen the rise of social media–enabled advocacy, from the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement (a hashtag-turned-organization that advocates for more diverse children’s books) to the #PublishingPaidMe movement (a 2020 campaign that called on authors to disclose their advances to expose discrepancies in payment between white authors and those of color). Read the full report at PEN America.

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