Diversity in US Publishing: The New Lee & Low Report

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Lee & Low Books’ Diversity Baseline Survey on publishing’s workforce shows slow change in some publishing workforce demographics.

In Manhattan. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Mindaugus Dulinskas

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

‘Companies Are More Eager To Take Part’
As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the important work of surveying the United States’ book publishing workforce in terms of diversity has, in large part, become vested in the country’s largest multicultural children’s book publisher, the New York City-based Lee & Low Books.

Having passed its 30th anniversary in publishing in 2021, Lee & Low produces a new “Diversity Baseline Survey” report every four years. The first two were for 2015 (our report is here) and 2019 (our report is here).

The fact that a publisher has become the lead provider of such assessments may be assumed by some to be a reflection of both the specific commercial and competitive orientation of the American market and of the state of the diversity discussion in the largest book market in the world at this point.

In the United Kingdom—the nearest English-language market to the States’ in terms of size and influence—response to diversity issues as they impact publishing’s workforce demographics is seated in the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. The association has created and pursued large-scale 10-point commitment programs, couched in its Inclusivity Action Plan, with many of that market’s publishers committing to reporting their progress.

“It appears there’s an actual decrease (–1.4 percent) in people who self-identify as Hispanic/Latino/Mexican, at 4.6 percent. This decrease from both 2015 (6 percent) and 2019 (6 percent) is worth attending to across the field.”Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey

Across the Atlantic, the Association of American Publishers‘ approach is comparatively decentralized. The organization states its position as a plank in the AAP’s platform, clearly espousing solid support for diversity and inclusion, but it appears to leave implementation to member-publishers.

Today’s report from the Lee & Low project may cause some to question whether that approach is working. With such a strong model for a more unified industry effort in place for years in London, it’s worth  asking whether such a program might not be effective in the States’ market.

As Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris write at The New York Times in their article today on the Lee & Low assessment mainly of racial elements of the study, “These changes are hardly the transformation many hoped for, and are likely to ignite debate about whether publishing companies have faltered in their pledge to prioritize racial diversity.”

Obviously, each market’s approach must and will be guided by distinctive factors and cultural characteristics. And yet, as in reflected in Lee & Low’s quadrennial Stateside survey, most world publishing professionals today, right across international book markets, are keenly aware of the contemporary concept of having a publishing house’s workforce at least partly aligned with that house’s marketplace. This supports the democratic notion of a nation’s reading industry being demographically reflective of its population’s needs and character.

It also promotes the clear rationale of increased revenue potential and profitability for publishers and authors in a more diverse consumer base.

”As We Fight To Preserve Our Democracy’

In the introduction to its presentation, the Lee & Low team recognizes the severe levels of political sensitivity that have arisen in the United States culture around issues of diversity, especially in the four years since its 2019 report. And this cannot be avoided in looking at how the American publishing industry approaches these issues.

“To say that a lot has happened since 2019, when the last Diversity Baseline Survey results were released, is an understatement,” the introduction reads. “In the United States, the political climate feels increasingly polarized as we fight to preserve our democracy. As global citizens, we also bear witness to geopolitical instability and violence from all corners of the planet. These events, among many others, have shaped our worldview.”

As we turn to some of the top-line results of the new survey released overnight for today’s leap-year report (February 29), we should point out that the 2023 Diversity Baseline Survey was created by Lee & Low Books with co-authors:

  • Laura M. Jiménez, PhD, Boston University College of Education & Human Development Language and Literacy
  • Betsy Beckert, PhD candidate, Boston University College of Education & Human Development Language and Literacy
  • Rory Polera, data analyst
  • Jake C. Dietiker, undergraduate, Boston University College of Engineering

Laura M. Jiménez

The company points out that in this third iteration of the survey, a substantial increase of 9.5 percent was seen in the response rate from close to 200 North American companies. Data has come from all of the Big Five publishers, from review journals, trade publishers, university presses, and literary agencies. In fact, the number of surveys sent shows a 10-percent gain over the 2019 effort.

To those who work in the survey field, it will be easy to understand the rightful pride with which the team reports that the 2023 survey had overall response rates of 36 percent. Normally, as the study’s co-author Laura Jiménez points out, voluntary survey returns run more in the range of 10- to 15-percent response rates.

Jason Low

Lee & Low publisher (and a co-author on the study) Jason Low says, “Companies are more eager to take part in it today than in 2015, when people needed to be convinced that establishing a data-driven baseline for inclusive hiring was the only way to measure progress.”

The number of responses has increased by 154 percent, from the 2015 to the 2023 study, “providing a clear indication that the hesitation toward participation that was once so prevalent has receded,” the team reports. “This is a sign that the industry is trending in the right direction.”

It may also be a sign that the US industry’s collective leadership in the AAP may be able to consider a more unified and structured approach for those of its membership ready to address these issues on a more concerted basis, as has been effective in the British market.

Key Points From the 2023 Diversity Baseline Survey

Image: Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey 2023

In a quick overall look at demographics as expressed overall according to the survey’s reported results:

  • 72.5 percent of US publishing, review journal, and literary agency staffers are white/Caucasian, “a significant decrease from 76 percent in 2019.”
  • The rest comprise people who self-report as:
    • Biracial/multiracial (8.4 percent)
    • Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander/South Asian/Southeast Indian (7.8 percent)
    • Black/African-American/Afro-Caribbean (5.3 percent)
    • Hispanic/Latino/Mexican (4.6 percent)
  • There continues to be a prominent lack of representation within the publishing industry of Native American as well as Middle Eastern people,” the study’s authors write, referring to a result showing less than 1 percent representation in each.
  • A total 0.8 percent of respondents said their identity was not listed.

We will touch very briefly on three points—race, sexual orientation, and gender—leaving it to our international readership to go over the report’s findings more thoroughly in the extensive article that Lee & Low has published in the last 24 hours here.

Race

Frequently the most-discussed aspect of diversity questions, race is an area in which the 2023 Diversity Baseline Survey seems to reflect “steady change,” if not fast change. Quite closely on a par with the presence of women in the US business, the white population of the country’s workforce is reportedly standing at 72.5 percent.

Quoting the authors of the new 2023 study, we read some discussion that’s particularly apt in terms of the increasing size of the study over its eight years so far. The italics below are our emphasis of this point:

“The current data around race shows 72.5 percent of respondents self-identifying as white/Caucasian. There is still an overwhelming white working population in the field, but it is a steady change from 2015 (79 percent white) and 2019 (76 percent white).

Image: Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey 2023

“There are many possible reasons for this change: one that we feel strongly we need to point out is that there is a much larger participant pool with each iteration of the survey. And, with each survey there are more and varied publishers participating. The 6.5-percent change from 2015 in the racial makeup may also signal an effect of hiring practices, as well as other factors not seen in the data.

“The largest change in racial categories was in the biracial/multiracial category at 8.4 percent, an increase of more than 5 percent from 2019. Overall, the rest of the publishing industry is almost completely unchanged in terms of racial self-identification. Please note that these categories are subjective and overlapping, so there is a total of more than 100 percent.

“There continues to be an alarming lack of representation in the publishing workforce of American Indian/Alaskan Native/First Nations/Native American (0.1 percent), as well as Middle Eastern (0.5 percent)” employees. “In addition, 0.8 percent did not identify a race, which is more than either American Indian/Alaskan Native/First Nations/Native Americans or Middle Eastern people.

“Black/African representation is holding steady at 5.3 percent, which is consistent with 2019 (5 percent) and 2015 (4 percent). The increase is so nominal that it’s not statistically significant. The other group holding steady is Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander at 7.8 percent. This, like Black/African representation, has seen a very slight increase over the years from the 7 percent seen across both 2015 and 2019 surveys. Again, these very slight increases are not enough to be considered statistically significant within this dataset, but the trend is worth noting.

“It appears there’s an actual decrease (–1.4 percent) in people who self-identify as Hispanic/Latino/Mexican at 4.6 percent. This decrease from both 2015 (6 percent) and 2019 (6 percent) is worth attending to across the field. This is enough of a loss to be considered significant.”

Sexual Orientation

Image: Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey 2023

According to the survey, about 68.7 percent of US publishing staffers responding said they identify as straight or heterosexual, this trend line representing what the team says was the biggest change over the life of the baseline series.

With 88 percent of respondents in 2015 having identified themselves as heterosexual, the drop to 68.7 percent in 2023 is the category showing “the most change over the course of the study,” according to survey authors. “The change can be largely attributed to the number that identified as bisexual and/or pansexual (14 percent).

“Not surprisingly, most of these are white women, but that again is most likely attributed to the fact that the field is overwhelmingly white women. Gay representation held steady at 4 percent, and lesbian representation increased 1 point to 3 percent, with asexual increasing to 3.8 percent from the 2019 results.”

Gender

Image: Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey 2023

While a drop from 74 percent in 2019 to 71.3 percent in 2023 is not substantial, it may hearten those who worry that—despite the unquestioned value, skill, and experience of the many women in the American publishing industry—more men are needed in an industry that some see as creating too little content for the male half of the population, which traditionally lags female readership. And in terms of industry economics, male money left on the table can be one effect of women’s admirably greater book-buying and reading habits.

The study’s authors point out that a change in eight years from 74 percent to 71.3 percent of staffers who say they identify as women “does not meet the bar for a statistically significant change.”

Interpretating this scenario as a workplace imbalance is not to say that there shouldn’t be more women in executive positions. Nor does it suggest that support for women in publishing and in many industries isn’t crucial. It is to say that with comparative staffing at such levels, book publishing can be seen by some observers as a “women’s industry.”

Reading, literature, and publishing are of course not the province only of women but of everyone, something that, as we’ve written, is being reflected today in the work of author Richard V. Reeves (Of Boys and Men, Swift Press in the United Kingdom, Brookings Institute in the United States), founder of the newly established American Institute for Boys and Men.

In another element of the gender issue, the Lee & Low study authors write, “91.9 percent of publishing staff identify as cis men or women, meaning they identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. The small number of gender-fluid, nonbinary, gender-queer people in publishing points to the need for publishers to take extra care with stories about this community, especially if they are written from outside the lived reality of these identities. Accuracy is of the utmost importance when considering how gender identity and sexual orientation have become lightning rods for politicized bias.”

Again, the complete article on the new Diversity Baseline Survey is at the Lee and Low site here.

A Programming Note

From left are Diana Broccardo, Natasha Carthew, and Stacy Scott

At 3:15 p.m. GMT on March 13, London Book Fair’s Wednesday, Publishing Perspectives moderates a panel titled Voices Unheard: Addressing Inclusivity and Representation in the Publishing World, a discussion created to recognize and embrace the importance of “narratives that have long been sidelined … from shedding light on diverse perspectives and the deepening crises for boys and men in publishing’s opportunities, to celebrating the remarkable progress achieved in some quarters.”

The session will feature:

  • Nelson (Nels) Abbey, co-founding author of the Black Writers Guild
  • Diana Broccardo, managing director, Swift Press
  • Natasha Carthew, writer and founding artistic director of the Working Class Writers Festival
  • Stacy Scott, Taylor & Francis

In Manhattan. Image – Getty iStockphoto: William 87


More from Publishing Perspectives on diversity and inclusion is here. More from us on women in publishing is here, more on the United States’ market is here, and more on the United Kingdom’s market is here.

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 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.com, 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.