Interview: 2019 Star Watch Superstar Jennifer Baker of ‘Minorities in Publishing’

In News by Porter Anderson

New York City-based Jennifer Baker, as the PW Star Watch program’s 2019 Superstar, prepares for Frankfurter Buchmesse as a tireless and engaging advocate for a more inclusive publishing industry.

At the 2019 PW Star Watch awards ceremony in New York City are, from left, Publishers’ Weekly’s Jim Milliot, Superstar winner Jennifer Baker, and the Frankfurter Buchmesse’s Thomas Minkus. Image: PW Star Watch, Sean Sime

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘I Want You To Be Taken Seriously’
In what some in book publishing today might see as a chicken-and-egg problem, Jennifer Baker says the two sides of the same issue are equally challenging. One is that, as surveys show us, most book industry staffing doesn’t reflect the diversity of the American population’s readers. The other is that the literature produced for those readers doesn’t reflect the multicultural range of the consumers to whom it’s offered.

“They’re definitely equally problems,” Baker says in an interview with Publishing Perspectives. And her insights into the complexities and nuances of the issues involving the American publishing industry’s weak representation of people of color, in particular, have been developed over the course of 92 episodes in her long-running Minorities in Publishing podcast series.

At the annual PW Star Watch announcement party in New York City on Wednesday evening (September 18), Baker was named the ‘Superstar’ of the year, an honor that provides her with an expenses-paid trip to the Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 16 to 20) and top-level all-access Business Club and conferences ticketing. She’ll be a member of the book fair’s Young Talent program, networking with her counterparts from seven other markets as this year’s top Star Watch emissary from the States and Canada. A special reception and an invitation to Buchmesse’s opening ceremony is part of the package.

And this is the first time the program’s winner has arrived with such a broad field of activity, standing at the top of the list as a self-described, “writer, editor, advocate and podcaster.”

‘The Best of the Best Rising Stars in Publishing’

At the 2019 PW Star Watch awards ceremony. Image: PW Star Watch, Sean Sime

As Publishing Perspectives has reported, the program starts each year with 50 semifinalists and leads to the choice of the Superstar from a group of five shortlisted finalists. The program is produced by Publishers Weekly in association with Frankfurt.

PW’s editorial director, Jim Milliot, on Wednesday called Baker “a dynamo” in announcing her win.

“Not only is she a production editor and podcast founder and host,” Milliot said, “but she is also a writer and editor, workshop teacher, and arts volunteer. As the 2019 Superstar, she epitomizes the best of the best rising stars in publishing.”

Baker is the production editor at Teachers College Press in New York City and is a contributing editor at the quarterly literary journal Electric Literature.

She edited Everyday People: The Color of Life–A Short Story Anthology from Simon & Schuster’s Atria (August 2018). That collection features work of Mia Alvar, Carleigh Baker, Nana Brew-Hammond, Glendaliz Camacho, Alexander Chee, Mitchell S. Jackson, Yiyun Li, Allison Mills, Courttia Newland, Dennis Norris II, Jason Reynolds, Nelly Rosario, Hasanthika Sirisena, and Brandon Taylor.

A part of the proceeds of Everyday People goes to benefit the Rhode Island Writers Colony, a nonprofit organization founded by the late Brook Stephenson that, as the program’s information puts it, works “to empower the next wave of artists of color by assisting them in gaining economic stability. They hope to host the next Pulitzer Prize winner, Booker Prize winner, or New York Times bestselling author.”

And a conversation with Baker reveals the cool, articulate grace and ready laugh characteristic of many seasoned veterans in social and workplace dynamics. She’s unencumbered by the structures of organizational advocacy, except by her own choice in producing the Minorities in Publishing podcasts.

‘I Want To Help’

“I really try to be conscious of what I can do and who I am, and my access and privilege,” Baker says.

“All my guests” on the podcast, “over 100 of them, are people I do keep tabs on. [When] I’m doing a newsletter, I want you to know that this person’s hit the bestseller list, that their new book is out, that they’re going to be doing a class, that they wrote an article, that they had another podcast interview.

“If you’re on the podcast, I want to know how you’re doing and what you’re doing, and I want to help in that way.”

Arranged by year—from 2014 forward—the podcast episodes are handsomely accompanied with transcripts for those who prefer to read or have the kind of time constraints that make listening too slow for us.

Baker’s guests have included Daniel José Older, Tqwana Brown and Ebony Harding, Tracy Sherrod, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Yi Shun Lai,  Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds,  Marcus Kwame Anderson, Jesmyn Ward, Peter Gajdics, Elizabeth Acevedo and Meg Medina, James Han Mattson, Bassey Ikpi, and many others.

Baker refers to her production editorial work at Teachers College Press as “one of the eight jobs I have,” adding that there’s a supportive program for diversity and inclusion at the publisher, something that’s not a part of too many workplaces, of course.

But she also says that, like many of us, she’s impressed at how much unconscious bias can be at play in interactions in a workspace, something we hear from many people who are working for diversity in publishing settings. And she’s keenly aware of the way her own activism can niche her, a phenomenon colleagues including the UK’s Costa-shortlisted author Nikesh Shukla has spoken eloquently about, as well.

“The way I do community service,” she says, using a panel discussion on editing as an example, “is to reach out to those in the industry and say, ‘Can we do this discussion? I’m, not going to focus on you as a person of color. I’m not going to ignore it, but I’m not going to focus on your marginalization.

“I want you to be taken seriously and be recognized as a professional first.'”

‘In the World at Large’

At the 2019 PW Star Watch awards ceremony in New York City, from left, Jim Milliot, Jennifer Baker, and Thomas Minkus. Image: PW Star Watch, Sean Sime

Baker also works with the nonprofit I, Too Arts Collective, which nurtures artistry in Harlem and operates out of the Langston Hughes House. She was a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow and Queens Council of the Arts New Work Grant winner.

Baker’s colleagues in the shortlisted group of five for the PW Star Watch program were:

  • Nicole Brinkley, floor and digital manager with Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, New York
  • Andrea DeWerd, marketing director with Currency, Convergent, Crown Forum and Image in New York City
  • Emily Folks, the publishing sales director for Andrews McMeel in Kansas City, Missouri
  • Nick Thomas, a senior editor with Levine Querido in New York City

And when it comes to her career and her thoughts about her goals, Baker says she’s careful not to design pathways for herself that could end up being restrictive.

“I just want people to be better, be it at a craft level or a personal level. Everything I do is connected to making a product better—as a production editor or making your essay better for Electric Literature, bringing more awareness to the podcast, or my own writing. It’s all connected to ‘What can I share with people?’

“It’s not always about, ‘Let me be on center stage.’ It’s ‘What can I do to help you get to another place?’

“So long as I’m consistent on that pathway,” Jennifer Baker says, “I just feel good as a person about my contributions to the industry in the world at large.”

At the 2019 PW Star Watch awards ceremony. Image: PW Star Watch, Sean Sime

More from Publishing Perspectives on PW Star Watch is here, and on Frankfurter Buchmesse is here. More from us on issues of diversity in publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.