Recap—Fall Forum: How Do We Make Publishing More Inclusive?

Recap—Fall Forum: How Do We Make Publishing More Inclusive?

[A recording of this event is available on our Facebook page]

On October 25, Bookbuilders of Boston members and guests gathered at Beacon Press in the Seaport District for an educational panel entitled, “How Do We Make Publishing More Inclusive?” The panel consisted of five publishing professionals from a variety of backgrounds and was moderated by Jabari Asim, author and associate professor at Emerson College. The panelists were Alaina Leary, social content coordinator at Connelly Partners and M.A. student at Emerson College; Marinna Castilleja, financial associate at the Harvard Education Publishing Group; Gayatri Patnaik, editorial director at Beacon Press; Jennifer King, talent acquisition at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; and Daniela Serrano, marketing intern for Ploughshares and M.A. student at Emerson College.

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The audience was full long before the panel discussion began, packing the room at Beacon Press with almost eighty eager listeners. Students, professors, publishing professionals, and many others came to hear what the panelists had to say about diversity and inclusion in the publishing industry.

People attended for different reasons.

When asked why she thinks diversity in publishing is important, Kathryn Hanssen, M.A. student at Emerson College, said, “It’s hard to pinpoint why this problem [with representation] still exists. It’s obvious that it shouldn’t be this way, so I’m here to hear how we might fix it.”

Emily Avery-Miller, professor of writing at Northeastern College, said she is always looking for ways to make her classroom more accessible and inclusive and that she hoped the panel would help her do that.

Bob Kosturko, creative director of Beacon Press wondered about the broader reach of diversity in publishing: “I want to see how other publishing houses have approached this topic,” he said.

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With the audience ready to go and eager to listen, Asim began the night with a question for the panelists about why they decided to pursue a career in publishing. The answers revealed a lot about the voices publishing brings together in the name of literature.

Leary, talking about growing up queer and disabled in a low-income area, told the audience that she still remembers “the first time [she] felt connected” to a book. Castilleja emphasized the importance of “shaping the next generation of voices.” Patnaik knew she wanted to work at Beacon Press because it was a place that focused on gender, race, and sexuality—all common interests for Patnaik. Serrano moved around a lot as a child; stories and books were the one constant companion and friend that she had.

As the discussion progressed, the panelists talked about what inclusivity and diversity mean to them. They each had some variation on the idea of belonging—that diversity is when a person from a particular background feels normal.

Or: When they are not the only person like them in the room.

The problem of diversity is not an easy one to solve, though. As Patnaik said, “You can’t just add minorities and stir.” Patnaik emphasized that diversity must be sustainable. King discussed employee affinity groups through human resources offices, as well as awareness and education. And the panelists agreed that publishers must not only welcome people of diverse backgrounds, but must also find a way to nurture their talents and make them feel included after a long history of exclusion and silencing. This includes not just diverse publishing professionals, but also diverse authors with experiential stories to tell.

The rise of diversity in authorial voice has given the publishing industry the opportunity to discuss its problems with homogeneity. Recently, Asim noted, the discussion has branched into “who can write what,” referring to white authors tackling writing in the voices of people of color. Sometimes authors feel apprehensive writing in a voice different from their own, but Serrano noted that avoiding doing so is a lazy way for authors to perpetuate the assumption that characters must be white. Serrano reminded authors and publishers alike that “stories are universal. Just because somebody is outside your circle doesn’t mean they are completely foreign to you.”

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It was clear throughout the panel that the problems with diversity range beyond what could be covered in ninety minutes. The discussion has begun, however. As Patnaik said, there has been an increased interest in exposure to diverse voices. However, as Castilleja commented, it is important for those in positions of power to find a way to remedy the current homogeneity in the industry. King mentioned that hosting executive round-tables at publishing houses is one way to expose senior-level management to the importance of diverse perspectives. Overall, however, this one panel was not the place where a comprehensive solution would be proposed.

After the panel discussion concluded, audience members eagerly asked questions, ranging in topics from the representation of neuro-divergence in publishing to the problem of the exclusionary nature of unpaid internships. The panelists answered graciously and took the time to consider each question from their unique perspectives. As the evening wrapped up, many audience members stayed behind to further discuss where the industry might go next in its steps toward solving its systemic diversity problem. Overall, the night was a hit and many attendees expressed gratitude at the opportunity to open the door a little wider on a discussion that impacts all of us.

 

Emily Neiss is a current M.A. student at Emerson College, studying publishing and writing. She has spent the last fourteen months working as an editorial intern with Rubin Pfeffer Content and is eagerly pursuing full-time employment in the publishing industry. She cares deeply for middle-grade and young-adult fiction and feels that the love for reading should be actively fostered in readers from those age groups.