White noise

Why do so few people of color work in publishing?

PEAKS AND GALLEYS This is the stereotypicalface of publishing. Is it the reality?

PEAKS AND GALLEYS This is the stereotypicalface of publishing. Is it the reality?

Some people surmised that no one was getting back to me because there’s little to say about a business that—at least in terms of editorial, publicity and marketing departments—is mostly white. But to me this just sounded like whiteness doing what it does best—hiding in plain sight, while remaining the most salient quality of the industry’s workforce. An informal head count of a major publishing house conducted by one big-house editor, whom we’ll call “Craig,” estimated that out of approximately 70 staffers, the company employed six people of color. Let me clarify: This isn’t simply about America’s beloved Negro problem. We’re talking four blacks in editorial, two Asian women in the art department and no Latinos anywhere during the day. “It’s pretty darn white,” Craig says.

The $64,000 question is, of course, Why? Is there a gentleman’s agreement to keep people of color out, or are other forces at work? A different white man who is an editor at a different publishing company and also didn’t wish to be identified suggested that the salaries in publishing (far lower than the aforementioned question) make the field less attractive to striving people of color than banking, law or medicine, and that the high level of competition for jobs weeds out all but the overachievers.

Plume’s new editor-in-chief, Charise Davis, a Yale graduate of West Indian descent, more or less agrees with this assessment, and adds, “The issue is much broader than race. There are not a lot of working-class people in publishing either, and there aren’t even that many men. When I started out 13 or 14 years ago, I noticed that everyone had very wealthy parents and they were all from the Northeast.” The quintessential publishing employees were like Brooke Astor and Jacqueline Onassis: white women with degrees from elite universities, a passion for books and ideas, and enough capital to consider the job an extension of their philanthropic schedule. Craig also identifies the practice of hiring from within social groups as a barrier to creating a racially representative workforce. “A lot of entry-level stuff is people recommending people, which results in the usual racial barriers. They hire the friends they went to Vassar with.”

Davis, though she doesn’t wish to sound “Pollyanna-ish,” points out that the industry has experienced positive change. “Five years ago, there was an explosion of imprints that were publishing work by Koreans, Indians and other people of color,” she says, referring to divisions such as Rayo and Amistad, the mostly Latino and African-American branches of HarperCollins. “It all increased exponentially. There has been visible progress.”

Nevertheless, if the strings are generally pulled by whites, that creates a more complicated problem. “Invariably,” says Craig, “a black-themed book will come up for consideration, and there won’t be anyone of color to put in an opinion, or there’ll be one, who shouldn’t bear the burden alone. So we all pretend we’re experts. Maybe I’m the only one who’s embarrassed by that.” The end result of such roundtables, one can only fear, could be that the only books depicting people of color that get published are those that do not challenge white assumptions.

Most of the people interviewed seem to agree that the lack of nonwhites in the industry mirrors the social problems of society at large. “It’s a reflection of the culture,” Davis says. “There’s no empirical data to show that publishing is ‘whiter’ than other industries. People of color are unequally represented in several [professions].”

One consequence of the book world’s reluctance to reverse this trend may be the plethora of independent “street lit” publishers, which have sprung up to serve a primarily black working-class audience hungry for lurid subway reading. But no one I spoke to would go so far as to call the major publishing houses segregated. “That’s a loaded word,” Craig points out. “There is a way to make money on books directed at people of color, but you need to know how to [publish] them successfully. If someone has the energy and knowledge, they can do it. But you have to reinvent your machine.”

In other words, here we go again. Scratch the race problem and you’ll find an economic one underneath. But what about Davis’s success story—doesn’t it give the lie to the idea that qualified people of color avoid publishing because of the low salaries? If she wasn’t independently wealthy, one might ask, how did she cope with the chump change? Davis laughs. “I lived with my parents.”