Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing

What's wrong with this picture?
Comedian & author Baratunde Thurston, waiting on line for the
BEA Saturday Book & Author Breakfast, bright & early at 7:45 a.m.

A couple of weeks before BookExpo, I received a fall catalog from one of the several publishers whose name begins with "H." (There are also a bunch that begin with "B" and "P"; one learns these things in the course of compiling PW's announcement listings for more than a decade.)

I pored over the catalog, dog-earing many of the pages to mark potential participants in next year's Virginia Festival of the Book. Every page had an author headshot as well as a bio. It was good to put a face and history with a book title, except...

When I got to the end of the catalog, I said out loud, "Hey, wait a minute!" I paged through again, only this time I paid special attention to the headshots. Yeah, they were in black-and-white, only there were no black faces to be seen. No Latino names or faces either. There was one East Asian and one South Asian. The latter was dark-skinned, but definitely Indian (an expat), not African. WTF?

I stopped at Publisher H's BEA booth, where I spoke to a male (!), black (!!) publicist--the only one I've ever met, perhaps the only one in all of publishing. I commented on the dearth of African faces in the current catalog. He rolled his eyes and sighed, then did his job and tried to put as good a veneer (I decided against "face") as possible on the list, which does contain some enticing titles. But we both knew that there are some things one can't--and shouldn't have to--spin in 21st century America.

The bigger picture is that the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white. Don't believe me? See the photo above for Exhibit #1. That's Book Promotion 101 workshop alum (and Harvard man!) Baratunde Thurston, my perennial date for the Saturday Book & Author breakfast, holding a spot for me in the endless line (more about that in another post). Every year we joke about how easily I'll be able to find him in the crowd; every year the joke gets less funny.

A few years ago in Chicago, we sat together for the Book & Author Breakfast hosted by Jon Stewart. Baratunde's was the first hand up for the Q&A. Stewart called on him.

"I'm a comedian," Baratunde began, "and there's something that everyone is burning to know: How come you never have black people on 'The Daily Show'?"

"Because they're not funny," Stewart shot back. The room roared with laughter, including Baratunde, who knew he'd been gotten, but good. (He got to speak with Stewart personally later and gave him a copy of his book, Better Than Crying.) Now, of course, the show (finally!) has a black "reporter," the very funny Larry Wilmore as "Senior Black Correspondent."


Katharine said...

Publishing's whiteness has always bothered me too. I know only one black woman in publishing; she's in middle management. I know only two Latinas; both are production editors.

What has also always bothered me is the preponderance of women in publishing. Nearly all the people I know in the industry (not counting authors) are women.

Bestselling Author, Pontif. said...

Good post, Bella. I guess Virginia Festival of the Book doesn't feel black authors really belong there. For what audience? Don't they all write for other blacks?

Sad, isn't it?

And we've seen what can happen when we try to write for a mainstream, non-niche audience, right?

Bella Stander said...

To be fair, VaBook does try to get black authors, but certainly they (we) could try harder. The audiences are overwhelmingly white too, but perhaps that's as much a reflection of who the authors are, the venues and the amount (or lack) of community outreach.