Book Publishing Is Almost as White as the Oscars


If you work in book publishing, there is a good chance you are a white, able-bodied, straight woman. This according to a pioneering survey commissioned by Lee & Low Books, a minority-owned publisher of children’s books and Foreword’s 2014 Publisher of the Year.

The Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS), released Tuesday, seeks to establish a ground floor of “hard numbers” that measures the diversity of publishing staff. According to a description in its methodology, the survey was made available to 1,524 reviewer employees and 11,713 publishing employees across most major publishers and several independent presses — although it appears that HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster did not participate in the study. They survey’s response rate was 25.8%.

The impetus for the survey, according to its introduction, was the publisher’s belief that it could “illuminate a problem that can otherwise be dismissed or swept under the rug” and “measure whether or not initiatives to increase diversity among publishing staff were actually working.”

It seems that such initiatives are not working. The overall industry numbers point to staff makeup that is 79% white, 78% cis woman, 88% straight, and 92% not differently abled. A further breakdown shows an industry that is only 4% black, 7% Asian/Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and 6% Hispanic, Latino, or Mexican. And these dismal numbers are consistent across industry categories, with only a minor improvement, exclusively for Asian employees, in marketing.

One bright spot in the survey results is the publishing industry’s gender composition, which leans heavily away from men/cis men and toward women/cis women (again, the overall number is 78%). Still, all other categories (trans man, trans woman, intersex, and gender nonconforming) are at or less than 1%. And the numbers, though still strong, dip in the executive category, which is 40% male.

A missing category from the survey, one that could be implemented (however imperfectly) in the coming years, is socioeconomic and/or educational background. Without survey results, it is difficult to determine the number of publishing professionals who have never completed college, for example. The importance of this category was underscored recently by a new policy from Penguin Random House UK, one that removes the requirement that employees earn a college degree. No such policy has been implemented by Penguin Random House in the US, but Claire von Schilling, its Director of Corporate Communications, tells Flavorwire that although the company does have some job listings that require college degrees, it has “long been routinely hiring staff throughout our company who have not received college degrees, enabling us to employ many excellent professionals who have never completed certified higher-education schooling.”

The conclusion to the survey nods to similar problems in other media, and certainly the film industry’s reluctance to commit to producing or honoring black and non-white artists and staff comes immediately to mind. “Now that the Diversity Baseline Survey is completed,” the report concludes, “the real work toward changing the status quo begins”:

It is not going to be easy. Knowing where we stand and establishing a baseline was the first step. Knowing the baseline numbers gives us a way to measure progress going forward, but only our actions can change things for the better.

Although the relation between publishing’s overwhelming whiteness and the books it produces is not directly explored by the Diverse Baseline Survey, it’s probably a safe bet to assume that more books by non-white domestic and international writers would find their way to shelves if the industry decided to enact substantial change. The bare fact that we’re now woefully under-publishing black writers, to focus on a single category, is put into relief during an historical short-term period that has seen Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and John Keene’s Counternarratives — to list just three books that sit at the highest point of their respective forms. What aren’t we reading?