Is Publishing Mainly for White Women?
You may have already seen last year's study by Lee & Low Books aimed at determining what "diversity" within North America's publishing industry is actually like:
If it's to be believed, the study tells us that publishing staff are overwhelmingly straight, white, able-bodied women. Common wisdom says people don't go into publishing or writing to make boatloads of money. Same wisdom says that empathy, sympathy, and identification happen more readily when the publisher/author/character/reader are all ostensibly similar people.
Q: Why is the make-up of publishing what it is? Where is everybody else? What does it tell us about North America—culturally, socioeconomically? Should the book world simply be considered a (white) woman's domain, sort of indefinitely? (04.16.16)
It’s known as ‘The Gasp’. It’s the noise that echoes around a publishing house when a new person starts. And that person is, wait for it, male. That’s right ladies, and a minority of gentlemen, publishing has more than it’s fair share of females.
A hundred years ago publishing was a middle class man’s world, but then a hundred years ago women didn’t have the vote, racial segregation was still in full swing and being gay was still classed as a crime. With that in mind, are we really asking ourselves the question ‘what’s changed?’
It’s a truth, globally acknowledged, that those working in publishing do so for the love of books and not for the love of money. Another lesser-known truth is that those who work in publishing are actually a minority of society themselves. They are the people who index way above average in reading, recommending, and discussing literature, more than any other demographic. Publishing is run by those who most read. And who are the largest consumers of books? You guessed it; women.
So why the switch from male to female and why is there a lack of diversity in the industry?
Could it be as simple as to say that women have always been the greatest lovers of literature but previously lacked the opportunity to work in the industry? Sure.
Could we say that privilege rolls downhill and there’s a minority group pecking order? Sure.
What I know for certain, as a white, gay, woman working in the London publishing industry, is that uniformity does not breed innovation. Great minds think differently, they have different backgrounds and experiences. Diversity benefits us, pushes us to explore and keeps us curious. We need variety to succeed.
After all, books are the greatest example of diversity and publishing should reflect this.
Whoever designed this study seems to have been using a very narrow definition of the word disabled. There's a world in the word. There's a universe of worlds in the word. There are legal and medical definitions. Disabled can mean anything from mobility and physical impairments, spinal cord disability, acquired brain injury, traumatic brain injury, vision disability, hearing disability, cognitive or learning disabilities, psychological and psychiatric disorders.
The real problem with that little pie chart is this: Invisible disabilities. In particular psychological and psychiatric disorders can be invisible. Depression is often invisible, and fatal. Hemingway called it The Artist's Reward. Here's a chart that actually says something, namely, that writers are plagued by depression at a rate far beyond the general population.
So that pie chart with its 8% disability for writers? Hogwash. Jamison's research (which is the tip of the iceberg) along with a Cody Delistraty article (The Neurological Similarities Between Successful Writers And The Mentally Ill) might help strip the general public of the romantic delusions about writers and writing.
One only needs to look at the bestsellers lists to see that the typical writer is a middle-aged, able-bodied, and educated white woman. Is it logically, morally, or even practically right – no – but it is what it is. The average writer and reader are one and the same.
It's quite widely known that educated people are more likely to read books, and therefore more likely to write them; and statistically speaking, more white people are educated. Boys, and men for that matter, are also more likely to cop crap for picking up a book. It's not exactly the 'manly' thing to do, is it? It's not a writer problem. It's not even a reader problem. It's a societal problem.
One thing I found particularly disturbing about the Lee & Low study was the alarmingly low number of disabled people working within the industry. Writing, editing, reading, proofreading, social media marketing... these are all things that require little to no mobility.
The industry is a perfect place for disabled peoples and I am kind of appalled that we don't encourage this. Particularly for disabled males, who, as we know, have high suicide rates. A creative outlet and a way to (hopefully, let's be honest) earn a living... it really is a no-brainer.
Personally, I would like to see more boys reading and writing books. Or just more diversity, period. I can't think of a single time when I have not read a book because the author is non-white, non-educated, gay, or disabled. Actually, I can't think of a single time I cared to check.
If you look at the break-down, it's actually a pretty unbiased one. As long as you remember that the industry composition is necessarily predicated on the overall population composition.
The non-straight at 12% is better than in the overall population. Roughly 10% of Canadian population self-identify as "not straight," so the 12% in publishing actually shows bias towards non-straight.
With disabilities, it's more complicated, since some disabilities are incompatible with having a full-time or a freelance job. Like Down syndrome or autism – you just can't be in publishing with those. But 8% sounds about right for motion disabilities and such, and I'm assuming that's because freelance and writing are more accommodating. So they are not doing badly at all.
For race, you have to start by looking at the break-down for university grads. To work in publishing, you do have to have a university degree usually (since they are presumably counting the industry professionals), so that's where the unfairness starts. On top of it, if you are the child of immigrants from certain cultures, you might be actively biased against any kind of "arts" occupation, so it's not the industry's bias, in fact.
Lastly, the women vs. men split – I think that if you look closely, it's a bit of a falsehood as well. I bet most top execs in publishing are men, whereas the freelance peeps are mostly women. Women are more drawn to the flex hours, etc. Also, a disproportionately small percentage of women get science degrees, so when they end up looking for white-collar jobs, they wash up in publishing and advertising.
So, as they say – "there are three kinds of lies: little lies, big lies, and statistics."
That the publishing industry is full of white women is no surprise, especially from my perspective as a brown/Muslim/ immigrant author. There are countless reasons why this is the way it is, and for every ethnicity the reasons may be different. For me and other immigrants or first generation brown women, publishing (and writing) in general aren't really career options in most cases. Consider the fact that less than 1% of the American population is Muslim, while 10% or more are doctors. It's not satire, although it makes for funny movies and books each year. Brown people are very career conscious, and their consciousness tends to focus only on money-making careers like medicine, engineering, IT and the like. Brown people are very career conscious, and their consciousness tends to focus only on money-making careers like medicine, engineering, IT and the like. We rarely consider writing or publishing as a feasible career option, and so even though we may yearn to write fiction or poetry, or have a passion for music or painting, it's usually not realized.
I do think this is slowly shifting, for instance both my children have now started writing more since my book was published, and my son often asks if it would be okay if he wants to be an author when he grows up. But for men in South Asian communities, the pressure to work and financially support extended families means writing is usually not an option even if they want to do it. So it's a vicious circle, I think, one which needs courageous people and supportive families to come out of that circle. And I know it's hard, because when my son asked me that question, I said: “sure, buddy, you can be an author, but you'll need a real job to pay the bills.”
That's where we are as a nation I suppose, because until we financially reward people for writing and publishing, until those jobs are no longer concentrated in white, affluent communities and come into ethnically diverse cities, until kids of all races can be proud of writing as a career, I think that won't change. But most importantly, until we see a difference in the way work and finance is viewed in South Asian communities, they won't be a part of the change.
Publishing is not a practical career choice, and many of us – minority or otherwise – cannot afford to make career choices that are anything but practical. Not unlike academia, publishing requires a few years of struggle at the beginning: adjuncting, low salaries, allowing the fate of your career to rest on the ability to get referrals and build a clientele. It's not for everyone, and it's particularly not for those of us who don't start out with a little financial cushion, a little security. Speaking as someone with a chronic neurological condition, I would never have pursued a career in publishing just because I couldn't live for even a moment without guarantee of full time employment, a living wage, and health insurance. It never would have occurred to me as an option. I simply look at that life and say "that's for a different kind of person." So it's a class thing, yes, and by extension a race thing, but it's also an ability thing.
So, the industry becomes dominated by people with a certain degree of privilege, and then there's an unfortunate trickle-down effect that results. Naturally – and I don't blame them for this – white, straight, able-bodied women are most inclined to identify with stories about white, straight, able-bodied women. Women in publishing are not impervious to this. It's just human nature. Canonical texts which feature minorities often portray them in relation to the lesson they teach a white, straight, able-bodied protagonist. So we're tokenized. And that hasn't really gone away, although there is an increasingly vocal segment of the readership (and writership!) which is calling for more diversity. That is heartening to see, but the long-term effects of this potentially artificial "diversity" remain to be seen.
But then that leaves the question: if women dominate the industry, why is so much of contemporary literature still centered on the male experience? And the answer comes from looking at the figures a little more closely. Yes, women make up the majority of the publishing industry, but executive positions (and the larger paychecks that come with them) are still largely in the hands of men. Which means that, although women are filling the offices, they're not necessarily calling the shots. We've still got a long way to go until the demographics within the publishing industry reflect the demographics of its readers.
It is a problem, yes, but this is the internet age, and traditional publishers are no longer gatekeepers in the same way they once were. We're finding ways to get ourselves heard. That's a promise, and maybe a little bit of a threat.
Another body of statistics argues that the publishing industry doesn’t believe women sell books and that when their books are published, reviews are scarce.*
Recently Elena Ferrante’s, in my view, brilliant tetralogy that has been translated from Italian into English by a woman editor at The New Yorker has been wildly successful. Because Ferrante does not make public appearances, and because the books are so damn good, much of the conversation about her has centered on whether or not she might really be a man.
So, I ask, first, granted that a lot of white women are working in the industry, does your source of statistics prove that women are actually running these publishing houses? And if so, is there a bias among women in publishing against their own sex?
But perhaps the better question is this: Is this a statistical argument, whichever set you choose, that advances the search for art?
On that score, I do have an opinion. Great art by anyone – whether male or female, no matter the color of the skin or sexual orientation – has one hell of a time getting noticed – and when it does, we are all the better for the discovery. To that point, Hear, Hear for Elena Ferrante!
*On this point, author Karol Nielsen wrote a guest essay for my website in 2011 entitled, "Are Women Writers Getting a Fair Shake?"
In looking at your charts, yes, it is hard evidence that the industry, so to speak, is staffed by a certain sect. But in my mind, the publishing industry is in the hands of the self-published, and this colors everything because there are so many fish in the sea! Because anyone can publish a book, it comes down to those who know how to establish a presence, and there are legions that do, yet lack the ability to produce something of quality, even though I realize quality is subjective. I say this with a combination of disillusionment and acceptance, and I've been thinking, lately, about luck, timing, fate, and things meant to be. I have two books out in the world through an independent press. I spent the past three and a half years promoting both books as if there were no one else involved in the promotional process, and I handled the work as if it were my full-time job. What I can now report is my publisher made all the money, and I did the lion share of the work, which makes things seem a bit unbalanced! But I consider a writing career a build, and I'm looking at the good side and thinking in some small way, I have a foothold, and am therefore motivated to continue, for as a writer continues, a writer develops and grows. I've changed tactics with my third book, which is currently under review with an outfit that has a much wider reach. Though fame and fortune are not my aim, I do feel the need to try for a higher bar. Writing a novel is not a light-weight pursuit; for me it's labor-intensive and all-consuming. If I'm going to do this, I'm going to take it dead seriously. I don't want to self-publish; I want to be involved in an arena with clout, where visibility is in my favor, and I think this means positioning myself beyond the level of those who self-publish. Now I'm writing my fourth book. I'm taking my time, while I wait to see what's going to happen with my third. It has taken serious consideration for me to arrive at a workable attitude with all this, the current state of affairs in publishing being what it is. I'm confident I'm onto something – dare I say I think I'm a good writer, but I want to know how good. This is why I'm aiming for a higher bar, where the serious players reside, and perhaps the gatekeepers are all, in fact, in your chart! But be that as it may, my task is to keep developing, and as I do so, I'll await that mysterious alignment of luck and timing and fate.
One of the great offerings of fiction
can be the revelation:
people who aren't like me are like me.
Let's not defeat the purpose.