Black Women Are Being Erased in Book Publishing
“The Other Black Girl” tells a tried and true story of the challenges faced by Black publishing professionals
Obsessively scratching her scalp, while simultaneously chiding herself not to, Kendra Rae Phillips sits on a MetroNorth train anxious and jittery. She’s worried about being found, after being found out. Every lingering eye incites more sweat, and more scratching. Relief only comes when her train departs Grand Central Station. This is how Zakiya Dalila-Harris’ debut novel The Other Black Girl begins: in 1983 with a Black woman on the run.
It may be a coincidence that 1983 was also when Toni Morrison, the first Black woman editor at Random House, resigned after 16 years to focus on writing and teaching full-time. But unlike Morrison, Kendra Rae’s departure from her role as the Black woman editor at the fictional Wagner Books was not of her own volition.
Kendra Rae’s flight from New York City is a harried moment, symbolic of an ongoing pattern in book publishing, then and now. The numbers are scarce when it comes to Black people, and Black women, in publishing, and the systems in place have yet to change significantly enough for Kendra Rae, and the other Black women, in The Other Black Girl to feel safe in the professional space they occupy. The novel’s main storyline takes place in 2018 and follows two Black editorial assistants at Wagner Books: Nella who attempts to rise through the ranks as one of the only Black employees, and the newly arrived Hazel. Nella and Hazel’s conflict unravels the sinister motives behind the infiltration of OBGs (Other Black Girls) in the workplace, but Kendra Rae’s story serves as the catalyst for what unfolds.
For much of The Other Black Girl, the narrative surrounding Kendra’s swift retreat is that she chose to leave. The headline summarizing her feelings on the “frigid racial climate” at her workplace, “If You White, You Ain’t Right with Me,” is polarizing, inaccurate, and ultimately positions Kendra as “problematic” for her unwavering desire to work exclusively with Black authors. Kendra Rae’s intention to do her job, and do it well, makes her a threat the moment she vocalizes the issues she faces in the workplace. Even after being assigned a book that becomes a breakout hit by her best friend Diana Gordon, Kendra Rae is expected to retract her statements as if her experience isn’t important or necessary compared to Wagner Books’ image.
As a former acquisitions editor, I found Kendra Rae’s plotline relatable. Sadly, so was her departure.
Last year, PEN America published a lengthy report on Race, Equity, and Book Publishing. Earlier in 2022, publishing veteran and VP/executive editor at Little, Brown, Tracy Sherrod wrote “Black Publishing in High Cotton” about the history of Black editors in book publishing for Publishers Weekly. Sherrod’s piece noted numbers as slim as seven total for Black editors in trade publishing. (Today, several dozen Black editors [including editorial assistants] exist at Big 5, mid-sized, and small publishers in the United States, totaling about 60 or so.) Prior to Covid, I reported on the inherent biases in book publishing, interviewing several Black women professionals. Almost 30 years ago, in 1995, The Village Voice reported on the “Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing” in two parts. And in 2021, Shelly Romero and Adriana M. Martinez revisited The Voice’s premise for Publishers Weekly. These reports, among others, reflect the same issue again and again and again: BIPOC writers and publishing professionals continue to face exclusion in the publishing industry.
Exclusion begins with erasure. Because if you don’t exist, how can you even attempt to tell your own story?
The year a pandemic and quarantine kept many of us indoors, and a supposed “racial reckoning” had occurred in America, suddenly—suddenly!—the offers came rolling in. The mandate was to quickly diversify publishing teams that didn’t have any, or many, Black team members. Sherrod’s piece mentioned that over the years, layoffs in publishing tended to come in waves, as did the industry’s interest and investment in Black content. So, the question remains: What support systems are in place, not simply for the employees, but for the authors’ whose books these editors will, and have, acquired?
In 2020, I was approached by the heads of five different imprints about editorial positions before I accepted one at Amistad Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. My reasons for joining Amistad were simple: its almost 40-year history and its focus on the African Diaspora. I also admired the leadership and vision of Tracy Sherrod, who, at that time, was Amistad’s editorial director. Like Kendra Rae, I wanted the opportunity to focus on my community’s stories.
Soon after my arrival, it seemed the tide was changing, again. After 10 years at the helm of Amistad, Sherrod left to work at Little, Brown & Company in April 2022. Within a year of being announced publisher of Coffee House Press, and being the first person of color in this role, Anitra Budd announced her resignation in August 2022. A month before Budd, Dana Canedy had left her position as the only Black SVP/publisher of Simon & Schuster after about two years in the role, and ultimately left the industry. Earlier this year, one of Canedy’s team members, VP/executive editor LaSharah Bunting, departed S&S under a similar two-year timeline after joining the company in 2021. People depart jobs for various reasons and under different circumstances. Yet, the shift from positions of power in publishing to sudden departures was, and continues to be, noticeable.
On August 29th, 2022, after 19 months and 18 book acquisitions, I was informed that my position as senior editor at Amistad “was no longer necessary.” (Imagine being told your role was unnecessary less than two years after being assured of the necessity to nurture more Black editors.) One of the first things I thought upon hearing those words was erasure. Erasure as colleagues reached out congratulating me on a new job. (They’d been told I was “leaving” and not that my company account had been disabled five minutes after logging off the virtual meeting in which I was let go). Erasure came to mind when my authors, and their agents, told me they hadn’t heard a word from anyone at the company until I publicly announced my departure two weeks later. And it felt like erasure in the extreme when I saw how quickly I was removed as “editor” and others were given credit for the labor I’d put into editing, and advocating for, the books I had acquired. I was effectively erased because, like Kendra Rae, the narrative about my sudden departure from Amistad had been woven by others, and not by me.
This aligns with the erasure Sherrod writes about in “High Cotton.” Too few of us are aware of the history of the publishing industry’s many ebbs and flows in terms of providing the necessary resources for Black artists and Black workers. Too few of us understand why people and imprints no longer remain. (Consider One World in its initial iteration, Plume, or Harlem Moon, for example.)
As PEN reported, one of the biggest responses to this “racial reckoning” has been the hiring of DEI-designated personnel at every Big 5 publisher in the U.S. Additionally, many publishers established diversity committees, or ERGs (employee resource groups) advocating for inclusion, reading groups, and continued general education around social justice, specifically racial issues.
Along with hiring, these are attempts in the right direction. However, none of this guarantees that micro- or macroaggressions won’t happen in the workplace. They did not detail a plan for when aggressions or bias or racially motivated incidents occur, nor do they allow for people to continually build on what they learn. They rarely include concrete plans that will hold perpetrators, or anyone who causes harm, accountable. And these efforts do not include plans for training or mentorship or support long-term career trajectory for up-and-coming BIPOC who may be thrown in the deep-end on the job, and be expected from the start to do it well.
This also comes into play when considering how to market books by authors of color, and how the performance of those books is evaluated. DEI initiatives don’t automatically equate to better business practices. A diverse reads book club doesn’t translate to increased publicity or marketing budgets or detailed promotional plans. And diversity committees often result in additional unpaid labor. Being the only, or one of the few, is an unenviable position no matter the situation or occupation. Once you have your marching orders to “bring in books” or more specifically “bring in more books by Black authors,” there’s an ellipsis after the mandate, and it may translate into a lack of strategic support for those authors and their books.
I can speak from experience about the great divide between the excitement of acquisition to the travails of a book’s arrival in the warehouse. I can attest to being privy to, or being the one to speak up in, meetings on the need for sensitivity around the material being discussed. I’ve seen the names of Black people killed by police—names that were and remain hashtags alongside #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName—spelled wrong in books while the names of the white “founding fathers” were immediately fact checked. I heard from teams repping Black authors’ books, books granted scarce marketing budgets because the assumption is that these books will either “find their audience or they won’t.” It is both heartbreaking and infuriating to deal with, as a creator or as the editor who believes wholeheartedly in the work and the author entrusting you with their vision. It is deflating to have the same conversations over and over and then not see the impact of the emotional labor; the carefully crafted emails; the endless talks and promises that still broach more questions about how staff and authors are supported, the transparency of the business at large, and how work by BIPOC authors is ultimately received.
Since 1983, when Morrison and Kendra Rae were editors, imprints—let alone publishing houses—have been consolidated. This has led to fewer publishers and more product. What it hasn’t led to is more staff supporting said product, nor greater diversity among the staff. Add to this the lack of cost of living raises, a perpetual hindrance for many to enter and remain in the industry, and book publishing continues to self-select. Overworked staff doesn’t result in time or space for contemplation, nor does it allow for innovation when the assembly line shifts into high gear.
Like Kendra Rae, I love what I do. I love books. I love words. I’ve found more connections and friendships in the writing & book community than I can count. And I am continually thankful for this because it allows me to consistently remember that I am not solely what I do. We do this work because we believe in the power of books as well as their importance in our lives. For Kendra Rae, books were her life—until they weren’t. Ultimately, she absolved herself from the narrative that followed her. She opted for honesty about being “the only one” at her job and was hesitant, or flat out unwilling, to “play the game” and say otherwise. Over 40 years there has been change with more implementation of “diversity” initiatives. And, yes, there have been more hires and promotions of Black and IPOC industry professionals. (Though the 2022 PW Salary Survey reflected the number of Black staff at 3%, which is not an improvement from the last survey in 2019 or even a year prior to that.) In 2020, several imprints dedicated to BIPOC voices, some celebrity-helmed, were announced. Since 2020, the base salary for entry-level positions at U.S. Big 5 publishers rose from $42,000 to $45,000, and most recently, to $47,500 (and $50,000 in the case of Simon & Schuster). We’ve seen an increase in acquisitions of books by authors of color along with more transparent discussions around the disparity in advances thanks to #PublishingPaidMe. And as much as people online, in offices, and in petitions have called for the industry at large to make substantial and long-standing changes towards a more inclusive environment, the events of 2022 to now, from resignations (and layoffs) to the 3-month long strike by HarperCollins employees for a higher starting wage and more concrete DEI initiatives, shows that when change does happen it is hard-won and the fight never stops. Whether by design or decree, erasure exists because something, or someone, is lacking. Without the freedom for BIPOC employees to live in our truth, and tell our stories, things will remain tenuous in publishing. When that happens, what’s left for the next generation, and what will the narrative be?