(NEW YORK)—In a comprehensive new report on representation and racial equity in the trade book publishing industry, PEN America found deep and persistent obstacles to bringing more titles by authors of color to commercial success.

Based on interviews with dozens of authors, editors, literary agents, booksellers, and marketing professionals, the report, Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing, exposes a broad range of systemic shortcomings in fostering a diverse and inclusive approach to publishing. Ingrained biases, preconceptions, and ossified thinking affect every stage of the publishing process and together work against expanding the ranks of racially and ethnically diverse authors. In its assessment, PEN America, the literary and free expression organization, urged a “profound shift” in attitudes and established ways of doing business to disrupt overall “whiteness” in publishing and ensure more diverse storytellers, characters, and narratives.

“Publishers are the curators of America’s stories,” said Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, chief program officer for PEN America’s Literary Programs.  “They are gatekeepers who decide whose stories will be told and whose will not. They have a moral and social obligation to ensure that the pluralism of American society is presented more robustly in our literary canon. Our investigation makes clear that high-profile hires and author signings represent only one layer of the comprehensive transformation necessary to create a trade book publishing industry fit to serve a fast-changing readership.”

According to the most recent data gathered in 2020 by McGill University Professor Richard So, 95 percent of books published in the United States from 1950 to 2018 were written by white authors. While more recent trends show progress, publishing remains disproportionately white–both in terms of authors and industry employees. 

Key findings include:

  • The practice of basing financial investments in specific titles on “comps” based on other authors of color or from similar backgrounds entrenches inequities in that prior titles were likely not supported well enough to achieve their full potential
  • An “identity trap” pigeon-holes authors of color who are viewed as positioned only to write about racially-oriented subjects
  • Authors of color can face the conundrum of being expected to write books that represent their culture, but also being urged to reach beyond niche audiences.
  • Publishers continue to subscribe to a tacit “one is enough” rule in which a single book by an author of a particular background or focused on a certain ethnic group can foreclose future interest in titles that address ostensibly similar subjects
  • Long tenures and low turnover rates in publishing limit advancement opportunities for staff, delaying the diversification of leadership ranks and constraining the influence of editors and other publishers of color within their houses.

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said: “PEN America’s commitment to literature and free expression demands attention to barriers that prevent stories from being told and impede individuals and groups from having a full voice in society. Trade book publishers are exceptionally powerful culture-makers. They say they have committed themselves to advancing full representation. We hope this report helps accelerate that process by spotlighting obstacles that may have been overlooked or gone unaddressed.”

PEN America’s  findings come as more than one in four readers in America are people of color, according to 2017 data from the National Endowment of the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.

The 50-page report spotlights areas all along the publishing value chain —from author advances and the book acquisition process to marketing strategies and “comps” (basing sale projections on prior sales by authors of color when they may not have received the level of marketing and sales support needed for success) to approaches on positioning books within the market.

Ebony LaDelle, former marketing director at PRH, said many varied books by Black authors all receive essentially the same marketing treatment, while those by white authors, seen as “multifaceted,” merit vastly different approaches. “What publishing really has to learn is that Black people or people of color are not monolithic,” she said, “and so the same thing that might work for one author might not work for the next author, and you really have to look at the story and the author to determine what’s the hook to sale.”

PEN America researchers focused on this issue after publishers joined other corporations  committing to change following renewed Black Lives Matter activism and racial reckoning after the George Floyd murder in 2020. Interviews were conducted in 2021 and 2022.

At the Big Five publishing companies—Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House (PRH), and Simon & Schuster, the recent hiring of high-profile editors of color from outside the industry was widely lauded. But  some of those hires have or will move on from the industry and these leaders alone cannot bear responsibility for redressing the under-representation of authors of color. 

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion lead at a large publishing house who spoke to PEN America said disrupting current budgeting practices is critical to improving the picture.

“If the industry really wants to make the change that we all want to see in this space they have to take a harder look at their own budget allocations, budget methodologies, how they allocate or project sales and budgets for titles, and figure out if there’s a different way to allocate those funds for BIPOC authors. The authors who are traditionally white cis-heteronormative authors get these huge marketing budgets, and that’s because they are sort of a tried-and-true sales opportunity. 

“I can do microaggression training until the end of the day. That’s not really going to change the actual representation.” What will bring change, the DEI lead added, is “making serious concessions within the traditional budgets.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057