Those who work in or follow book publishing can now reliably expect to encounter an annual cycle of handwringing over the industry’s lack of diversity. These flurries generally begin with the release of a demographic survey of the workforce, ascend to fever pitch through a bevy of near-identical articles and panel discussions in which the industry elite decries the unbearable whiteness of the industry, then fade to dormancy until the next year’s report comes out and the sequence begins anew. In the past, the catalyst for this progression has been Publishers Weekly’s annual salary survey, which tracks the demographics of publishing employees and, in 2014 and 2015, estimated the industry to be almost 90 percent white. This year it was Lee and Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey, a new report which polled over 3,400 staffers from 34 publishers and eight review outlets and found a workforce that was 79 percent white. In his introduction to the survey’s findings, Lee and Low publisher Jason Low wrote, “By now, it’s no secret that publishing suffers from a major lack of diversity problem.”
Indeed, book publishing has been discussing its shortage of non-white employees since at least the 1990s, and the conversation today looks much as it did over two decades ago. In 1994, Calvin Reid wrote, “Ask most people in the publishing industry about diversity among their employees and you’ll probably get back a one-liner: ‘Don’t you mean lack of diversity?’” While the intervening 20 years have seen the rise of social media as a potent accelerant for public scrutiny of the issue, concrete solutions for recruiting more people of color to the industry remain elusive. Some professionals have touted corporate diversity programs; Macmillan executives, for example, told Lee and Low in February that the company had established a “Diversity and Inclusion Council” in order to set “priorities for programs and activities aimed at enhancing diversity.” But evidence of the efficacy of corporate diversity programs has been scant, both within book publishing and beyond it—where, according to recent findings in the Harvard Business Review, HR-led diversity initiatives tend not to make companies fairer or increase minority representation.
How, then, might publishing contend with its diversity problem in a way that does more than tread old ground? It’s possible that part of the answer lies in bridging the issues of diversity and labor, which have often existed as separate conversations. Demographic counts that consider only representation, like the Diversity Baseline Survey, obscure a number of other inequalities in the industry. For instance, while the Diversity Baseline Survey shows that women “dominate” the industry at 78 percent of its workforce, according to the 2015 Publishers Weekly salary report, a significant gender pay gap still exists, with women making about 70 percent of what their male colleagues do on average. (That same report also found that average salaries for both men and women fell substantially from 2013 to 2014.)
Other industry-wide factors—including low salaries, fierce competition for jobs, few opportunities for advancement or mentorship, and difficult workplace environments—produce a system of interminable professional hoop-jumping that Picador editor Anna Devries has called “a war of attrition where survivors come out the other side many years later by the skin of their teeth.” While many publishing professionals agree that fixing such conditions would help diversify the workforce, there exist few incentives for higher-ups to do so. Even when HR departments have diversity policies or internal hiring targets in place, such measures usually don’t improve job quality in ways that help better retain their employees.