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3:52 pm
Wed August 20, 2014

To Achieve Diversity In Publishing, A Difficult Dialogue Beats Silence

Originally published on Wed August 20, 2014 7:30 pm

Last spring, a group calling itself We Need Diverse Books launched a Twitter campaign to press for greater diversity in children's books. Writer Daniel José Older supports the campaign, but he doesn't think it goes far enough.

"We need diverse agents, we need editors, we need diverse book buyers, we need diverse illustrators, and we need diverse executives and CEOs at the top, too."

Older says the industry needs to take an honest look at who holds the power over who gets published. Because as things stand now, Older argues, writers of color often find themselves navigating a world that makes them feel unwelcome.

"Well, let's start out with what we know, which is that publishing is overwhelmingly white," he says. "Now, that's not a controversial fact, but sometimes to point it out becomes a controversial thing — to speak that truth."

Older says that to get work published by a major house, a writer usually needs to get it past a white gatekeeper, an agent or an editor.

"You have to always be conscious of that. Am I going to be submitting something that is going to put the person on the defensive? Is my voice somehow going to be somehow alien or unrecognizable to the person I am submitting it to?"

That kind of self-editing, says Ken Chen, poet and director of the Asian American Writers' Workshop, is one reason why writers of color would like to see more change in the industry.

"I think there is a kind of cosmetic appearance of things changing with Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri being two of the central authors in American literature. But it would still be really difficult for someone to go to a bookstore and necessarily see themself."

Too often, Chen says, publishing companies say they would publish more diverse books, but the market just isn't there for them. Chen doesn't buy that.

"Your ability to imagine that there is a market has to do with your ability to imagine that those people exist," he says. "And if [you] can't imagine that people of color actually exist and can buy books, then you can't imagine selling books to them. That's not just about a company corporate diversity policy; it's about actually knowing what's going on in communities of color."

Bushra Rehman's debut novel, Corona, is rooted in the neighborhoods of Queens, where South Asian immigrants live and shop. Rehman's novel about a rebellious Pakistani Muslim girl from Queens took her five years to finish and another five to get published. The big publishing companies turned her down, saying the book wouldn't sell.

"That was the one comment that I remember, that there is not an audience for this work," she says. "That always stayed with me, but then that always pushed me to say, 'Well, no, there is — so I'm going to keep on pursuing this.' "

Rehman's persistence paid off when she found a small independent company who wanted to publish Corona. It's been a good experience, but next time, Rehman wants to try again to penetrate the world of the major publishers.

Making It In Midtown

The power center of the industry is in Midtown Manhattan, where the five big publishing houses, including Simon & Schuster, make their home. Inside Simon & Schuster, the lobby bristles with energy, but the entrance to the corporate offices on the 17th floor is quiet and formal. The walls are lined with photos of famous authors. Two black-and-white portraits of the company's founders stand sentry by a doorway.

When Carolyn Reidy, the publisher's CEO, got into the business back in the 1970s, she remembers there were a couple of high-profile black editors — most notably Toni Morrison. But they were rare.

"The large American publishing companies, a lot of them got established in the '20s and '30s," she says. "They were established by relatively wealthy white men, and they sort of perpetuated their own kind, from school connections, things like that."

Reidy believes the industry has changed since those days. She says a diverse workforce is good for business and the culture at large.

"There's a kind of recognition that in order to identify what voices should be heard, and in order to help them express what they're writing as best they can, you actually need to have the diverse population to be able to do that for you. To be able to say to you, we should publish this book, and why."

Dawn Davis is the head of a new Simon & Schuster imprint called 37 Ink. Davis came to Simon & Schuster last year from HarperCollins. There, as publisher of the Amistad imprint, she became known for releasing books by such African-American literary heavyweights as Edward P. Jones, as well as popular best-sellers like Steve Harvey.

Reidy acknowledges Davis, who is African-American, was a good catch. "She brings that world into us. She can speak for it in a way that others of us can't."

Davis has the kind of credentials that go over well in publishing circles. A graduate of Stanford, she says she is used to being one of very few African-Americans in a white world. Davis says, "I think of the publishing world as primarily white, absolutely."

At Amistad, Davis says she focused on African-American works. But at 37 Ink she wants to publish books that represent a diverse array of cultures and viewpoints because, she says, that's what readers want.

"African-American women ... we just learned from Pew are the largest group of readers in the country," she says. "The most likely to read a book: college-educated black women. I tried to forward that to as many people as possible."

Educating others in the business is just part of the job for Davis, but it might not be so necessary if there were more people of color in the industry. She believes that a company like Simon & Schuster is trying, but she says it's not easy to attract young people. Starting salaries are so low, few can afford to take a job in publishing.

"It's very hard to say to your middle-class and working-class parents, after they support you to go to a college: 'I'm going to turn down a Wall Street job (which, I may be the first generation that even has the choice to take a Wall Street job) to go into publishing for half the salary. Is that OK, Mom and Dad?' "

Everyone Needs To 'Be Able To Step Back'

Johnny Temple is the founder of the independent Akashic Books, which is located in a converted warehouse in Brooklyn. Akashic prides itself on its eclectic mix of titles and the ethnic diversity of its authors. The company's motto is "reverse gentrification of the literary world," because, Temple says, they want to attract readers from all kinds of racial and economic backgrounds.

"If the industry doesn't get more economically and ethnically diverse, it's just going to be a pit that people are not going to be able to climb out of, as this certain cultural sphere becomes less relevant to the population at large."

What is needed, argues Older, is an industrywide conversation that looks honestly at the role race and class play in the business of publishing.

"Everyone in the industry needs to be able to step back from their privilege, step back from defensiveness, and have conversations about how the industry and them being in their place of privilege in the industry is causing literature itself and writers in general to not be thriving in the way that it could be."

It's not easy to talk about race and class. It's a conversation that writer Junot Diaz doesn't expect everyone in publishing will embrace. But he says some are ready to take it on.

"I think even somewhere in their gut they know that these uncomfortable, awkward, stumbling dialogues are absolutely necessary. No matter what their flaws, they're better than what's the other option, which is utter, agonizing silence."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. This past spring a group calling itself We Need Diverse Books launched a Twitter campaign. It pressed for greater diversity in children's books. But behind authors stands an entire industry.

DANIEL JOSE OLDER: We need diverse agents, we diverse editors, we need diverse book buyers, we need diverse illustrators and we need diverse executives and CEOs at the top, too.

SIEGEL: That's writer Daniel Jose Older. He agrees with the Diverse Books Campaign, but he doesn't think it goes far enough. He says, the publishing industry needs to take a good, hard look at who holds the powder over who gets published. NPR's Lynn Neary explores that question on her second story on diversity in publishing.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Writers of color, says writer Daniel Jose Older, often find themselves navigating a world which makes them feel unwelcome.

OLDER: Well, lets start with what we know, which is that publishing is overwhelmingly white. Now that's not a controversial fact, but sometimes to point it out becomes a controversial thing to speak that truth.

NEARY: Older says, to get work published by a major house a writer usually needs to get it past a white gatekeeper, an agent or an editor.

OLDER: So you have to always be conscious of that. Am I going to be submitting something that's going to be put the person defensive? Is my voice going to be somehow alien or unrecognizable to the person I'm submitting to?

NEARY: The kind of self-editing, says Ken Chen - poet and director of the Asian-American Writers Workshop - is one reason that writers of colors would like to see more change in the industry.

KEN CHEN: I think that there's a kind of cosmetic appearance of things changing with, you know, Junot Diaz and Jumpha Lahiri being two of the central authors in American literature. But it would still be really difficult for someone to go to a bookstore and necessarily see themself.

NEARY: Too often, Chen says, publishing companies say they would publish more diverse books but the market just isn't there for them. Chen doesn't buy that.

CHEN: Your ability to imagine there being a market has to do with your ability to imagine that those people exist. And if you can't imagine that people of color actually exist and can buy books, then you can't imagine selling books to them. And that's not just about kind of like a company corporate-diversity policy. It's about actually knowing what's going on in communities of color.

BUSHRA RAMAN: This is 74th Street. It's kind of the main drag.

NEARY: Bushra Raman's debut novel "Corona" is rooted in the neighborhoods of Queens where South Asian immigrants live and shop.

RAMAN: The thing about Jackson Heights is that there's so many different - there's Pakistani cultural bubbles, Indian cultural bubbles, Bangladeshi cultural bubbles, you know, Afghani - but then everyone still comes here.

NEARY: Raman's novel about a rebellious Pakistani, Muslim girl from Queens took her five years to finish and another five to get published. The big publishing companies turned her down, saying the book wouldn't sell.

RAMAN: That was the one comment that I remember - that there's not an audience for this work. That always stayed with me, but then also kind of pushed me to say, well, no there is. So I'm going to keep on pursuing this.

NEARY: Raman's persistence paid off when she found a small, independent company that wanted to publish the book. It's been a good experience, but next time Raman wants to try again to penetrate the world of the major publishers. The power center of the industry is in midtown Manhattan where you'll find the five big publishing houses, including Simon and Schuster. Its lobby bristles with energy, but the entrance to the corporate offices on the 17th floor is quiet and formal. The walls are lined with photos of famous authors. Two black and white portraits stand century by a doorway.

ADAM ROTHBERG: Those are our founders Richard L. Simon and Max Schuster.

NEARY: Corporate spokesman Adam Rothberg leads us down a long, softly-carpeted hallway lined with more photos.

ROTHBERG: Hillary Clinton and Kate Thompson.

NEARY: It ends in a conference room where we meet CEO Carolyn Reidy. When Reidy got into the business, back in the 1970s, she remembers there were a couple of high-profile, black editors most notably Toni Morrison. But they were rare.

CAROLYN REIDY: The large American publishing companies a lot of them got established in the '20s and '30s. They were established by relatively wealthy, white men. And they sort of perpetuated, you know, their own kind from school connections - things like that.

NEARY: Reidy believes the industry has changed since those days. She says, a diverse workforce is good for business and the culture at large.

REIDY: There's a kind of recognition that in order to identify what voices should be heard and in order to help them express what they're writing as best they can, you actually need to have the diverse population to be able to do that for you. To be able to say to you, we should publish this book and why?

NEARY: One prominent African-American at Simon and Schuster is Dawn Davis, head of a new imprint called 37 Ink. Davis came to Simon and Schuster last year from HarperCollins. There, as publisher of the Amistad Imprint, she became known for releasing books by such African-American literary heavyweights as Edward P. Jones, as well as popular best sellers like Steve Harvey. Reidy acknowledges Davis was a good catch.

REIDY: She brings that world into us. She can speak for it in a way that others of us can't.

NEARY: Dawn Davis has the kind of credentials that go over well in publishing circles. A graduate of Stanford. She says, she is used to being one of very few African-Americans in a white world.

DAWN DAVIS: I think the publishing world is primarily white, absolutely.

NEARY: At Amistad, Davis says she focused on African-American works. But at 37 Ink she wants to publish books that represent a diverse array of cultures and view points because, she says, that's what readers want.

DAVIS: African-American women who we just learn from Pew are the largest group of readers in the country. You know, when I'm at their homes for brunch and coffee and girls nights out, every kind of book is on their table. You know, they're reading Jane Smiley, they're reading Junot Diaz, they're reading everybody.

NEARY: I don't think I knew that. African-American women are the largest...

DAVIS: Yes. I have it here. The most likely person to read a book - a college-educated, black woman.

NEARY: Is the entire publishing industry aware of that?

DAVIS: I try to forward it to as many people as possible.

(LAUGHTER)

NEARY: Educating others in the business is just part of the job for Davis. And it might not be so necessary if there were more people of color in the industry. She believes a company like Simon and Schuster is trying. But, she says, it's not easy to attract young people. Starting salaries are so low, few can afford to take a job in publishing.

DAVIS: It's very hard to say to your middle-class and working-class parents after they support you to go to a college - I'm going to turn down that Wall Street job, which I may be the first generation that even has the choice to take a Wall Street job, to go into publishing for half the salary. Is that OK Mom and Dad?

JOHNNY TEMPLE: It's a very class-based business. And we don't think that that's healthy. (Laughter).

NEARY: Johnny Temple is the founder of the independent Akashic Books which is located in a converted warehouse in Brooklyn. Akashic prides itself on its eclectic mix of titles and the ethnic diversity of its authors. The company's motto is reverse gentrification of the literary world. Because, Temple says, they want to attract readers from all kinds of racial and economic backgrounds.

TEMPLE: If the industry doesn't get more economically and ethnically diverse it's just going to be a pit that people are not going to be able to climb out of as this certain cultural sphere becomes less relevant to the population at large.

NEARY: What is needed, says Daniel Jose Older, is an industry-wide conversation that looks honestly at the role race and class play in the business of publishing.

OLDER: Everyone in the industry needs to be able to step back from their privilege, step back from their defensiveness and have conversations about how the industry and them being in their place of privilege in the industry is causing literature itself and writers in general to not be thriving in the way that it could be.

NEARY: It's not easy to talk about race and class. It's a conversation that writer Junot Diaz doesn't expect everyone in publishing will embrace. But, he says, some are ready to take it on.

JUNOT DIAZ: I think even somewhere in there gut they know that these uncomfortable, awkward, stumbling dialogues are absolutely necessary - no matter what their flaws. They're better than what's the other option, which is utter, agonizing silence.

NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.