Some editors, like Lucas, are trying to figure out how to do the same for the vast swaths of America that big publishers have mostly ignored. It’s an effort that is complicated by a long history of neglect, which itself is bound up with publishers’ failure to take diversity in their own professional ranks seriously until recently. In interviews with more than 50 current and former book professionals and authors, I heard about the previous unsuccessful attempts to cultivate Black audiences and about an industry culture that still struggles to overcome the clubby, white elitism it was born in. As Lucas sees it, the future of book publishing will be determined not only by its recent hires but also by how it answers this question: Instead of fighting over slices of a shrinking pie, can publishers work to make the readership bigger for everyone?
When I entered the world of book publishing — where I spent two years as an assistant and another 16 as a book-review editor, critic and reporter — Barbara Epler, now the publisher of New Directions, warned me that the entry-level pay was abysmal, in large part because publishers assumed that few of their entry-level hires would actually have to survive on it: Historically, salaries were considered “dress money.” She said it with an outraged laugh, and I thought it was a joke, but I soon learned that she was right. When I was hired at Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1997, I made $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 earned more money temping. Over the years, publishers remained reluctant to raise wages. In 2018, according to a Publishers Weekly industry survey, the median salary for an editorial assistant was $38,000.
For much of its history, book publishing, especially literary book publishing, was an industry built and run by rich, white men. One of the founders of Farrar, Straus & Giroux was Roger Straus Jr., whose mother was an heir to the Guggenheim fortune and whose father’s family ran Macy’s department store. Grove Press was owned by Barney Rosset, whose father owned banks in Chicago. When Bennett Cerf, the son of a tobacco-distribution heiress, bought the Modern Library, which would be renamed Random House in 1927, he and his partner, Donald Klopfer, each ponied up $100,000 — roughly the equivalent of $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 recent article for Publishers Weekly, “Black Publishing in High Cotton,” Tracy Sherrod, an executive editor at Little, Brown — who was the editorial director of the Black-themed imprint Amistad Press for nine years — notes that both the poet Langston Hughes and the novelist Nella Larsen got book deals in the 1920s with the help of Blanche Knopf, an editor at the prestigious publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. After that, you could always point to a few great Black authors published by New York houses. Yet white editors didn’t necessarily think of themselves as serving Black readers.
“There is a subgenre of essay in the African American literary tradition, that can loosely be called What White Publishers Won’t Print,” Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor of English at Harvard, said. Both James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston wrote essays with that title, more or less. Gates said, “There is a consciousness from almost 100 years ago among Black writers about the racial limitations and biases of the American publishing industry.” Richard Wright, whose 1940 novel “Native Son” sold 215,000 copies in three weeks, for example, still saw half of his 1945 memoir “Black Boy” expurgated to please the Book-of-the-Month Club, which catered to an audience of white middle-class readers.
Under pressure from the civil rights movement, America’s big 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 schoolbooks that recognized the histories and experiences of nonwhite Americans. On Capitol Hill, Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Democrat of New York, investigated the portrayal of minorities in classroom writings as part of the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on De Facto Segregation in 1966. His hearings revealed that there was only a single Black editor leading any of the new schoolbook series that publishers had established: Doubleday and Company’s Charles F. Harris. In response to this revelation, many publishers began recruiting Black editors into their education divisions, and a few of these editors later moved to the companies’ general trade-book divisions as well. “Those were the glory days,” Marie Brown, who was hired by Doubleday in 1967, told me. “We were invited in.” Among the ranks of these new hires was the future Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, who worked in a scholastic division of Random House while writing her first novel, “The Bluest Eye.”