Aspen Institute Looks at a Publishing Industry Challenged to Embrace Diversity

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‘Why is the world of publishing so reluctant to offer Black writers the same major book deals typically offered to white writers?’ An Aspen Words program will ask the question.

Image: Aspen Institute

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

As Sales for Race Relations Titles Soar
As discussion in the world publishing industry accelerates around issues of diversity and inclusivity, the Aspen Institute has included a publishing-specific session in its series of  “Changing the Narrative” programs.

The session is produced by Aspen Digital and the Aspen Words program—which includes the annual Aspen Words Literary Prize for issue-driven fiction—and it’s being led on Tuesday (August 25) by Adrienne Brodeur, executive director of Aspen Words and author of the memoir Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2019), which was named a Best Book of 2019 by NPR. Our interview with Brodeur is here.

Changing the Narrative: Diversity in the Publishing Industry features as speakers:

  • Regina Brooks, founding president of Serendipity Literary Agency
  • Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Patsy (Norton/Liveright, 2019)
  • Lisa Lucas, National Book Foundation executive director; incoming senior vice president and publisher of Knopf’s Pantheon and Schocken (our interview is here)
  • Erroll McDonald, vice-president and executive editor, Penguin Random House/Knopf Doubleday

And in the information on the session, which is set for 3 to 4 p.m. ET on the 25th (1900 to 2000 GMT), the Aspen programmers write, “It’s obvious that fiction and nonfiction by Black authors are in demand. So why is the world of publishing so reluctant to offer Black writers the same major book deals typically offered to white writers?

“There are few people of color who serve as publishing staff or literary agents, and even fewer who operate at decision-making levels.

“The recent Twitter protest #PublishingPaidMe exposed the major pay disparities in the industry between Black and other authors. As a result, Black writers struggle to receive the same marketing exposure, even as readers continue to find and demonstrate their enthusiasm for the titles that do get published.”

To get a look at sales trends, check the  nonfiction lists at the Amazon Charts.

Deepening Interest in Finding Actionable Responses

Of course, there have been interesting moves in this area of controversy and rightful concern.

In June, for example, we reported on the quite remarkable statement issued by the Association of University Presses, in which the organization denounced “the white supremacist structure upon which so many of our presses were built”—still perhaps the most searing self-indictment by a major sector made yet.

Many inequities during the peak of the reactions to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis were brought into focus around a “Publishing Day of Action” in early June, when many of the findings of the Lee and Low study on the overall industry’s diversification status came into play.

Another profound  moment of change was signaled when John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, established a company-guiding Trade Management Committee to lead the Big Five house’s efforts in diversity and inclusion.

And just this week, HarperCollins’ Ecco Books and author Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney have announced the creation of a new publishing diversity fellowship to draw its applicants from six campuses of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities network.

In Tuesday’s program, some of the issues under consideration are expected to involve ways the book publishing industry can use this moment of what many hope is a racial reckoning to bring more racial diversity to the field. How can the industry employ and publish more books by—and for—people of color?

Many are convinced that such changes have to come from the inside out. If the industry can’t offer the content that a consumer base that looks like its market needs and wants, there’s every chance that the staffing traditions—as the Association of University Presses courageously said—simply aren’t drawing on a workforce that reflects a way forward.

For information and registration on Tuesday’s session, see this page at the Aspen Institute site.

Adrienne Brodeur. Image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

As Brodeur said in our conversation, a major part of the Aspen Words program is its context of inclusivity as part of the special social potential of books and the business that produces them.

“I’m such a believer in the power of literature and literary stories as a method for creating empathy and a way to be transported,” she said, “so that someone like me or someone like you can suddenly be in a war zone or in the rural South or in other worlds we might not otherwise occupy.

“I do think books have become much more important for us understand diversity of every sort.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on issues of diversity and inclusivity in publishing is here. More from us on the Aspen Words Literary Prize is here, more on the American book business is here. And more on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site. 

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.

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