Black Voices in Publishing: Is It a Trend or a Movement?

Today’s post is adapted from an article I first published in my paid newsletter, The Hot Sheet.

Last year in June 2020, the Authors Guild hosted a panel with Black voices in publishing to discuss the challenges they’ve faced in the industry for many decades now. That panel touched on publishers’ lack of knowledge and care in marketing and publicizing Black authors (and their minimal knowledge of the vastness of Black media and marketing opportunities to reach Black readers), the dearth of informed decision makers at bookstores and other outlets, and the fundamental need for more Black people in every part of the business.

In a move that’s welcome—because if one wants to support change, it’s important to take stock and measure progress—the Authors Guild hosted another panel in July 2021 that included a few of the same voices as well as some new ones.

Diversity in publishing is not a trend—it’s a movement.

Carl Lennertz, Children’s Book Council

That’s according to Children’s Book Council executive director Carl Lennertz, who has worked in the industry for more than 20 years. He acknowledged that everyone’s been involved in this struggle for a while, but there are more groups now, with individuals and organizations alike calling for change. He thinks it’s different than before: “It’s constant, it’s loud,” he said. “The voice of the young people in publishing, it is so strong and vocal.”

Even though he admitted there will be steps back because there always are, he has reason to hope. He’s noticed that hiring is better, there have been more senior leadership changes, and publishers are doing more than just “meeting and talking” to make things better. He also sees progress being made on parallel tracks: in hiring and mentoring, inside publishing houses, in agenting, at conferences, in organizations to promote work. Furthermore, Lennertz thinks that corporate publishers must evolve in order to attract the best talent because they’re competing harder than ever in the current environment. They’re raising the starting pay, and college degrees are being waived in some cases for hiring. And of course work-from-home arrangements (especially during and after the pandemic), with fewer requirements to live in New York City, are seen to help as well.

Wade Hudson, Just Us Books

The difference between a trend and a movement is that the culture changes when there is a movement, said Wade Hudson, publisher of Just Us Books. “If we don’t have a cultural change, what we’re doing will be a trend.” While Hudson agrees there are signs of a movement, he added, “We can’t underestimate the pushback from those who don’t want to see progress. We sometimes underestimate their numbers and their influence.” For example, he said it’s common now that you see people online saying Black creators who are getting awards don’t deserve them. “We sometimes assume that people in certain professions are thinking like we are, that they are progressive,” he said, but the reality is that pushback inevitably happens. (While it was not mentioned specifically, there is concern about legislation that would eliminate certain types of books, such as those seen to support critical race theory, in schools and libraries.) Still, he said, “There are a lot of young people involved, they are empowered, they believe they deserve a seat at the table.”

Paula Chase, The Brown Bookshelf

More than that, Paula Chase of The Brown Bookshelf said that the fight is no longer about announcing “we’re here” and demanding a seat at the table. She said, “We want to help build the table, decide where the table is going to go.” A YA author, Chase started her organization because she didn’t see promotion of stories like her own; there was a gap in how publishers marketed stories by Black creators. Her goal is to educate publishers in how to support Black creators and authors and help them amplify their books. “In order to sustain this kind of change, we are going to need publishers to put money, time, and resources behind these types of initiatives. We can’t continue to be free consultants. We can’t continue to have our art suffer because we’re trying to right an industry from the bottom up.”

What can you do to help?

Such panels are often attended by a majority white audience, and the Q&A time inevitably ends on the question of what white creators can do to help. “We have to be committed to unlearning,” Chase said. “In order to put my book in the hands of a white child or just the child who is not of color—to say to them, immerse yourself in this character’s experience—regardless of that person’s race, it requires a little bit of unlearning on somebody’s part, on a teacher’s part because she thinks that my book can’t teach, on a librarian’s part because she’s so specifically looking for a book to match this reader.”

Author Kelly Starling Lyons suggested that when white authors are asked to speak at conferences, they could recommend a Black creator who can also speak. She said, “By uplifting Black creators, you’re uplifting all children who deserve to see themselves in books as well as see that all of us can write books to speak to who we are.”

Hudson suggested authors be willing to share how they are treated by the industry because authors of color may receive lower advances and royalty rates and not realize it. “We need to have more information,” he said.

For further information and resources on Black voices in publishing, see this list from The Authors Guild.

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out my paid newsletter, The Hot Sheet, which has been continuously publishing since 2015.

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