Some editors, like Lucas, are trying to figure out how to do the same in vast swathes of America that the major publishing houses have mostly ignored. It’s an effort complicated by a long history of neglect, which itself has to do with publishers’ failure to take diversity in their professional ranks seriously until recently. In interviews with more than 50 current and former book professionals and authors, I’ve heard about past failed attempts to grow black audiences and about the culture of an industry still struggling to overcome the white elitism it was born into. As Lucas sees it, the future of book publishing will be determined not only by the new staff but also by the way he answers this question: Instead of fighting over slices of shrinking pie, can publishers work to make readers bigger for everyone?
when i entered The book publishing world—where I spent two years as an assistant and 16 more as book review editor, critic, and reporter—New Directions publisher Barbara Ebler warned me that entry-level pay was poor, in large part because publishers assumed that few entry-level employees would have to stay on. It survives like this: historically, salaries have been considered “clothing money”. She said it with an angry laugh, and thought it was a joke, but soon knew she was right. When I was hired at Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1997, I was making $25,000 a year for a job that required a college degree, industry experience, and often more than 60 hours a week. I could have made more temporary money. Over the years, publishers have been reluctant to raise wages. In 2018, according to an industry survey by Publishers Weekly, the median salary for an editorial assistant was $38,000.
For much of its history, book publishing, and especially literary book publishing, was an industry built and run by wealthy white men. One of the founders of Farrar, Straus & Giroux is Roger Straus Jr. , whose mother was heiress to the Guggenheim fortune and her father’s family ran Macy’s department store. Grove Press was owned by Barney Russett, whose father owned banks in Chicago. When Bennett Cerf, the son of a tobacco distribution heiress, bought the modern library, to be renamed Random House in 1927, he and his partner, Donald Kloepfer, paid $100,000—about $1.7 million today.
Until the 1960s, American literature was shaped by the fact that black authors needed white publishers to achieve national recognition. In her latest article for Publishers Weekly, “Black Publishing in High Cotton,” Tracey Sherrod, executive editor at Little, Brown—who has been managing editor of black-themed imistad Press for nine years—notes that both poet Langston Hughes and novelist Nella Larsen On book deals in the 1920s with the help of Blanche Knopf, editor at the prestigious Alfred A. Knopf. Then you can always point out a few of the great black authors published by New York Houses. However, white editors did not necessarily think of themselves as serving black readers.
“There is a sub-genre of essays in the African-American literary tradition, which can be loosely called what white publishers do not print,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor of English at Harvard University. James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston have both written articles with this title, in one form or another. Gates said, “There has been awareness for nearly 100 years among black writers about the racial limitations and prejudices of the American publishing industry.” Richard Wright, whose 1940 novel “Native Son” sold 215,000 copies in three weeks, for example, still sees half of his 1945 memoir “Black Boy” to please the Book-of-the-month club, which caters to an audience of readers Middle class eggs.
Under pressure from the civil rights movement, America’s major publishing houses embarked on their first effort to serve a more diverse market in the 1960s. Teachers and school boards in cities like Chicago and New York were demanding textbooks that recognized the history and experiences of non-white Americans. On Capitol Hill, Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Democrat of New York, investigated the portrayal of minorities in classroom writings as part of a subcommittee devoted to actual segregation in 1966. Hearings revealed that there was only one black editor leading any of the textbook series New Created by Publishers: Doubleday and Company’s Charles F. Harris. In response to this revelation, many publishers began recruiting black editors into their education departments, and a few of these editors later moved to corporate general trade book departments as well. Those were the glory days, Mary Brown, hired by Doubleday in 1967, told me. “We were invited in.” Among these new hires is future Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, who worked in a school department at Random House while writing her first novel, The Blue Eye.