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Navigating an All-White Publishing Industry

By Ebony LaDelle, marketing manager at Simon & Schuster

At this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival, I had the pleasure of meeting one of my favorite authors, Edwidge Danticat. When she found out I worked in publishing, she looked at me and said, “So you’re like a unicorn.” “I’m sorry?” I replied, star struck. “You’re one of the few black people who actually work in publishing,” she said, “You’re a unicorn.”

Growing up in the Midwest, I was fortunate. My mother taught me the power of reading at a young age. She couldn’t afford to buy me a collection of books, but she made sure to take me to our local library. Goosebumps, The Boxcar Children, The Baby-Sitters Club…those books transported me into a world of make-believe.

Make-believe was fun, but it wasn’t until I checked out the first book where I felt the author got ME, that I fully recognized how underrepresented I was. I was in middle school, and on a trip to the library, I saw a cover that spoke to me in ways I had never experienced before. The cover was of an African-American girl who looked to be my age, with almond-shaped eyes and full lips, and the title was The Skin I’m In. The main character, Maleeka Madison, was a smart and tall, skinny, dark-skinned girl who didn’t feel like she fit in, and was insecure about her chocolate skin.

This book was one of my favorites and helped shape my thoughts, ideas, and even my future in publishing. I always considered myself a fan of books, but the thought of working in such an industry seemed unattainable until that moment.

Last week, Publisher’s Weekly released their annual salary survey, reporting that 89% of the people who work in publishing are white. 89% is a staggering number, but I can attest that this industry is still very much white, and it shows in the books being acquired. It’s also one of the main reasons I created Coloring Books, a biweekly newsletter that highlights both adult and children’s books by people of color. Instead of constantly complaining, I want to be a part of the solution. So what can the publishing industry do to help combat this problem?

  1. As a hiring manager, hold yourself accountable for minority hires. Be honest with yourself. When’s the last time you hired someone of color?
  2. Volunteer to go to career fairs, high schools, and colleges to speak to minorities about a career in publishing.
  3. Alexender Chee hit the nail on the head when he said, “if your tastes are not diverse, your life may also not be.” Make a conscious effort to present an accurate landscape of the world we live in; your willingness will be reflected in your social circle, your interests, and the titles you look for. If these things aren’t showing you a community outside of what you know, then it’s time to reevaluate.
  4. Please stop saying, “there’s not a market for this title.” And this is based off of…? Publishing one book from an author of color does not make you an expert. How many books are published from white authors that don’t make the bestsellers list? And yet these books are published every season. I’ve learned as a marketer that what works for one book may not work for another. But that hasn’t stopped us from publishing books.
  5. Understand that change takes time and commitment. You’re transforming the way an industry has been run for years. Don’t be overwhelmed or expect a quick fix. This will take years of work. But do your part, and hold others accountable as well. If everyone committed to doing small things, it could have a lasting effect.

Publishers have to realize that little girls like I was are interested in the business, but do not think of it as a viable career. When we see images of white people on the cover of every book in our local bookstore or library, we see make-believe. We see an unattainable world. It wasn’t until The Skin I’m In that I realized a brown-skinned girl like myself could turn my passion for books into a career. It wasn’t until I saw a mirror image of myself that I knew this was a world I could be accepted in. 

Ebony LaDelle is a marketing manager at Simon & Schuster and a champion of promoting diversity through her biweekly newsletter, Coloring Books. You can follow her on Twitter at @_coloringbooks.

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