Sinykin and So’s Diversity Article: Double-Edged Swords

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

An analysis of diversity efforts in US book publishing in The Atlantic raises both successes and concerns for the industry.

Summer at the National Gallery Sculpture Garden fountain in Washington, DC. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Eurobanks

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

‘Eras of Diversification in Publishing’
Drawing a good bit of attention and discussion in the United States’ book publishing industry, an article published in The Atlantic on Wednesday (June 19) by Dan Sinykin of Atlanta’s Emory University and Richard Jean So of Montreal’s McGill University reports research showing that “nonwhite writers of fiction more than doubled their share of published works in five years.”

Sinykin and So’s piece is certainly well worth a read—and for our international Publishing Perspectives readership, we should point out that The Atlantic is one of a small handful of the States’ most influential news media on politics and culture.

The article, however, titled Has the DEI Backlash Come for Publishing? demonstrates easily as many complications around the drive for more equity in the American publishing industry as it does solid points.

In fact, as the title indicates, So and Sinykin’s key concern is that the increased number of books by Black authors published between 2019 and 2023 could be a fleeting bump in the statistics.

Professionals in the book industry might well be just as worried that the So-Sinykin research is limited to the output of four of the Big Five publishers—Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. (A follow-up to a 2020 study which left out Hachette, this study did not include Hachette, either, so that parallels between the two studies could be considered.)

For one thing, as many US publishing professionals will be quick to say, the Big Five, let alone four of them, don’t comprise all the meaningful work of the vast American market—the world’s largest publishing market—and cannot be construed as being fully representative.

Related article: ‘Aspen Institute: Changing the Narrative on Diversity in Publishing with Lisa Lucas. Image: Aspen Digital

Another point that comes to light in the very first paragraph of Sinykin and So’s piece is that they’re hanging a great deal of importance on the dismissal in May of Lisa Lucas (with Reagan Arthur) from Penguin Random House’s Pantheon and Schocken Books. Our readers will remember well when in July 2020 it was announced that Lucas would leave her berth as the executive director of the National Book Foundation to become publisher of the two historic imprints.

Sinykin and So attach the Lucas departure to Hachette’s layoff of Tracy Sherrod, Dana Canedy’s departure in 2022 from Simon & Schuster, and several other moves, positioning it as indicative that the effort in US publishing to invest in diverse racial talent and leadership that may have helped fuel recent years’ increases—from 4 percent to 9 percent of novels by Black authors in the output of the four examined Big Five publishers, and from 8 percent to 16 percent of novels by “All other authors of color” in those houses.

“Publishers announce the acquisitions [by writers of color] brought in by editorial with fanfare. But publishers then fail to provide adequate investment in marketing, publicity, and sales; the titles underperform and, set up to fail, provide publishers with an excuse to disinvest.”Dan Sinykin and Richard Jean So, The Atlantic

There is a kind of parallel to an earlier era when many major houses hired “digital directors” to lead large publishers’ transition, only to find themselves shown the door as soon as the industry’s nerves and mistrust of ebooks, audio, and digitally facilitated publishing processes had subsided. Several of the digital directors quietly shown the door later told Publishing Perspectives privately that they’d come to believe that having a digital director was a matter of checking a box at the time—”almost a move of fashion,” rather than actual investment, one said. And commonly heard points had to do with a lack of support personnel in the large houses who were needed to codify and maintain digitally beneficial changes and enhancements.

Sinykin and So write, “Publishers announce the acquisitions [by writers of color] brought in by editorial with fanfare. But publishers then fail to provide adequate investment in marketing, publicity, and sales; the titles underperform and, set up to fail, provide publishers with an excuse to disinvest. Looking to past eras of diversification in publishing, we find that the turning point comes about four years into the cycle, which is exactly where we are.”

And this was heard from Lucas, in fact, in a 2020 online seminar from the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Digital series. Lucas was in transition toward her work with Pantheon and Schocken and in the Aspen discussion led by Aspen Words’ able executive director Adrienne Brodeur, said, “It takes an actual enormous team to make these books sing. If you don’t have diversity at every level, you don’t have the checks and balances that keep mistakes from happening. You don’t have a diversity of information about where there are challenges. The blind spots are all throughout. We do focus on the authors and editors, and we have to think about an entire team, including agents, representation. We have to educate people about what books are.”

In the same conversation, Regina Brooks, founding president of Serendipity Literary Agency—she’s quoted in a comment to The New York Times by So and Sinykin—told those of us in the Aspen Institute audience, “It’s very difficult to penetrate the marketplace,” Brooks said, “if there’s a lack of understanding of the content. As a literary agent, one of the things I consistently ask of editors is that if you know there’s an audience for a book and you know the book is going to sell–but it’s not something you would pick up and read–would you acquire that book?”

And Which Diversity?

Another reaction being heard to the So and Sinykin article at The Atlantic questions how healthily the United States’ industry can debate issues of “diversity” when the racial question—overwhelmingly about Black and white—can address the extraordinary breadth of American diversity. It should be noted that Richard So’s first study, which produced this New York Times opinion piece in 2020, was aimed at the general whiteness of the US book industry.

Related article: Diversity in US Publishing: The New Lee & Low Report. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Mindaugus Dulinskas

But the Lee & Low studies have added far more dimension to the picture of diversity challenges for the US market than Black and white racial considerations. It’s unclear why so many will take the word “diversity” to mean only the need for more Black authors’ writings (and marketing, and agenting, and editing, and design) when one look at just the most recent Lee & Low study, released in February, draws from input far, far beyond the Big Five houses and looks not only at race but also at age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and even work location.

In the United Kingdom, a growing segment of the diversity discussion is about working class authors whose socio-economic position may not mirror the majority of employees in a large publishing house. An organized Working Class Writers Festival there is being led by Natasha Carthew but seems far from consideration in the diversity discussions of the United States.

Also concerning in the US and UK markets is the predominance of excellently skilled women in the publishing workforce—70 percent or more female in the aggregate, according to Lee & Low. This is at a time when young men and boys are struggling in school, in the job market, in family life and career. Here we read So and Sinykin writing that a US industry consensus sees “white women from the ages of 35 to 60 as publishing’s primary market.” Why more leadership in publishing has never leveraged the financial and ethical advantages of bringing men and boys into the main consumer target base is a question that few seem ready, even today, to contemplate despite the potential boon of revenue that would flow from a broadened male base of readers.

In any “diversity direction” you want to look, as Sinykin and So write, “Our research and interviews lead us to believe that the market is saturated only if one defines the market as white women from 35 to 60. Publishing has failed to invest in the infrastructure needed to discover and develop the latent readership for these books [by authors of color]. And many argue that the industry itself still isn’t supportive of people of color in its ranks.” Broaden that beyond people of color, and the other dimensions of diversity come quickly glistening to light in gender, sexuality, disability, socio-economic standing, and more.

‘No Longer Teaching Kids To Read Books’

While you’re at The Atlantic to look at the So and Sinykin article, we can recommend another cover story, also from June 19, this one by Xochitl Gonzalez, and titled The Schools That Are No Longer Teaching Kids To Read Books.

Related article: ‘At Norway’s WEXFO: Democracy and the Freedom to Read‘ Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Compare the description of the myBook program that in September will mean that for more than two-thirds of New York City’s elementary school districts that have selected the “Into Reading” curriculum, “learning to read will no longer revolve around books.”

And then review the stress being placed by the International Publishers Association (IPA) and Norway’s World Expression Forum, WEXFO, on what the Ljubljana Manifesto calls “higher-level reading” in a world of endangered freedoms of expression and publication and reading.

The So and Sinykin article is important and thoughtful, but it may actually place one dimension of needed diversity over not only other dimensions but also the essential and profound problem of all: reading as an increasingly challenged feature of the liberal world order makes all writers and all diversities mandatory players in the most crucial need: all reading.

More from Publishing Perspectives on diversity and publishing is here, more on the United States market is here, more on the United Kingdom’s market is here, and more on Industry Statistics 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 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.