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The discussion of diversity in publishing has been happening for years behind closed doors, but 2020 was a breakthrough year in the publishing industry. There were several big “scandals” around equal pay and representation in the publishing industry that came to light, creating some really interesting conversations for those of us who care about both the state of the publishing industry AND who advocate for fair representation of marginalized voices.

2020 was a big year for the conversation around diversity in publishing.

If you haven’t been following all of the recent events, let’s get you up to speed. Back in January 2020, the acclaimed publisher, Lee & Low, put out their Diversity Baseline Survey 2.0. It was a follow-up to their often-cited 2015 survey, which really got conversations about representation and inclusion in publishing kicked into high gear. The company shared the 2019 results, explaining why they’d begun this work in the first place:

Before the DBS, people suspected publishing had a diversity problem, but without hard numbers, the extent of that problem was anyone’s guess. Our goal was to survey publishing houses and review journals regarding the racial, gender, sexual orientation, and ability makeup of their employees; establish concrete statistics about the diversity of the publishing workforce; and then build on this information by reissuing the survey every four years.

The results weren’t encouraging. Even after 4 years of activity that an optimistic person would imagine might move the needle – things like Drag Queen Story Hours popping up nationwide, the #ownvoices movement gaining steam after American Dirt was published, the industry remained largely white in traditionally published books.

Everyone in this industry went into 2020 knowing that we had work to do. But we really had no idea…

When #PublishingPaidMe broke last summer, exposing the massive gap between what white and Black authors were paid, it shocked a LOT of my colleagues, even the ones who knew it was bad. I mean, imagine paying N.K. Jemisin, one of the most award-winning, critically acclaimed, reliably bestselling authors less of an advance than some complete unknown first-time white novelist? It seems like bad ethics AND bad business!

In 2020, it seemed like America was finally ready for a real conversation about Black Lives and justice. Black authors’ books rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists. By the end of 2020, did all this conversation change much? We won’t see more hard data for a while, but a November 2020 survey from Publisher’s Weekly reported that 75% of publishing employees said they’d seen a definite increase in diversity programs and efforts over the last year. The initiatives mentioned covered everything from recruiting more BIPOC, LGBTQIA and disabled employees at every level, to running DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) training and forming DEI committees in house.

But there are other bigger changes in the works that impact all of us. For example, in a recent meeting with an agent, she mentioned that many publishers of middle grade books are not interested in even looking at books if they don’t have a “diverse” character base. While this may not be true for all genres or at all publishing houses, it’s important to know if your targets fall into this category.

Another positive outcome came in the hiring process for publishing companies. We saw high profile publishing jobs going to Black and POC candidates. Seeing brilliant, exciting elevations like Dana Caneday at Simon & Schuster is certainly encouraging. It’s also promising to see new imprints popping up, led by BIPOC and focused on authors of color.

But what about the very simple, very important goal of getting more books published by people who are Black, disabled, queer, Hindi, Asian, trans, Latinx, Muslim and all the other diverse identities that make up our wide world of authors with something to say? Having publishing gatekeepers – at all levels – start to look more like our diverse nation is a start, but the rest might depend on us.

How can we help increase diversity in publishing?

It might depend on us as readers – we have to demand more books and make profitable (read: buy!) more books from underrepresented folks.

It might also depend on us as authors – we have to keep writing, getting our books out there, disrupting the system, and challenging the traditional gatekeepers.

We’ll be diving into all of this at our March 30 roundtable on Diversity in Publishing. We are welcoming some of our favorite indie and traditionally published authors to discuss the challenges, the joys and the work ahead to stock a more diverse bookshelf for everyone. Register here, and even if you can’t make it, we’ll send the replay your way!

So, tell us – what’s the one book by an author from an underrepresented group that is a MUST READ? We want to hear from you (and restock our bookshelves)!

Diversity in Publishing roundtable