How the Publishing Industry Monetizes Diversity
There are many reading-related organizations working to create not just a more equitable publishing industry, but world, including publishers that root their work in intersectional feminist principles and companies with the mission to ensure every child sees themself in a book. Yet there are also many publishers whose DEI efforts have fallen flat, clearly motivated by monetization versus genuine dedication to equitable practices and investments. How can the bookish community rally behind the former and push the latter to do better?
[Dear readers: This month’s issue includes discussions of white supremacy.]
By now, we’ve all likely heard of a company or two that pledged commitments to DEI initiatives in the wake of the 2020 BLM demonstrations…only to realize months, a year, or even two years later that the statements had all been for show. Of course, there are countless organizations rooted in equity with histories dating back decades before 2020, and many companies in 2020 did start to undergo real change after internal and external evaluations. However, as we approach the end of 2022, it’s also increasingly clear how many companies—especially in the publishing industry—require a greater push to deliver on their promises.
While some companies simply put out empty, placating statements, others have approached DEI initiatives as a trend or a means to increase profits. And when such initiatives are considered in this way, of course they cannot be authentic, meaningful, or transformative—instead, these initiatives still center whiteness, enable gaps in pay and career progression, and manipulate voiced needs of authors and employees from underrepresented communities for the company’s own gain. The importance of meaningful equity work cannot be stressed enough; This work improves publishing by creating an industry rooted in craft and uplifting art, which in turn leads to the diversification of stories and audience, a stronger employee experience, and equitable pay for authors, content creators, and employees alike.
Read on for a closer look at examples of commitments to equity from across the publishing industry, including those from companies doing actual work, and those that aren’t, as well as what we readers can do to push the publishing world along even further.
A Deeper Look
What companies have either made commitments in recent years or have been rooted since the start in equitable values? And what initiatives have they taken?
Lee & Low Books is the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the States. They’re also behind the Diversity Baseline Survey, which takes a look at the diversity in publishing with regards to employees and calls on publishers to do better and increase representation at all levels.
Since 2020, Penguin Random House has publicly released workforce demographics. While releasing this information is critical (as it allows the public to better hold companies accountable), this information must be acted upon.
A few publishers employ sensitivity readers to ensure meaningful representation in stories. However, in an industry with predominately white, straight, cis, and abled editors, this neither pushes publishers to increase representation in staff nor to put the responsibility on these current employees to educate themselves.
A few publishers have unionized in recent years. Despite similar industries, such as entertainment and journalism, being unionized, publishing has lagged far behind, largely due to refusals by executive leadership, who tend to be better paid.
Quite a few companies have partnered with organizations like Latinx in Publishing and We Need Diverse Books, sponsoring internship opportunities, grants for educators, and more. However, are they simply donating money without issuing real change in their own company structures? Often, yes.
And what companies have made empty promises and failed to take true action?
During the Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster trial with the Department of Justice, the CEO of Simon & Schuster noted that some authors don’t require as many resources because the company relies on social media. These authors are often those who receive a lower advance and in turn a lower marketing budget and lift (often BIPOC creators), publishers instead depending upon creators to promote these books for free. While these companies might promise to increase their relationships with “#OWNVoices” (a problematic concept in and of itself), they depend upon free labor. Publishers need to compensate creators.
Quite a few publishers conduct author and/or employee demographic surveys by way of profiling, and many do not account for any identities beyond race, such as gender identity, sexuality, ability, religion, etc, or for mixed-race identities, nor do they share the results publicly.
While setting targets for author/protagonist demographics can be useful, they also can be damaging if the publishers 1) don’t actually invest in these stories by giving them appropriate marketing budgets and/or 2) if they don’t care who these stories are by. If straight, cis authors are favored for writing stories about queer characters over queer authors, the publishers are still favoring normative culture.
Low wages in publishing allow those at the top to increase their own gains, while those at entry-level or even mid-level careers barely make a living wage, especially as they’re forced to live in some of the most expensive U.S. cities like New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. This payment structure reinforces whiteness, as it’s predominantly white employees who can rely upon inherited and/or generational wealth to support them (check out @XoxoPublishinggg’s multiple Story Highlights on this topic).
A number of book-related websites or programs run by white folks feature “diverse” lists and charge publishers for features—a categorization that centers whiteness by lumping anyone who is not white, straight, or cis into a single, monolithic identity and othering them.
DEI cannot be separated from environmentalism. A few months back, we outlined what actions publishers have yet to take to fight the climate emergency.
If you have any other thoughts on the above or examples to share, feel free to do so in the comments!
In our newest feature, Collected Words, we publish your stories. We’re ever so grateful for the folks who’ve entrusted us to provide feedback on and share their pieces with the world.
We are looking for short (~150 words) writing submissions on any topic that are rooted in and/or guided by an intersectional feminist lens.
Each published writer will receive their choice of one of the following:
$25.00 gift card to bookstore of choice
$25.00 donation to organization of choice
Feel free to email or DM us on Instagram with any questions.
We got in on the #IWillNeverBeOkayAgain challenge. What books would be on your list?
So what would real change look like? And what can readers do to help further the publishing industry’s equitable practices?
As always, buy, check-out (from your library), and amplify books by BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+, and disabled authors to demonstrate to publishers these stories’ importance.
And when promoting these stories, we can also call out the monetization of diversity, or lack of diversity, in the industry—such as the number of stories published by underrepresented authors or the #PublishingPaidMe gap. (For an example, check out Carmen of @TomesAndTextiles, an amazing content creator whose work is rooted in amplifying Latinx authors and shedding light on such inequities.)
Request these books from your local stores and library if not in stock to help show demand.
Whether you work in publishing or not, listen and support the needs of employees, employee resource groups, and union efforts. You can follow informative (and satirical) accounts like @XoxoPublishinggg, @PublishersBrunch, and @HCPUnion to stay in-the-know.
Publishers should be hiring DEI consultants and/or full-time positions to help guide and create long lasting change, including by setting, measuring, and evaluating key targets.
Demand that publishers release such information and hire for these roles when you see them issuing statements without concrete action items.
Support indie bookstores and publishers doing the work. Find these businesses that are rooted in equitable values by seeing which books and authors they’re stocking/publishing, what authors say about them, and what their responses are to critical events.
Thanks for reading! If you need a book recommendation, check out this list of stories by Filipinx American authors and this roundup of five authors who write about ace identities, all perfect for reading all year long. And as protests in Iran and around the world continue in support of bodily autonomy, we encourage you to get involved. Here’s a post that outlines books to read, actions to take, people to follow, and much more. The fight for bodily autonomy is global, and the need for intersectional feminism is as critical as ever.
And, last but not least, have you registered? Do you have your voting plan in place? Here’s a post that outlines what’s on the ballot and how you can get prepared.
Special thanks to Swati of @BookSnailMail for being our newsletter’s guest editor this month! In a few weeks, we’ll be sharing thoughts on Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez, and then our end-of-month newsletter will be the *much anticipated* return of our annual holiday gift guide! If you have any feedback, feel free to send us a direct message on Instagram, an email, or leave a comment below.
Olivia and Fiona
(P.S. Grab this month’s exclusive anticipated reads tracker here with password CozySeasonIsHere!)