Modern publishing originated with Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 15th century. Movable type made it possible to reproduce books in mass quantities – for the first time, common people had access to written knowledge (Prickett, 2013). However, the publishing process itself was not democratic. Newspaper owners amassed wealth and power, and the most wealthy were able to buy their competitors. With the market becoming increasingly concentrated, this meant fewer and fewer opportunities for people to participate. Arguably, the publishing process as structured by the industry today has become even less so democratic over time. The rapid growth of retail chains and the emergence of publishing corporations have been major developments in shaping the North American market, greatly contributing to the field of trade publishing becoming polarized. As Thompson (2010) explains, the publishing field is an intensely competitive domain characterized by a high degree of inter-organizational rivalry – in terms of their competitive position, publishers must compete both in the market for content and in the market for customers. Essentially, the publishers themselves play the role of middlemen, who have to compete with others for access to the most highly valued content and for the attention of consumers. More importantly, they hold the power to decide which books should be brought to the attention of consumers in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
When we examine the field of trade publishing, it is apparent that there are a small number of very large corporations which, between them, hold ownership over a substantial share of the market, and a large number of very small publishing operations. We can begin by identifying the “Big Five” – the major trade book companies in the United States – as Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Harper Collins. How does the publishing landscape become polarized in this way, and what does this mean for the large corporations that become so dominant? In my other Publishing course, Marketing for Book Publishers, we discussed how Penguin Random House publishes one third of all books in Canada, and 45% of books are sold at Indigo. These figures are a strong representation of the clustered economy and how the strongest players function interdependently within a complex space of power and organizations. Thompson (2010) explains that one of the main reasons why large corporations have come to occupy such a prominent role in the field is that there are real benefits of scale that can be achieved in trade publishing. The Big Five benefit from getting maximum exposure, resources, and mainstream acceptance; consequently, the authors we tend to hear about and whose work is reviewed commonly, publish their books with bigger publishers because of these same reasons. Big publishers can better withstand and exploit the semi-chaotic nature of the market as they are in a stronger position when it comes to getting their books into the main retail channels an securing positions of visibility within these channels. This is due to the fact that they have the resources necessary to achieve high levels of visibility within the key retail channels, whereas small publishers often do not.
It is important for us to recognize that this polarization of the trade publishing field is a real issue that needs to be addressed. The industry’s lack of diversity is reflective of a broader issue that has social, cultural, and political implications and consequences. The chief executive of Penguin Random House, the UK’s largest publisher, has warned that the books industry will “become irrelevant” if it continues to fail to reflect the society we live in (The Guardian, 2016). Tom Weldon states, “It ties in to some of the conversation since Brexit. Whatever you think about the outcome of that vote, it was a very clear signal, not just to the publishing bubble, that voices are not being heard… When a publisher has a bestseller, it’s easy to [just keep publishing] what sold yesterday. [But] there are amazing writers out there who we aren’t commissioning. The whole industry needs to change.” I believe that Weldon makes a powerful statement by drawing a parallel between the current political landscape and the publishing field in order to expose the issues in the industry. Democratic governments certainly are accountable to answer to their citizens; through voting, people frame the institutions that govern them. Similarly, the lack of democratization within the industry, top to bottom, results in writers from underrepresented communities continually being excluded from the conversation. Thus, it becomes the responsibility of us all to determine how we can foster a call to action for publishers to take ownership of the issue in order to challenge this status quo and progress in a positive and impactful way.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center has conducted years of research which has produced data that confirms the number of diverse books published over the past twenty years has been stuck in neutral, never exceeding, 10 percent (Low, 2016). In 2015, they conducted a survey to establish a baseline that would measure the amount of diversity among publishing staff. The results included responses from 8 review journals and 34 publishers of all sizes across North America. The most significant findings tell us that just under 80 percent of publishing staff and review journal staff are white. While all racial/ethnic miners are underrepresented when compared to the general US population, the numbers show that some groups, such as Black/African Americans, are more severely underrepresented. What I find most compelling from their research is the following question that they raise: 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 – predominantly white (Low, 2016). How come publishing has made so little progress in its efforts to diversify, particularly racially? Agents and editors typically represent what interests them. Consequently, unconscious bias seems to play a significant role here, as there is a large element of judgment and personal taste involved in the acquisitions process in deciding which books to buy. Jeff Shotts, executive editor at Graywolf Press, explains that “it often feels that the knowledge and understanding gaps between white industry “gatekeepers” and more diverse writers and readers will not adequately narrow and close until we have a more diverse publishing industry, top to bottom” (Aiello, 2016). It is important to address the structure of the industry in order to highlight the dominant white culture that is deeply rooted and self-perpetuating in the business. A change has to happen within the industry itself, where those who are in positions of power have to be willing to actively look for projects outside their own immediate spheres of understanding and familiarity. As the “gatekeepers” of the industry, they have the privilege of exploring and growing the existing repertoire of authors to publish a more broad range of writers.
There is a need for a shift in conversation – we have to talk about books differently and adjust the attitude that multicultural books can appeal to all readers and are not only catered to minorities. Additionally, as consumers of mainstream culture, we must acknowledge the monumental hurdles that are in place for people of colour to find their way into the literary and publishing culture, stay, and succeed (Aiello, 2016). How do we respond to book publishing’s lack of diversity in a meaningful way? Thankfully, this call for more material from diverse writers from many editors in the industry has set in motion many different initiatives in response. For example, Penguin Random House UK has launched a new campaign, WriteNow, which is intended to discover and mentor authors from the UK’s underrepresented communities, whether they means they are writers from poorer backgrounds, from LGBTQ or BAME (black, Asian, minority ethnic) communities, or writers with a disability. In partnership with writer development charities, this project aims to find, mentor, and publish new writers from underrepresented communities with different stories to tell. Together they will be hosting 150 writers at one of three event days in London, Birmingham, and Manchester, where writers will learn about getting published from authors, literary agents, and Penguin Random House staff as well as getting one-to-one feedback on their book from an editor. The publisher will then ask 10 exceptional writers to join their new year-long mentoring programme, with the goal of publishing these 10 writers in the end (Penguin Random House, 2016). This project is significant because although people from underrepresented communities can strive to change the industry, this change ultimately has to occur from within the dominating white culture first. While recognizing that books and publishing do not reflect the society we live in, WriteNow opens up the opportunity for underrepresented writers to connect with publishers and readers and provides them with access to the networks, knowledge, and skills they need to pursue and excel in their writing careers. I appreciate how the campaign has a linear timeline in their work with the aspiring writers and includes a comprehensive mentoring programme because it holds the publisher at an increased accountability as they have an invested stake to see through the book becoming commercially successful.
Another initiative that has been met with great success and excitement is the #WeNeedDiverseBooks (WNDB) campaign, which emerged out of the controversy that erupted in April 2014 when BookCon announced its initial all-white author line up. The goal of the campaign was to bring awareness to the publishing community that readers want books that relay a broader rage of experiences and perspectives (Gupta, 2014). The campaign’s proposed message was to urge people to post a photo explaining why the need for diverse books is important and then build a conversation around diversity in literature. Furthermore, participants were encouraged to actively seek out and buy diverse literature in bookstores and libraries and upload photos of them onto social media. While the viral nature of the social media campaign has calmed, the grassroots group has continued to push forward in advocating for more diversity in children’s book publishing. A publicist for WNDB explains that the hashtag has been removed from the organization’s name because “we wanted to make the statement that we are ‘more than just a hashtag’ and illustrate our movement beyond ‘hashtag activism,’ into creating tangible and substantial change” (Kirch, 2014). Unlike some other online activism efforts, WNDB is successful in producing a call to action with its participants and preserving the campaign’s momentum by continually announcing new initiatives to keep their audiences actively engaged. WNDB, along with other organizations, announced these new initiatives at the “The World Agrees: We Need Diverse Books” conference, where the event was described as feeling like a political rally, rather than a discussion about books (Kirch, 2014). This is exactly the momentum we need to drive change!
Studies such as those conducted by The Cooperative Children’s Book Center reveal the magnitude of the lack of diversity within the trade publishing field, but initiatives like WriteNow and #WeNeedDiverseBooks are powerful examples of the industry taking steps in the right direction that are bringing about lasting change. As Warner (2016) states, the best conversations happen when everyone gets together to address such problems – not just when white people talk with white people about the issues at hand, or conversely when a panel of people of colour talk to an audience of people of colour about what’s challenging, or how to get ahead. In highlighting the lack of diversity in the industry, these conversations simultaneously create an avenue to celebrate talented writers who otherwise, are overlooked.
Aiello, A. (2016). Equity in Publishing: What Should Editors Be Doing? Pen America. Retrieved from https://pen.org/conversation/editorial-roundtable-diversity-equity- publishing
Gupta, P. (2014, May 1). #WeNeedDiverseBooks goes viral. Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2014/05/01/weneeddiversebooks_goes_viral/
Kirch, C. (2014, June 2). #WeNeedDiverseBooks Announces Initiatives. Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry- news/trade-shows-events/article/62693-bea-2014-weneeddiversebooks- announces-initiatives.html
Kirch, C. (2014, July 31). ‘More Than a Hashtag’: We Need Diverse Books Moves Forward. Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/ pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/63508-more-than-a- hashtag-we-need-diverse-books-moves-forward.html
Low, J. (2016, January 26). Where is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results. Lee & Low Books. Retrieved from http:// blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015- diversity-baseline-survey-results/
Penguin Random House. (2016). Write Now. Retrieved from http://www.write-now.live/
Prickett, K. (2013, October 16). The History of the Democratization of Publishing. Torque. Retrieved from http://torquemag.io/2013/10/the-history-of-the- democratization-of-publishing/
The Guardian. (2016, October 10). Publishing risks ‘becoming irrelevant’, warns Penguin Random House boss. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/ books/ 2016/oct/10/publishing-risks-becoming-irrelevant-warns-penguin-random- house-boss
Warner, B. (2016, February 12). How White People Can Respond to Book Publishing’s Lack of Diversity. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http:// www.huffingtonpost.com/brooke-warner/how-white-people-can- resp_b_9212452.html
Thompson, J. (2010). Merchants of Culture (2nd ed). Malden: MA.