In the writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s beautiful profile of Toni Morrison, published in the New York Times Magazine last year, Junot Díaz remembered what he felt when he saw Morrison on the cover of Time in 1998. “At that moment…you could feel the demographic shift, you could feel in the ’90s what the future was going to be,” he said. But when you look at the world of publishing now, he added, “it’s almost like that future was never realized. The literary world has tripled down on its whiteness.”
The results of a new survey to measure diversity in publishing, released last week by the children’s publisher Lee & Low, loudly concur with Díaz’s point. But interestingly, publishing isn’t just white: It’s dominated by white women.
Lee & Low sent its survey to 13,237 people at all levels of the publishing and book reviewing professions, from marketing assistants to senior editors. Some major publishers, including Penguin Random House, participated, although it appears that others, including HarperCollins and Simon and Schuster, did not. The overall response rate was 25.8 percent. Of the respondents, 79 percent were white, 78 percent were cis women, and 88 percent were straight. The pool was 4 percent black, 7 percent Asian/Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and 6 percent Hispanic, Latino, or Mexican; 8 percent of respondents reported being disabled.
As Kait Howard, a publicist at Melville House, points out, male representation increases to 40 percent at the executive levels of publishing, suggesting that men and women are still being promoted at different rates. A Publisher’s Weekly survey last year also found that the pay gap persists, citing an average salary of $70,000 for men versus $51,000 for women. In other words, while white women have clearly amassed a great deal of power in publishing, that power is in many cases concentrated at the lower and middle levels of the ranks, suggesting it’s too soon to declare total hegemony. But the survey is an essential, depressing reminder of the extent to which the feminist movement has swept in new opportunities for primarily straight, white, and affluent women while excluding others, especially women of color.
“Just because you are a woman, that doesn’t make you an expert in the marginalization that people of color face or people with disabilities face,” Lee & Low director of marketing and publicity Hannah Ehrlich told Take Part. “Do not assume that because women are successful or are in positions of power that that means that that success or power will automatically be offered out or shared with other marginalized groups.”
Man Booker prizewinner Marlon James made a similar point in response to Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay “On Pandering” in November. Watkins wrote that her literary aesthetic was shaped by a life of “watching boys do stuff”—that her work was about “pandering” to white men. James countered, “We writers of colour spend way too much of our lives pandering to the white woman.” He returned to Facebook after the results of the diversity survey went live to point out, “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.”
The survey comes just weeks after the much-lauded news that Penguin Random House’s UK office will no longer require job applicants to have a college degree—but, as Salon reports, the US offices have followed a similar policy for years, with minimal effect on the company’s diversity. Jennifer Baker, creator of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, points out that “marginalized people with degrees” already have a disproportionately hard time getting a foot in the door.
The survey results suggest that instead of patting itself on the back for lowering superficial barriers, the literary world needs to actively recruit more staff who aren’t, well, straight white women. (No bonus points allotted for straight white men.) As Quartz suggests, “Pushing publishing companies to launch diversity initiatives may take things a step in the right direction. Readers and writers can also be more vocal about what they’d like to read; after all, publishers are businesses, and businesses need people to buy their product.”
What’s clear is that as long as publishing houses stay overwhelmingly white, so will the authors they select and the characters and stories that they put into the world. Lee & Low points out that the proportion of children’s books that contain “multicultural content” has hovered at around 10 percent for the past 18 years. Adult publishing isn’t much better. That’s a problem for people of color, who deserve to tell their stories, and to read stories that reflect them. And it’s also a problem for society as a whole. “There’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy,” Rebecca Solnit wrote recently, “but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not… Which is a reminder that literature and art can also help us fail at empathy if it sequesters us in the Boring Old Fortress of Magnificent Me.” Lee & Low has quantified the extent to which publishing remains a Boring Old Fortress. Hopefully the survey will help to crack open the gates.