A survey of American publishing has found that it is blindingly white and female, with 79% of staff white and 78% women.
Multicultural children’s publisher Lee & Low Books surveyed staff at 34 American publishers, including Penguin Random House and Hachette , as well as eight review journals, to establish a baseline to measure diversity among publishing staff. They found that 79% were white. Of the remainder, Asians/Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders made up 7.2% of staff, Hispanics/Latinos/Mexicans 5.5%, and black/African Americans 3.5%.
“Does the lack of diverse books closely correlate to the lack of diverse staff? The percentages, while not exact, are proportional to how the majority of books look nowadays – predominately white. Cultural fit would seem to be relevant here,” writes publisher Jason Low. “Or at least in publishing’s case, what is at work is the tendency – conscious or unconscious – for executives, editors, marketers, sales people and reviewers to work with, develop, and recommend books by and about people who are like them.”
When it came to gender, Lee & Low found that 78% of publishing staff overall were female. At executive or board level, however, 40% of respondents identified as men.
The publisher says it was prompted to launch the survey because there is “very little hard data” about staff in the books industry, despite the fact that it is known that “the vast majority of books published are by white authors and about white characters”. Statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center show that of 3,500 books published in the US in 2014, just 84 were by black authors and 180 about black characters.
“The majority of the staff behind the scenes, which includes publishers’ employees and reviewers, are white. For decades there has been overwhelming agreement in the industry that there should be more diversity at all levels and in all areas of the book world, but even with greater awareness, the problem never seems to go away. Is this problem too big to solve?” writes Low.
“The answer is, we have no idea how big the problem is. While there is now data available about diversity among books published, there is still only minimal data available about diversity among publishing staff and reviewers. As in any business, when you have a problem you must understand it before you can solve it.”
Man Booker prize-winner Marlon James, who provoked an international debate when he said last November that writers of colour “pander to white women” due to their dominance in publishing, wrote on Facebook in response to the news: “Not to beat what many hoped would be a dead horse, but I still remember how I was near crucified in certain circles for saying this.”
Lee & Low hope the survey’s “baseline numbers” – which also reveal that 88.2% of publishing staff identify as straight or heterosexual, and that 7.6% identify as having a disability – will prompt publishers to ask what they can do about the makeup of their staff, and that more will respond to a second survey. In total, its survey was sent to 1,524 reviewers and 11,713 publishing staff, with a response rate of 25.8%.
“Publishing is not alone when it comes to having a lack of diversity … All media, including film, television, and theatre, are having similar conversations about diversity. It is plain to see that our society as a whole has a problem. We believe we are at a crucial time right now. We all have to decide if the country in which we live is better off if we conduct our lives separately or together,” writes Low. “It is not going to be easy. Knowing where we stand and establishing a baseline was the first step … but only our actions can change things for the better.”
In the UK, last year’s Writing the Future report from Spread the Word found publishers estimated that around 8% of their workforce self-identified as coming from a BAME background, but more definitive data could not be gathered.
“There’s no proper monitoring of these areas in publishing,” the report’s author Danuta Kean told the Guardian. She said that the book trade had recognised that publishing needs to change, “but if they really want to make changes, they need to have some proper monitoring going on, that is open and accurate.”
At Creative Access, a charity that provides opportunities for young people from a minority ethnic background to work in the creative industries, chief executive Josie Dobrin pointed to the 2011 British census, which found that more than 40% of Londoners are non-white, and to the 2012 Employment Census published by Skillset in July 2013, which found that BAME representation in the creative industries had fallen to just 5.4% of the total workforce.
“The proportion of BAME people represented in publishing in England is probably far lower than the [Lee & Low] results,” she said. But like Kean, Dobrin said that publishers “are trying to address this”. Creative Access itself has placed 94 publishing interns in the last three years. “It doesn’t sound like a lot but given how poor representation was in the creative sector, it is actually significant,” she said. “But it’s still a massive issue.”
Farhana Shaikh from Leicester-based publisher Dahlia, which focuses on diverse writing, agreed. “It’s been evident for too long that the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white here in the UK,” she said. “The fact that things are no different in the US is unsurprising. As publishers, writers and editors we seem to have embraced technology to champion new voices and build links globally – and yet, as an industry we’ve failed to recognise the talent and potential emerging from these diverse communities. The industry is in a state of flux, print sales are down, and yet globally, markets like India are thriving. It’s time to stop talking, and start investing in creating a more equal balanced workforce which reflects the modern, multicultural society we’re living in.”