In 2016, Simon and Schuster announced their newest imprint, Salaam Reads, which is meant to help bridge the diversity gap in the publishing industry. Headed by former Simon and Schuster Executive Editor for Young Readers Zareen Jaffery, Salaam Reads is a children’s imprint dedicated to publishing stories featuring Muslim characters. The move to create a new imprint primarily focused on Muslim identities came after Jaffery approached Simon and Schuster’s publisher, Justin Chanda, about her concerns regarding the lack of diversity for the current publisher’s list.
This solution seems almost perfect upon first glance; however, the creation of Salaam Reads only works to provide a partial solution to the issue at hand. In recent years, the publishing industry has been under increasing scrutiny for its lack of diversity, both in the books being published and in the team behind each new book. The failure to address the limited point of view in the books that have been published previously has indicated a lack of self-awareness within the industry, and the growing populations of people of color and people with marginalized identities continue to struggle to find themselves in the books they read.
According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, only about 0.02 percent of children’s books distributed in the United States were written by Africans or African Americans, 0.006 percent were by Native American or First Nation peoples, 0.06 percent were by Asians or Asian Americans, and 0.03 percent were by Latinx people. This unfortunately comes as no surprise when you consider the people who are publishing the books. As of 2015, 79 percent of people working in the publishing industry were white, 88 percent identify as straight or heterosexual, and 78 percent were women or cis women. Those within the industry won’t find these statistics shocking, or at least they shouldn’t if they take a second to look around the room at the next staff meeting.
In 2014, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign started, which triggered the beginning of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks organization, headed by Ellen Oh. The mission of this organization is to “[put] more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of children.” While the work this organization is doing is meaningful, it fails to truly address the root of the issue with diversity in publishing: Publishing houses are not hiring more people of color. The Big Five companies make up the majority of the publishing industry in the world, and they haven’t seen a shift in employment diversity in years. Instead, the majority of the people working in every department are white, heterosexual cis women.
What seems to be happening more often than creating new hiring practices is the creation of new imprints, much like Salaam Reads, that focus primarily on diverse stories. In a similar turn of events, Canadian publisher Arsenal Pulp Press also created a new imprint, VS. Books, which features works by people of color. In 2017, Little, Brown Book Group announced their newest imprint, Dialogue Books. Headed by Sharmaine Lovegrove, Dialogue Books’s mission is to “source, nurture and publish writing talent—and reach audiences—from areas currently underrepresented or not covered by the mainstream publishing industry,” including people from black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, the LGBTQI+ community, and those with disabilities.
Alongside new diversity imprints, some publishers are considering other ways to draw in more diverse authors and their stories, in order to alleviate issues with diversity. In 2016, Penguin Random House UK launched a nationwide campaign to seek out more diverse writers. The WriteNow campaign is meant to help the publisher find writers from underrepresented communities and mentor them. They plan to offer individual meetings between these newly discovered writers and editors, publishers, and agents all over the UK. Unpublished authors submit writing samples to the WriteNow program, and 150 of those applicants are chosen to attend one of the events. Of those 150, 10 applicants are given a year of mentoring, with the goal of ultimately publishing their work. This campaign follows at least two other diversity initiatives—Spare Room and New Writing North. New Writing North works to push publishers to publish more diverse voices, while Spare Room is meant to counter regional diversity in the publishing industry. The oldest of these initiatives is only a year old at this point, and it is difficult to see if any of them will yield positive results considering the slow nature of the book publishing industry.
In comparison to the Big Five publishers, independent publishers around the world are leading the charge on changing the current field of book publishing. Children’s publisher Candlewick Press is known for publishing a wide variety of books that feature stories with diverse authors, illustrators, and protagonists. That being said, the majority of Candlewick Press’s employees are white people.
The real leaders of the diversity movement in publishing, though, is Lee and Low Books. Their doors opened in New York City in 1991, and the company was started by Chinese Americans Tom Low and Philip Lee. It is still one of the only minority-owned publishers in the United States. Their mission statement is to “publish contemporary diverse stories that all children could enjoy” with a particular focus on “mak[ing] a special effort to work with unpublished authors and illustrators of color.” What really sets Lee and Low apart from its indie publisher counterparts is the employees. Unlike the current employee spread in publishing, Lee and Low has a much higher percentage of people of color employed in their offices. According to their own internal survey, about 42 percent of Lee and Low’s employees identify as Asian, 11 percent as Black, 16 percent as Latinx, and only 32 percent as white. These employees are spread across all of their departments, so no one department is completely white. Lee and Low also determined the demographic breakdown of the company’s contributors and authors. About 61 percent of authors, 76 percent of illustrators, and 90 percent of contributors identify as people of color.
What the main issue ultimately comes down to is the lack of diversity inside the publishing houses. If we look at the example that Lee and Low has created, more diversity in the house means more diversity in the output. Lee and Low may have seven imprints, each dedicated to a specific type of storytelling, but its parent house has always worked toward creating diverse stories for all. Everyone involved in the publication of a book needs to be culturally aware of the content and the author in order to do the book justice. And sometimes it takes a person of color to really see what makes a book so special.
NPR contributor Jean Ho recently wrote about the issues with diversity in publishing, but her focus was on the employees instead of the authors. Ho focuses specifically on the marketing teams in publishing houses. She writes that “these are people who make decisions on how to position books to the press and to consumers, and if and where to send authors on tour—critical considerations in the successful launching of any publication.” It is crucial, then, to make sure that the people who are in the marketing department at publishing houses are culturally sensitive and aware of what it takes to market books to people of color. More successful books by people of color will undoubtedly help push editors to acquire more manuscripts by people with marginalized identities. This could potentially change the literary landscape permanently.
While companies continue to create diversity-focused imprints to help alleviate the backlash on the publishing industry, it is important that these houses also have deep discussion among themselves and their peers to think critically about the way that they are creating books. It’s not enough to create spaces for diverse voices to be heard, and that shouldn’t be the only goal. Instead, publishing houses need to open their doors to more diverse employees within all departments and imprints. If houses are really invested in creating more diverse stories, then they shouldn’t have a problem thinking critically about the way they want the voice of the house to be perceived. And the house’s voice should be one that everyone—not just the majority—can connect with.
Palak Patel is an MA student at Emerson College, where she is also an Instructor in the First-Year Writing Program. She is an editorial assistant at Ploughshares and lives in Boston, MA