The Unbearable Whiteness of Book Publishing
August 1, 1995
On the surface, book publishing seems a world apart from the realm of newspapers and magazines — and certainly it has different rhythms, scales, and ownership. Book publishing also appears to be more integrated, at least judging by the slew of nonwhite writers who’ve made the bestseller list over the last several years: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Cornel West, Marian Wright Edelman, Amy Tan. But for all the millions of copies and dollars those names represent, the industry remains almost completely white. As black mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote last year, “American publishing, the very bastion of liberalism, the benefactor of the First Amendment, has kept any hint of color from its halls.”
Although most houses today are an arm of some entertainment conglomerate, publishing clings to several traditions that harken back to an age of tweedy gentlemen. Editors still conduct business over two-and three-hour lunches, often several times a week. During the summer, many houses give their employees every Friday afternoon off, the quicker, presumably, to get to literary hideaways in the Hamptons or Berkshires.
These informalities, the intertwining of business and friendships, also extend to publishing’s talent pool. “They hire their friends, or the children of friends,” says agent Faith Hampton Childs, who is black. Lit people always mention Erroll McDonald and Sonny Mehta, but the list of editors of color generally ends there. “You won’t get arthritis counting them on both hands,” says Childs, adding that publishing “is much less integrated” than her last profession — the law.
Thus the number game in the magazine or newspaper business — a higher or lower percentage of people of color — can’t even be played in book publishing. A handful of publishing houses — Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, Berkeley/Putnam, Warner Books — together with their subsidiaries account for a majority of the books published in the United States. In these companies, the question is not how many people of color they employ at decision-making levels, but whether they have any at all.
The mere request for data is met with a wall of silence. “We don’t give out those statistics,” says Andrew Giangola of Simon & Schuster. “We don’t keep them, and if we did, we wouldn’t make employment figures public,” says Stuart Appelbaum, a spokesperson for Doubleday. “It’s almost impossible that we can get you that kind of information,” says a publicist for Random House and Knopf. In 1994, the authors’ group Poets, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) announced the formation of an Open Book Committee, to pressure publishers to open their corridors to more people of color. Headed by Walter Mosley, the committee has commissioned a research firm to find out just how many — or few — people of color work in the book trade. The theory, according to one committee adviser, is that “these publishing people have to be shocked or shamed into doing something.”
There are a few white editors on the inside who are grappling with the problem. Eamon Dolan has been an editor at HarperCollins for three years. He meets informally and semiregularly with about a dozen similarly placed book editors in various New York publishing houses. Recently, the topic of book publishing’s overwhelming whiteness came up. Dolan says that in his own shop, there are “15 or 16” acquiring editors who are responsible for HarperCollins’s 250 titles a year. All of them are white, a situation he says is true at every major house. “If anything, Harper may be slightly ahead,” Dolan says, citing one lower-tier editor who is half Latina.
In Dolan’s view, the shortage is partly attributable to publishing’s economics. Book and journalism editors repeatedly explain that their internship programs are a prime recruitment pool; for reasons few seem interested in exploring, intern applicants are overwhelmingly white. “I looked at more than 100 resumes for this summer’s internship program,” one New York editor told me. “As best I can tell, four of those people were black and two were Asian. By the time I phoned them, they had made other plans for the summer.”
Of course, it’s understandable that many potential interns would make other plans — the pay of publishing internships is low or nonexistent. One of publishing’s grand traditions is to make interns bust their asses for months, receive no pay until they get some first “break,” and earn the right to a scandalously low entry-level salary as an editorial assistant. How low? Through the late 1980s, a starting position at the prestigious house of Farrar, Straus & Giroux paid just around $10,000 a year — below the poverty line for a family of four. Today the position pays $16,000.
And yet there’s never a shortage of people who want to take a job at FSG, or indeed to take just about any position in publishing. Gerald Howard, an editor at W. W. Norton, says: “When one of my editorial assistants announces that they are leaving, I’ve never seen an ad to fill that spot. I lift my pinky and the most staggering résumés hit my desk. They come from a network of agents, writers, and academics … It’s not really an open process. It’s not closed consciously, but it doesn’t seem to have to open.” What this means, though, is that a lot of people who’ll fill those slots are “children of privilege,” as Dolan says — which in America means overwhelmingly white. Alternately, they are people willing to be very poor for a period of time — and that too may act as a screen against many people of color.
In fact, the low pay of publishing can be a hurdle for many among the working class, regardless of race. In Dolan’s case, he calls himself “the child of immigrants,” that is, Irish immigrants, for whom “book publishing doesn’t have much cachet … My family looks askance at my career. They made huge sacrifices to send me to a big, fancy college — and what’s the return on their investment? Eight years into my career I’m making in the mid five figures. My brother maintains mainframe computers … and makes a lot more money. He’s considered the success of the family.”
Dolan’s theory of how publishing economics — in both books and journalism — keep out people of color is borne out in the experience of Rosa (not her real name), a 25-year-old Cuban woman who recently left book publishing. Upon graduating from college, Rosa took an entry-level job in a firm that published legal directories. This was dull work, but Rosa hoped it would open an avenue into publishing fiction. “I thought it would be a lot of fun, and challenging,” she explains. “I’ve always loved to read, and I wanted to learn how a book actually goes from being an idea to a finished book.”
In 1993, a coworker of Rosa’s from the legal publishing firm got a job as an editorial assistant at Pocket Books. “She was always telling me about how great it was, and encouraging me to make the same move,” Rosa said.
Through her former colleague, Rosa heard about an opening at a similar mass market publishing house, whose paperback writers include several best-selling authors. In the fall of 1994, Rosa was offered an editorial assistant position there. The job required her to take a sizable cut in pay, to $19,000 a year. This, Rosa says, “upset” her parents, with whom she rents an apartment. “They couldn’t understand why I was doing it, because I do need to pay a lot of the rent.” Her parents, who have lived in the United States for 20 years, “don’t make much money … They really are worried about the financial side of things.”
Nonetheless, Rosa understood that to succeed in book publishing, she had to endure what is essentially an apprentice track, from editorial assistant to assistant editor to — for the lucky — acquiring editor. She took the job.
Rosa found herself one of two people of color in an office of about 30 people. “It was pretty white,” she recalls. Rosa says that she found the atmosphere somewhat intimidating. Although she says she was well treated by her immediate boss, the rest of the white people in the office were less than welcoming. “No one ever said anything that was racist, not at all,” she recalls. “But I had a feeling like they didn’t know what to do with me. Mostly, I didn’t talk to that many people.”
Rosa also found mass marketing not to her taste. “It wasn’t what I expected,” she says. “Really, I didn’t have the temperament to be in that business. It was a lot more selling than I realized. I couldn’t see myself being successful.”
Key to this revelation was an aversion to the publishing class. In Rosa’s view, the other people in her position dealt with the low salary in very different ways than she did. “Their parents own a house, or most of them do … A lot of kids think it’s fun, to be just getting by for a couple of years. It’s sort of like an adventure. I had to explain to my boss that we’ve been struggling like this 20 years. It’s not fun any more.”
After just five months, Rosa left her publishing job, began taking predental courses, and took a job as a secretary. “It’s much easier work, and I’m making $5000 a year more.” She plans to begin dental school in the fall, and her family is pleased at the extra money.
If the economics of publishing is a chief barrier to hiring people of color, then the dismal situation is not likely to improve soon. For at least a decade, hiring and wages in the industry have been stagnant at best. As Dolan points out, most books lose money, which means that the portfolios of most editors lose money, which means in turn that publishers are loath to hire more or pay more. Magazines and newspapers, up against soaring costs and flat circulation, are in the same boat. Cutbacks are inevitable, and people of color — often the last hired — will be the hardest hit.
But maybe this ironclad logic is wrong. Maybe the only way for publishing to return to its previous economic strength is to learn to serve markets of color more quickly and deeply. A quickie biography of slain Tejano singer Selena shot to the top of the bestseller list this spring, surely in part because it was one of the first mass market books published as a bilingual volume. To institutionalize such successes, however, publishers need to expand traditional methods of marketing and distribution.
Susan Bergholz, an agent who represents several Latino authors, says that some of the most successful readings her clients have had took place not in a bookstore or auditorium but in a hairdresser’s shop in Santa Ana, California. “This guy started bringing in books for the women while they were getting their hair done, and he’s turned into a bookseller.” She cites Latino novelist Luis Rodriguez who says, “Not all Latinos are going to buy their books in bodegas, but some will, and you’re missing a lot of sales if you’re not there.”
Marketing people throughout the industry ought to be studying these facts and a thousand like them. As the city and country continue to get darker demographically, hiring editorial staff people who are in touch with the new populations should become a competitive necessity.
While few in the book industry seem to appreciate this incentive to dismantle the white monopoly, one magazine company offers a promising plan. A few months ago, when Norman Pearlstine took over the Time, Inc. magazines, the company pledged to begin breaking up the turf. According to Jack White, a black writer who has been at Time for more than 20 years, each of the Time-owned publications — including People, Money, Time, and Fortune — will now tie a portion of management’s compensation to their success or failure at integrating the staff.
White, who also functions as Time’s chief recruiter of people of color, said that Pearlstine surprised the staffers who’d been pushing for such a program by announcing it before they’d proposed it. “He called my bluff,” says White. “Now I’m willing to call his.” In a year, White hopes his newly aggressive recruitment — going after senior people such as bureau chiefs at large dailies — will bear fruit. “These guys [Time management] pride themselves on being the leaders in the magazine industry. Let’s see if they can lead in this direction.”
The publishing industry will not integrate until it recognizes diversity as critical to its mission. The potentates of publishing need to believe that diversity is something to strive for not because it’s mandated by the law or by political correctness or by a handful of cranky minorities in the newsroom, but because, in White’s words, “You cannot cover America unless you have a staff that reflects America.”
Author Jill Nelson suggests that a genuine commitment to diversity might mean challenging some of the standards of universalism ingrained in American letters.
“Diversity doesn’t mean, ‘Let’s hire some women, some people of color, some gay people, and some white men with ponytails, put them in a blender and make them come out like the straight white men who hired them,” says Nelson. “I don’t think that’s good management, and I don’t think it’s a way to cultivate people to do their best work.”
What’s needed, Nelson argues, is a commitment to actually seek out alternative voices, rather than try to adapt nonwhite populations to what are essentially white conventions. “I think we need to hear more from the people who really make up the society,” she says. “When experts are quoted, you would hear more from women, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. [Publishers] need to believe that it’s a good thing that we all bring parts of our culture and ethnicity to our work, instead of listening to the tiny percentage of white men who have posited themselves as insiders.”
President Clinton — the ultimate white male insider — insisted last week that affirmative action is good for America. When will the industry that controls America’s social and political conversation agree that affirmative action is good for publishing? ♦
Research: Ed Frauenheim and Geronimo Madrid
This article is the second of a two-part series. Read part one here
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 11, 2020