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How White People Can Respond to Book Publishing's Lack of Diversity
Written by
Brooke Warner
February 2016
Written by
Brooke Warner
February 2016

On Wednesday night (February 10), I sat on a panel to kick off the 2016 San Francisco Writers Conference. Its title was "Celebrating Diversity: Opportunities for Writers of Color in Today's Publishing Landscape." Weeks ago, when the panel was finalized and I realized I was the only white panelist, I figured I'd been invited because I identify as lesbian, and because I'm aware of publishing's diversity problem to the level of at least being able to speak about it and own it. It turns out, though, I was misread as hapa, or half-Asian (not an uncommon occurrence). So the panel that was to be an all person-of-color panel ended up with one white girl on it.

Because of this hapa look I have going on, I've experienced the smallest sliver of what it feels like to be labeled as "other." People have told me I'm "exotic-looking," which is basically a acceptable way of telling someone they look foreign, or different. I've been on the other side of a scrutinizing gaze, followed by a probing question: What's your background? This is an innocent enough question, generally fueled by curiosity, but it's also driven by people's own desire to label and categorize and box you in.

At the end of the February 7 New York Times Magazine article, "How Chris Jackson Is Building a Black Literary Movement," the article's subject, Chris Jackson (a celebrated black editor at Spiegel & Grau), was asked how it feels to be changing the literary landscape. Part of his (second-person) response was:

"Maybe it fuels your desire to not just do good work, but to beat them in a way that changes the game, that uproots some of that stupidity and blindness."


Stupidity is a strong word, but of course if you're Jackson, you're confronting it every day, along with cluelessness and privilege. But the worst offense is that this industry, overwhelmingly white, doesn't acknowledge or own its blindness, its stupidity, its cluelessness, or its privilege.

Nearly ten years ago, I was involved in back-to-back race-related snafus in my role as an editor at Seal Press. I mishandled a few things, and reacted from a place of insensitivity and cluelessness. And yes, stupidity. I learned some hard lessons, but those lessons have served me well. They changed my entire outlook, not just on the racial inequities within publishing, but everywhere. On our panel, Ayize Jama-Everett spoke to the whiteness of publishing (take a moment here to look at these pie charts), but also to the whiteness of business in general, and what a major stretch it is for white gatekeepers to see anything non-white as mainstream. I've experienced this narrow-mindedness in editorial meetings when the marketing people think that the only audience for a book written by a black author is other black people. That we have the term "cross-over audience" speaks to how we pigeonhole authors to singular audiences. A black author I'm working with right now is worried that putting a black woman on her cover will narrow the audience for her novel. I don't want to steer her the wrong way. I want her to have a cross-over audience. I also want to be able to feature a black woman on our cover with pride and confidence, because if we don't we're colluding with a marketing machine that tells us that black faces don't sell books.

On the panel, I shared my experience as a white editor in a white industry. And realized in doing so that 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 color talk to an audience of people of color about what's challenging, or how to get ahead. People of color can effort all they can to get published and to change this industry, but the change has to come from within the dominating white culture first. White editors, agents, marketing teams, and executives have to be willing to admit that they might not know what's best for audiences they don't understand or are not identified with. These people also have to open their eyes. It's probably too kind to say that the lack of diversity in this year's Academy Awards nominations line-up is a result of blindness. Seeing this year's sea of white nominees makes Jackson's use of the word "stupidity" somehow seem tame.

A lot of what we discussed on our panel had to do with the opportunities that exist for people of color in publishing, and there are opportunities, but I came away thinking more about what white people--readers, authors, and industry folks--can do to address our diversity problem head on. Here's my partial list:

As readers we can:

• read more books by authors of color. They're not hard to find. Read at least one a year. Panelist Bharti Kirchner talked about how much readers love her Indian characters--and how relatable they are. It has nothing to do with race, even though her publisher originally thought her only readership would be other Indian women.

• give financial support to organizations that support our next generation of writers. Girls Write Now is one such organization that mentors underserved young women to find their voices through the power of writing and community.


As authors we can:

• champion and support contests and scholarships that support writers of color. If your own publisher doesn't have a scholarship, ask that they start a program. Starting in 2017, my press, She Writes Press, is going to start granting one publishing contract a year to a writer of color--and this started because of a conversation among our writers.

• celebrate our minority brothers and sisters in proactive ways. I've seen opportunities go or be presented to writers of color and then watched white authors say, "What about me?" This is another form of blindness, and the opposite of celebrating another person's success.


Within the industry we must:

• ask questions. Let's stop assuming we know who the readership is for a given book and start talking to the writers themselves about how to reach their target readership. If a project comes through that has potential but needs more development on audience, author platform, or marketing, explore possibilities with the potential author rather than assuming they can't reach a big enough audience.

• actively look for projects outside our own immediate sphere of understanding. Agents and editors typically represent what interests them, but part of the privilege of being in this industry is the opportunity to grow and stretch and learn. Shifting the tide on the imbalance will take agents and editors being on an active lookout for writers who aren't like them.

• own our diversity problem. For me, it took making a mistake to realize how clueless I was. It's never easy to own how out of touch or blind you might be. It requires you to lower your defenses and admit that you've been looking at things in a narrow and non-inclusive way. And then to remain conscious and take consistent steps toward effecting real change.


What else comes to mind for you?

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  • Nina Angela McKissock

    "• ask questions. Let's stop assuming we know who the readership is for a given book and start talking to the writers themselves about how to reach their target readership. If a project comes through that has potential but needs more development on audience, author platform, or marketing, explore possibilities with the potential author rather than assuming they can't reach a big enough audience."

    Yep. After we emerge from our imagination and safe writing nest, it feels as tough we're launched into a world where it isn't necessarily competitive, but covert. Who's behind this shadow, that shadow? Is it a bad or good guy/girl? Who is trustworthy? Stereotypes are easy; getting to know someone is not. We authors do sit around and talk about this. I've met a few who are well connected to the "machine" of publishing and their perspective is still held close to their breast. It may be a female thing; who knows.

    I'm competitive. I've played on a few sports teams and still umpire on an international level, and I witness how teams work. The team is truly as strong as it's weakest "link." If we--SWP-- is weak in the diversity arena, then it will weaken us as a "team" of diverse authors. As long as all of the "players" are talented writers, then our team will continue to grow in strength.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks, Lisa. I've witnessed that fear as well and yet it's so important to have the dialogue. Thanks for your comment.

  • Lisa Lepki

    I love this piece.  So many people don't know where to begin and are afraid to even have these conversations in case they accidentally say something insensitive or offensive. Everyone needs to look at their own position within the industry and ask themselves if they are doing everything they can to improve diversity.  I know that I can (and should) be doing more myself.  Thank you for taking the conversation forther. 

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for your comment, Avril, and awesome work you're doing!

  • Sakki selznick Publishing

    Fight the good fight, Avril. You've got so much of value to share, with a sisterhood that includes us all.

  • Avril Somerville

    "but the change has to come from within the dominating white culture first". Absolutely! I write about transcendent themes such as identity, displacement, yearning, sisterhood, community, love (marital and broader), and creativity, but because I am a Black woman in America from the Caribbean, some have taken it upon themselves to assume that it is a book primarily for Black women. (It is expected that I promote within categories that are along the lines of racial identity alone.) As you said, ask me who my target audience is, and not make the assumption. At the end of the day, I've written for the purpose of making connection across what is marketed as our differences. Though my primary target IS the woman reader, these connections and conversations require all women, and just the Black woman reader.

  • Melanie S. Hatter

    Thank you for this article.

  • Wendy Brown-Baez Promoting

    Brooke, This is so timely. Here in Minneapolis there have been many discussions, panels, and readings in order to engage the literary community and give voice to our writers of color. Carolyn Holbrook hosted three panels of African-American, Carribean, and African women and it was standing room only: amazing work! But it has all brought it to our attention that opportunties such as readings and book reviews and book reading suggestions are handed mostly to white (and here you can insert a majority of male) people. On the other hand, I teach in the prisons and we had a grant to bring in local authors and their books, it was hard to get writers of color to commit, either they were too busy or out of town or simply never replied to our outreach. I belong to an organization called Saint Paul Almanac which collects stories from the community and the grant funding process has been hard, it seems the established corporate funders don't understand the impact of giving people of color a voice or what it takes to change the publishing landscape. (I do think Gerywolf and Coffeehouse Press are trying to make a difference.) Our own diversity problem!! Yes! ANd here I am, a white woman who has lived in other countries and never felt white...I feel like you did, sometimes, the white woman in the room. Lots to learn. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  • Sakki selznick Publishing

    Annie Tucker, As an author writing historical fiction about race and bigotry, I'd be intrigued to hear more about your editorial experiences.

    The reason I ask is--how do you know when the writing is racist and when it's appropriate to the work? The novel I'm currently submitting to agents is full of racial and religious slurs, people of all races blinded by race and bigotry. Every one I'm using comes from careful research and often first person interviews and is historically accurate. (slurs change from era to era and country to country.) 

    It still freaks me out. Wednesday night, I did a reading from the novel, prepped in a hurry. What I read ends with a lyrical and horrific poem by an African-American child writing in rural Mississippi (1964) The young civil rights worker has asked his students to write "what's black," and she writes, eloquently, about how black is bad.  The young, light-skinned, educated African-American civil rights worker thinks of all those food words people of color use to describe themselves--words that Kathleen Kern references--and challenges himself to create a way that that child can think that all of them are beautiful--even his own paleness--can think that black is not bad, but beautiful. 

    Standing in front of the audience, reading those words out loud, that scared the heck out of me. I had to check with the listeners afterwards--that they understood the Klan's viciousness, the child's internalized bigotry, the young man's arrogance that he need to teach "these poor rural people" courage and how that arrogance turns to grief and wisdom as he realizes how incredibly courageous they are just to take the risk of talking to Civil Rights workers. You can't get to his realization without showing where people were to begin with, the external cultures' hatred that gets absorbed and projected on themselves-- you can't get there without racist language. 

    As an editor, can you identify what's necessary on the page and what is alienating and downright discriminatory? 

  • Annie Tucker

    From an editing standpoint, I would add that it's important for all editors to be vigilant about ensuring bias-free language in the manuscripts they work on. It's amazing how often I come across a race-related description that an author thinks is innocuous but that could actually feel alienating or downright discriminatory to certain readers. Learning to identify and flag that kind of text, and to have productive discussions with the authors about why it's not acceptable, is, I think, an essential goal for anyone working in the publishing industry.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    This is terrific Brooke. Proud to be your partner and hope we can keep this conversation going and do our part to change it.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Good for you, Lucinda!

  • Jill McCroskey Coupe

    Excellent article, Brooke. Change is so hard, especially when it means admitting that we've been blind or wrong or mistaken in some other way. Moving beyond the status quo is such a challenge. Creativity is a human endeavor, and as artists we should relish knowing about and experiencing it from all humans.

  • I have been in this industry for over 14 years. As a publisher I have put only my company name out there. Your article lets me know it is time to come out of the shadows. Thanks!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Point well taken, Eileen. And thanks to the rest of you for your good comments. Vivienne, this is basically what my agent friend Regina was suggesting and I get it. It speaks to the "crossover" audience, and as authors we have to do what we have to do to appeal to a wider readership. Writing diverse characters is activism in itself.

  • RYCJ Revising

    I HAD TO... I had to take a break and applaud this article... I have been working so hard digging for those books that represent just what is expressed here! PHENOMENAL!

  • Eileen Flanagan

    Thanks for the response, Brooke. I agree with everything you say about what should be done within publishing! I don't mean to minimize at all the work that the industry needs to do, and as white people, it's appropriate for you and I to focus on the things we can do ourselves or that we want to encourage other white people to do. I just think those things aren't necessarily "first" but alongside the pressure of people like Chris Jackson, and African American authors who are trying to push things from their own vantage points. At the moment I'm reading a book about how social change happens, which is probably why I'm holding onto this point, though you and I mostly agree.

  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    Brooke, what an excellent article. When it comes to book covers, I use illustrations or shadows because I don't want to limit my work or have people thinking that my book is only for a certain population. The stories that I write are universal, so I try not to make references to my characters' color or ethnicities. I leave that to the reader. I also read on a social network that many authors of color use White images on their covers and someone wanted to know why and if it was a trend? I for one feature and host virtual book tours of authors of all colors because my Blog is visited by people from around the world, so this is my way of introducing authors of all colors to those visitors.

  • Debra A Johnson

    Great article with actionable advice.  The only thing I would add is that for those who want to purchase genre fiction by authors of color, don't judge a book by it's cover.  I have looked at several titles with lovely black images on the cover, only to discover that the author was white. (Kind of your panel experience in books!) In one case it took a google search to learn that an Irish woman, living in Ireland, had written the genre story about a black American teen.  It might have been great. It wasn't what I was looking for.  So be aware that as people of color have pushed for more diversity, many folks have jumped on the band wagon. Some will and have done a great job of portraying POC and other underrepresented groups. However, if you want to read  authentic voices and support POC in publishing, buying/reading books written by them is the best way. Thanks again, Brooke, for a great read.  

  • Kathleen Kern

    I appreciate the point about white authors not saying "what about me" when authors of color are celebrated.  Almost all effective anti-racism dialogue breaks down (and I'm talking outside the literary world) when white people hear the stories of people of color and then make it about themselves.

    As a white author, I am also always looking for the "little things" that promote a truly diverse outlook in fiction, e.g., have you noticed how brown skin is compared to all sorts of food items by white authors, but white skin is often just sort of default?

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thank you both, Terri and Sakki.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for your perspective, Eileen, and I appreciate any disagreement, and yet, when I saw this—"the change has to come from within the dominating white culture first"—I will state that I think it's true within publishing. If publishing houses don't diversify their staffs or don't see value in that, then how can the change really start to happen? If white publishers and editors don't have their eyes opened to see that other cultures' stories matter as much as their own, how can we effect change? Publishing houses should require diversity training but they don't. Marketing and publicity teams are 99% white, so how can they know how to market to diverse audiences, unless they have training or bring in people of color to advise them? Of course it takes everyone, but if you look at these pie charts that show just how white this industry is, it really takes first acknowledging that we have a huge problem and then being willing to actually do something about it. I think a lot of people are acknowledging the problem, but there's less out there regarding solutions to the problem. Regina Brooks, who sat on this panel with me, said to me afterward, "Don't try to apply physical force to an invisible problem." This was in response to my asking her whether we should put an African American woman on our cover. She is a black agent, telling me not to do it. So we have to figure out where the actual change is going to start from. In this case, because of how old school this industry is, it's top down.

  • Mary Jo Hetzel

    Thank you so much, Brooke, for writing this. I really appreciate your openness, lack of defensiveness and willingness to try to find practical, concrete ways to move toward greater diversity in publishing. I think hiring high quality editors, cover artists, marketers/publicists, and searching out potential authors of color is key, as well as authors whose work deals with issues of race, class, and ethnicity as a natural part of the stories they have to tell. I so much appreciate your desire to deal with these issues. MJ

  • Sakki selznick Publishing

    Good for you, Brooke, and welcome to the world of reverse passing--nice to know you're a Hapa look-alike! Myself, I can pass for Norwegian, though I am a Jew of Eastern-European ancestry. 

    I think we have to speak up about diversity. I discuss it at bookstores with the manager--why are the African-American books on the second floor, in a ghetto? Why are they considered fiction, and put out front, where anyone can stumble over them? I bring it up with publishers when I meet them. Because I am fascinated by issues of identity, I read a lot of works by minorities of all kinds, and I recommend them to everyone I meet, as well as on my blog (Sakkiselznick123.blogspot.com)--I just finished LOVING DAY, Mat Johnson's fascinating dissection of the multiple identities involved in being "mixed race," and am currently reading, TURNER HOUSE by Angela Flournoy, as the thirteen children of Francis and Viola Turner try of figure out what to do with their parent's house, another potential victim of the economic battleground that is Detroit's East Side. Why should these books be upstairs? Don't most of us negotiate multiple identities? Haven't all of us worried about our parents, fought with siblings, or longed to maintain our past even as we move into the (here suburban) future? And last night, I heard a brilliant young Korean writer, named Juhee Kwon at a reading, writing non-fiction about rape and sexual assault politics with razor-edged honesty. I can't imagine anyone not wanting to read this person's work. 

    There is a lot we can do, a lot more than we realize, I think. I'm so glad to hear that you, too, are doing it, Brooke. 

  • Terri Elders

    Excellent topic, and thoughtfully explored. Thanks so much.