Later on today I will be one of many panelist at an event for workhorse online magazine, Culture Weekly. Weeklyis run by a cadre of Angeleno artists, among them Chiwan Choi, the writer that asked me to collaborate alongside Skira Martinez, Zoë Ruiz, and Janice Lee. The title of our panel: "Gatekeeping vs Holding Space: Editing, Publishing & Curating as Social Justice Work."
I feel super fortunate to be able to opine at this gathering, especially among so many talented writers. A cursory search on Google for "minorities in publishing" brings up the Roxane Gay article in The Rumpus, "Where Things Stand." In this article, Ms. Gay and her trusty assistant crunch some numbers concerning the amount of reviews the New York Times has reviewed in its Books section; what they found is not startling, but it is very indicative of the Publishing (capital P) world.
"Nearly 90% of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white writers. That is not even remotely reflective of the racial makeup of this country, where 72% of the population, according to the 2010 census, is white. We know that far more than 81 books were published by writers of color in 2011."--Roxane Gay in "Where Things Stand" in The Rumpus
Obviously, Ms. Gay's work points to a problem of access as more books by whites get reviewed than there are actual whites in our country as a whole; this points to a bias which is clear and present, and which writers of color have to compete with, nay, overcome. I believe one aspect of access is visibility, but another one resides completely in who gets to greenlight, or have final editorial say in the production of a book.
As early as 1996, the New York Times was seeing the lack of diversity in Publishing as a problem, if not only as a tidbit that might sells some more newspapers; in their article, "An Emerging Prominence For Blacks in Publishing;Authors Press for Change in Minority Hiring" by Doreen Carvajal, the newspaper reports that " surveys show that black readers are buying almost 160 million books a year, Federal figures show that blacks number 3.4 percent of the managers, editors and professionals."
In the article, Walter Mosley, posits that "The publishing business is in a cultural way, the most powerful institution in America, and because that's dominated by people who aren't necessarily sensitive to the needs and the language of many of their readers, some Americans get left out. Certain needs aren't met." So, basically, the Publishing industry is ruled by whites even though what they produce is not exclusively for sale to whites. So, why don't more minorities go into Publishing seems like the logical next query, until you realize that "Starting annual salaries of 18,000" are not the kind of salary you need to sustain yourself in New York City.
This pitfall is so prevalent that even the new CEO of Holt in 1996 said, "You can only get a job if your parents subsidize you or pay for your rent." What this means is that the only people that are able to get these jobs are the ones whose parents can subsidize their meager salaries. So, in other words: working poor need not apply. Also, this doesn't account for the inherit nepotism rampant in most Publishing. Let's just say Publishing is an insular, non-minority world in which nepotism is favored, culture is a line that is "towed," and dissension is neither encouraged nor genuinely sought out: imagine a soundproofed sound booth at a saw mill at the end of an inaudible forest and you start to get the idea.
So, how do we fix it? How do we persevere as minorities in a landscape that has consistently sought to "screen" us as if we were aggressive forwards bringing the mail? There are many ways to skin a cat, but how many ways are there to increase minority agency in the Publishing world. Well, first off, I believe writers must become publishers; we must start to own the cultural capital that we so freely contract and dole to publishing companies so that they profit. Buy a stack of International Standard Book Numbers for $250 and start publishing your own titles, editions, and imprints. This might be one of the least known secrets in Publishing: one ISBN is like $125 but if you buy a stack (10) it's $250, so the incentive is to buy bulk.
We need to control the narrative being spun as well; we need to help guide the few minority publishers that are making a large splash and learn from their swag. For example, last summer Writ Large Press put on 90 events in 90 days and everyone in Los Angeles was paying attention. This presses programming feat directly authenticate and legitimize their swag as publishers of the word and printers of the page. In other words, build your publishing endeavor up from the bottom up, and include as many friends, agents, actors, musicians, philosophers, academics, artists, writers, critics, pedagogues, bounty hunters, marketing scions, librarians, immigration lawyers, yoga facilitators, and encyclopedia salesmen as possible. The more you put yourself out there and do programs despite costs, overhead, or fawning community interest. Do it because it needs to get done or be done and you will see that people will start to notice.
To that end, there are so many good things happening in the Publishing World, especially in light of Publisher Weekly's poster session that was reported to be attended by zero CEOs or administrative overlords at the Publishing powerhouses. We Need Diverse Books and Minorities in Publishing are two endeavors where the message is the medium: they exist to game-change the trend in publishing and pluralize, diversify, and expand the role of minorities in Publishing. The Mission of We Need Diverse Books is to "advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people," and the Minorities in Publishing podcast is "a brain child of publishing professional Jenn Baker, MiP is a podcast discussing diversity (or lack thereof) in the book publishing industry with other professionals working in-house as well as authors and those in the literary scene."
A Spanglish blog dedicated to the works, ruminations, and mongrel pyrotechnics of Yago S. Cura, an Argentine-American poet, translator, publisher & futbol cretin. Yago publishes Hinchas de Poesia, an online literary journal, & is the sole proprietor of Hinchas Press.