Some publishers, like Lucas, are trying to figure out how to do the same for the vast swathes of America that the big publishers have mostly ignored. It’s an effort complicated by a long history of neglect, itself linked to the failure of publishers to take diversity seriously within their own professional ranks until recently. In interviews with over 50 current and former book professionals and authors, I heard about previous failed attempts to cultivate a black audience and an industry culture that still struggles to overcome clubby and white elitism. in which she was born. As Lucas sees it, the future of book publishing will be determined not only by her recent hires, but also by how she answers this question: instead of fighting for slices of a shrinking pie, can publishers work to increase readership for everyone?
When I entered world of book publishing – where I spent two years as an assistant and another 16 as an editor, critic and journalist – Barbara Epler, now editor of New Directions, warned me that the entry-level salary was abysmal, in large part because publishers assumed that few of their entry-level recruits would actually survive: Historically, salaries were considered “clothing money.” She said it with an outraged laugh, and I thought it was a joke, but I quickly realized she was right. When I was hired at Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1997, I was making $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 made more money as a temp. Over the years, publishers have remained reluctant to raise salaries. In 2018, according to an industry survey by Publishers Weekly, 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 wealthy white men. One of the founders of Farrar, Straus & Giroux was Roger Straus Jr., whose mother was heiress to the Guggenheim fortune and whose paternal family ran the 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 retail heiress, bought the modern library, which would be renamed Random House in 1927, he and his partner Donald Klopfer each paid $100,000, roughly the equivalent $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, editor of Little, Brown — who served as editorial director of the black-themed imprint Amistad Press for nine years — notes that the poet Langston Hughes and novelist Nella Larsen secured book deals in the 1920s with the help of Blanche Knopf, editor of the prestigious Alfred A. Knopf publishing house. After that, you can always name some great black authors published by New York houses. Yet white publishers did not necessarily see themselves as serving black readers.
“There is a subgenre of essay in the African-American literary tradition, which can loosely be called What White Publishers Won’t Print,” said Harvard English professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. . James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston have written essays with this title, more or less. Gates said, “There has been nearly 100 years among black writers an awareness of the racial boundaries and biases of the American publishing industry.” Richard Wright, whose 1940 novel “Native Son” sold 215,000 copies in three weeks, for example, still had half of his 1945 memoir “Black Boy” redacted to please the Book-of-the -Month Club, which was aimed at an audience of middle-class white readers.
Under pressure from the civil rights movement, major American publishing houses made their first effort to serve a more diverse market in the 1960s. Teachers and school boards in cities like Chicago and New York demanded textbooks recognizing the stories and experiences of non-white Americans. On Capitol Hill, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Democrat of New York, investigated the representation of minorities in class writings as part of the ad hoc subcommittee on de facto segregation in 1966. His hearings revealed that there was only one black publisher heading one of the new publisher-created textbook series: Charles F. Harris of Doubleday and Company. In response to this revelation, many publishers began recruiting black editors into their education divisions, and a few of these editors later joined general corporate business 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 recruits was future Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who worked in a school division at Random House while writing her first novel, “The Bluest Eye.”