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BK Magazine The Opinion Pages
Posted by Shabnam Banerjee-McFarland, Digital Content Manager & Copywriter, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. .
Shabnam is the Digital Content Manager & Copywriter at BK and coordinates launch campaigns for a few books per season. She is a San Francisco native born & raised, forever wandering the earth like a unicorn.
Diversity and inclusion are two of Berrett-Koehler's core tenants of our mission to Connect People and Ideas to Create a World that Works for All. As the conversation around diversity evolves, so too must the strategies we practice to ensure inclusion. Berrett-Koehler will be embarking on a year-long Diversity & Inclusion research initiative to better understand the systemic barriers to entry that inhibit potential authors from underrepresented communities from the publishing industry. We're working towards building a more inclusive community every day, and hope that you'll join us on this journey.
Over the last couple of months, readers and authors have probed into the mysterious nexus of publishing and found that there is a lack of diversity in race & gender of authors who are published and those who work in the publishing industry. From authors to editors to publicists, the publishing industry, it seems, is not exempt from systemic exclusion as many other American industries - like Tech or Wall Street, for example.
The publishing industry suffered a hit once the Internet and blogging took off, and chaos (momentarily) ensued. Content is in oversupply - unwarranted, unfiltered, and unapologetic. Making content go viral is the goal, but also an ever-elusive fantasy. If book publishing can’t rely on algorithms to make our content seen by the global masses on the Internet, are there any early indicators we can use about what will resonate with readers?
Not so simply, a diversity of perspectives ensures that readers will be able to find themselves in the books they read. The initial terror and hysteria of “content-shock” is wearing off. Content-shock, for our purposes, is the theory that consumers of the Internet will reach a point at which we won't be able to retain any new information because of the insanely high rate at which content is generated in the age of 140 characters. This theory has since been debunked, and content-shock is no longer a viable excuse to continue to fear growth and avoid risk-taking. Readers are once again hungry for long-form and well-thought out arguments. Moreover, books are not obsolete. In fact, print book sales were reported up in 2015. Diversity, as we'll learn, is an exciting business venture to invest in untold stories.
When Lee & Low Books released a baseline diversity survey detailing the racial, ethnic and gender makeup of the publishing industry in 2015, it became clear that publishing has favored one narrative over others. This baseline survey illuminates the lack of diversity both in the authors who are published by traditional means and those who work behind the veil of publishing, in marketing, production and editorial departments. Those behind the veil of publishing are ultimately choosing the authors and the stories they deem worthy of investment.
According to Lee & Low's baseline survey, 79% of the industry is White, and 78% women. Authors skew heavily male. Shocker. While there is a deserved nod towards the women who monopolize the field, there are a number of worrisome realities at play here.
If we look at this data objectively, as we’re meant to do in publishing, we can conclude that White female editors are consistently electing men to be published.
As the gatekeepers of what makes it through the extensive journey of publishing a book, book publishers have a social responsibility to remain neutral. Neutrality, for publishers, means that we track the growth and development of an idea, weigh its impact on readers, and measure its potential to be explored in book-form. Publishing thrives on rhetorical conflict, confrontation and debate. If a topic commands the public’s eye, best believe there is a library of books, essays and articles to accompany the debate.
More ideas in the zeitgeist = more ideas that books that can explore = more products publishing can produce.
The gatekeeper, or editor and book marketer in our case, is held to the standard of being objective. Truthfully, as we’ve seen it play out time and time again, they are responding to the dominant culture, which as we should know by now is rooted in patriarchy & Whiteness.
The harmful reality is that publishing, in its evolution, has decided to tell a singular narrative espoused by a singular collective identity. The danger in the single narrative, as explained by Chimimanda Adichie, is that it excludes the people who fall outside of this dominant narrative. A singular narrative, of Whiteness or masculinity, denies the humanity of those who are not and further stratifies the hierarchy of power and elevates those who are. Radical ideas born in countercultures have not been given equal chance to grow or take off due to the current publishing model.
Books matter for the simple fact that they are a direct line to the imagination. They give ideas room to breath, to discover nuance, to imagine something new. Books also lend credibility to burgeoning ideas - as my colleague Charlotte puts it, a book is a powerful tool in the arsenal of the thought-leader.
Who is the All?
We are in the business of words and stories. With the attention facing towards movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and the rise of Intersectional Feminism, which addresses the intersections of race & gender, books are one of the few cultural spaces that allow for thoughtful reflection and are also a business endeavor.
Transparency in the age of the Internet is a commodity and strengthens brand loyalty with consumers, which has been proven by Tech companies, like Facebook, who lead the way in releasing diversity statistics. Diversity, in the world of publishing, is more than inclusion. Diversity is more than affirmative action and setting quotas to get more people from underrepresented communities into publishing, although this is a major component in thinking about diversity and serves as a starting point. Diversity is more than storytelling and feelings. Diversity is more because consumer society has demanded that it be more.
Diversity is a business venture into charting new territory, it’s equality, it’s justice, it’s testing new theory, it’s expanding the cultural imagination, it’s engaging in culture shifts, it’s giving value to stories that fall outside of the dominant narrative of White patriarchy.
The success of niche publishers, such as Lee & Low, is conditional on the energy of the audiences who can organize around an idea. Independent niche publishers, like BK, must create an intimacy with their readers unparalleled by any other publisher that works in in their ideological space. This is all the more important when publishing ideas about social justice. We are holding ourselves accountable to think and be empathetic towards the “all” in our mission statement - “Connecting People and Ideas to Create a World that Works for All.”
Here at Berrett-Koehler, we’re taking the sometimes painfully complex and intricate steps to ensure that our authors and readers can find their best selves in our community. As I’ve mentioned before, we as a company are confronting the microaggressions and systemic biases that may alienate authors from underrepresented communities head on. We’re not shying away from this. We're committing to full transparency to gain a better understanding of what diversity means to us.
If you'd like to get involved with our Diversity & Inclusion initiative, please email [email protected], we appreciate any and all input!
Stay tuned for our findings, The Diversity & Inclusion Subcommittee will be blogging our research program!