I don't think it's any surprise the publishing industry—print and digital—is overwhelmingly white. But the statistics are far more upsetting than you might imagine: a recent Publisher's Weekly survey revealed the makeup of the industry to be 89 percent white, 3 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic, 3 percent mixed race, 1 percent black, and 1 percent other. Twenty-eight percent of respondents admitted that many publishing houses suffer from a lack of racial diversity.
In a recent roundtable for Scratch, editor Manjula Martin assessed the current state of the publishing world, writing, "most of the gatekeepers come from a place of race and class privilege. How does this skewed power dynamic affect the careers of writers of color?" Speaking with essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Spiegel & Grau executive editor Christopher Jackson, poet Harmony Holiday, and author Kiese Laymon (who is a contributing editor for Gawker), the conversation touched on fostering community, staying true to the page despite an editor's advice, and the overall difficulties of publishing while black.
Ghansah on the diversity of new voices:
Ghansah: At times I don't understand the sensibilities of someone in the market—who looks at artists like Arundhati Roy, Toni Morrison, and Ha Jin—and doesn't do the math and see that the writers who are really knocking down doors now include a very powerful group of people of color. It doesn't make any sense to me—creatively or financially. Many of the up and coming big books that I hear about are by writers of color.
So I think there are visionary book editors who are doing great, important work. And, maybe, the rest of the homogenous industry is not only just failing, but also willfully putting itself on the vine to dry?
Jackson on the myth of audience for black writers:
Jackson: I would say what's happening in some of the larger publishing companies is that they're publishing fewer books generally than they have in the past, and so they're trying to publish those to audiences that they think they have mastered, they've already identified. And there's a lot of data now in the way there wasn't in the past, which can cut two ways. The olden days of "gut feelings" is passing away, and that's not such a bad thing—gut feelings are often laced with implicit and untested biases. But my fear about more data-driven publishing is that it leads to companies engineered to sell books to people they've already identified.
Some of the traditional ways of getting your name out—like barnstorming, doing a million events, that kind of stuff—still work, especially for independent publishers. It creates an audience. And because of things like digital and social media, those kinds of efforts can be amplified—so writers have more tools at their disposal to make a name for themselves, to build an audience. Even if a book publishing company has no clue how to find an audience, the writer can find and quantify that audience. I think that was true for Kiese.
Laymon on opening the door for writers of color:
Laymon: But the key, once you get that black or brown foot in the door, is to really open that shit up so other black and brown folk can get in. I don't think that means having people come in the same way you do. If you do something that works in this business, the idea should not be to make other black and brown folks go through the same kind of tired, soul-crushing shit you went through.
I do find that sometimes from older black writers and other writers who have had not such great publishing experiences. They're like, I had to be the goddamn slave opening the back door for writers who were worse than me, so you should have to do that same thing. And I'm like, no, not really. I think once someone does get a foot in, you've got to open it more. Encourage more.
[Photo via Corbis]