This week, I’ve been sharing my experience as a former publishing intern and the efforts to improve diversity within children’s book publishing – a mission that has grown all the more salient in light of the past events of this month.
If you’ve been following along, this is the last post in the series! If you’re new, catch up to read an introductory post on my perspective as a summer intern. Then, read about the lack of diversity in publishing staff and how that correlates with the mostly white landscape of children’s books; lastly, catch up on the myth of the Market, the systematic means of “justifiably” keeping marginalized stories on the margins.
Today, at last, I’m talking about what can be done – mostly from within the publishing industry, but also what any lover of books can do to make a difference for all young readers in the United States.
Change from Within Publishing
As I established in the last post, the challenge is making sure that diversity is not considered as fleeting as a “trend.” Including more stories about characters of color, LGBTQ+ characters, and characters with disabilities should be a permanent paradigm shift.
Over the summer, I also had the opportunity to speak with numerous publishing professionals of color, asking them in their offices and in coffee shops what can be done to make sure that the efforts propelled by We Need Diverse Books impart lasting change. The agreement was almost unanimous: Change begins in the heart of publishing. Publishing staff needs more diverse perspectives to work on the stories that reflect young readers.
Barriers to Entering, Barriers to Staying
The effort to make publishing a more diverse, inclusive industry is a matter of taking down the barriers to entry that face aspiring publishing professionals of marginalized backgrounds. For example:
- The industry is centralized in one of the most prohibitively priced cities in the United States. This makes entry-level jobs accessible primarily to people with personal means, or those who already have a residence in New York City.
- Many internships are unpaid. This is problematic considering the hermetic nature of publishing – nearly everyone I spoke with found their footholds in publishing through networking, which makes an internship essential. However, unpaid internships privilege candidates who are already living in New York and can afford not take on a paid employment for a period of time.
But getting the early publishing job isn’t an assurance of stability. Publishing can also be an industry of high turnover, particularly in early in the career trajectory. For numerous reasons, the industry is less accessible to people of color and people from low-income backgrounds, even after they’ve gotten their foot in the door:
- Entry-level salaries are egregiously low, around $30,000-$35,000 for the first two years (at least) as an Editorial Assistant. Additionally, some editorial assistants take home work and have unpaid hours after the workday.
- Some editors also shared with me discomforts they experienced in the office, such as microaggressive statements, feeling tokenized, feeling exhausted at the expectation to speak for all people of color.
If change needs to come from more voices from within publishing, then it’s all the more important that there be more intentional pathways for people marginalized backgrounds to get in and stay in the industry.
Take Note of These Organizations
So how does the industry realize these changes? There are a few existing initiatives that have already started setting the wheels of meaningful change in motion.
Among their other great work, We Need Diverse Books provided the grant that financially supported an internship that opened the door to a world of learning. The internship grant is an opportunity for all people of marginalized backgrounds to get their foot in the door. These interns will soon become the voices from within publishing that will effect lasting changing. If you have the means, I strongly encourage you to donate to their fundraiser before the end of the year!
I’m personally thankful to Lee & Low Books, for paying interns and for being vocal about the disparities in publishing since the company’s inception 25 years ago; I also deeply respect that Lee & Low holds regular, all-office discussions about dismantling racism in publishing. Their smart, informed blog is a fantastic way to read up on social justice and children’s books.
Launched earlier in this fall, Latinos in Publishing promotes not only literature from Latinx voices, but also Latinx representation industry-wide.
Two fantastic editors at Penguin Random House launched the Representation Matters Mentorship Program for aspiring publishing professionals of color. Right now, it’s open to people interested in editorial, but the program is looking to expand.
Most of all, I encourage you to listen to the Minorities in Publishing podcast, run by the incomparable Jenn Baker. She has a talent for facilitating conversations with interviewees (authors, publishers, agents, etc.) and drawing illuminating insights into the publishing world. (And if you’re so inclined, check out the episode in which I try to be eloquent!)
From my observations, people are trying to make the industry a more inclusive place. There are editors, marketing and publicity directors, publishers, leaders at every point in the publishing process are initiating changes that will make publishing a more inclusive place for traditionally marginalized people. In turn, the stories that publishing produces will be truer to the demographics of their readers.
This is not a new topic. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote her essay “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors” in 1990, on the 25th anniversary of a similar article “The All-White World of Children’s Books” by Nancy Larrick. We Need Diverse Books gained momentum in 2015.
1965, to 1990, to 2015. Discussions of representation tend to arrive during times of larger change in the topic of race and civil rights in the United States. As the book industry situates itself as an arbiter of culture. It is necessarily implicated. It responds. So why do the problems linger 20, 40 years later? We can’t let the conversation about diversity snuff out.
How do we create a more inclusive world? It begins in books, and books begin in publishing.
We read books to adjust our lenses toward the world. To humanize one another, celebrate differences, and broaden our beliefs. Through books, we learn people’s stories to do away with assumptions and stereotypes.
If you believe this too, no matter what sector we work in (education, library sciences, publishing, readership), we all need to thinking about how we can actively support the better books, and better world, of youth living in the United States. Ask librarians to consider more diverse books. Teach diverse books. Buy diverse books, then give them as gifts.
Systemically and in our everyday ways, we need to act intentionally to support diverse books, because intention is the only force that brings about change.
I sincerely hope you’ve found this series helpful to you. I would love to know how you (from whatever position you are in right now) hope to make diverse books the norm. For my part, I will continue working on a blog that brings to light authentic narratives that shed understanding on a human experience, because that’s what the power of a book means to me.