Updated August 26 2015: Macmillan, a “Big Five” publisher, has agreed to participate in the diversity survey, along with the publishers Chronicle, Lerner, Abrams, and Bloomsbury, according to Jason Low of Lee & Low Books. September 15 is the deadline for other houses to join the survey, says Low.
So the great majority of children’s books are by white authors about white characters, that much we know. But what can be done to address that trend in an industry that remains, itself, largely homogeneous? You have to assess the problem first, according to Jason Low, publisher of Lee & Low Books, which has launched a diversity survey to gather data on book publishing staff and reviewers.
To date, 11 publishers and four review journals have committed to participate in the “Diversity Baseline Survey.” The publishers are: Albert Whitman, Annick Press, Arte Público Press, Charlesbridge, Cinco Puntos Press, Groundwood, Holiday House, Just Us Books, Lee & Low Books, Peachtree Publishers, and Second Story Press.
Booklist, The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal (SLJ) are the participating review publications.
As for the “Big Five” publishers—Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster—they are “still deciding individually whether or not to join in,” says Low, who has personally approached publishers about participating in the survey.
“The goal is to have all major review journals and publishers—from small, to mid-size, to large— participate in this project,” states the survey home page. “If we are serious about trying to address the lack of diversity in the publishing world, this is the very first step we need to take.”
The one-page survey asks respondents to provide their racial identity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status, and is intended for distribution by publishers to all employees, with the exception of interns, according to the site. The results will be pooled to create an aggregate view of where the industry is today. Additionally, “In the interest of transparency we have created a public Google document that shows how the numbers break out individually for each organization,” according to the survey site. Low says he is in the process of securing a third-party partner to manage the data and a yearly study is planned.
No surprises here
“[The survey] is a good idea, and that’s why we’re doing it,” says Mary Cash, VP and editor-in-chief of Holiday House. While she welcomes this self-examination on the part of her own organization, which is poised to send the survey to employees, Cash acknowledges “There is a [diversity] issue here. That won’t be a surprise to anyone.”
It is tricky, however, to release data and also safeguard individual privacy. With only 19 staff at Holiday House, that only invites speculation, says Cash. While she says she doesn’t “feel like we have something to hide” and plans to contribute her company’s findings to the aggregate results, Cash will not allow survey data to be linked publicly to Holiday House “because it will compromise the privacy of our employees,” she says.
Low cites the willingness of major tech companies to “own” their numbers regarding the makeup of their employees as sparking a turning point in the tech industry’s effort toward diversity. “The reluctance of publishers who have declined to participate in the survey does say something about our industry, and it is not good,” he says. “Anecdotally speaking, when asked if there are diversity problems in publishing, people will often agree that there should be more diversity at all levels and in all departments. But if a company is unwilling to share data from a survey that is anonymous but still connected to that company, how are we supposed to address societal-wide problems in a serious way?”
Tech’s Turning Point
Black Girls Code, a national nonprofit that aims to increase gender diversity in STEM fields, and Intel’s recent pledge of $300 million to diversify the workplace are among large-scale initiatives intent on shifting the demographics of the tech industry. In publishing, there’s We Need Diverse Books’ internship program—but Low is hard pressed to come up with any other industry-wide initiatives that might help achieve a tipping point for the book business.
Low says, “It is our hope that revealing staff diversity numbers will serve as a catalyst for change similar to what occurred in the tech industry. The point is, if we know where we are now, in terms of having baseline numbers, we can work toward improvement.”
SLJ has completed its survey and has defined some immediate steps for expanding its pool of contributors: “Survey Reveals Demographic of SLJ Reviewers.” Meanwhile, Low is in process with the Diversity Baseline Survey and has not set a timetable for completion, he says.