February 1, 2016

White women run publishing?


The literary internet started buzzing last week after findings from a new survey described an overwhelming lack of racial and gender diversity in the book publishing industry.

Conducted for over a year by the children’s publisher Lee & Low, the Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS) was sent to a total of 13,237 people employed either in publishing or at book review publications, garnering a response rate of 25.8% —a significantly larger sampling compared to Publishers Weekly survey of approximately 425 industry professionals released last October.

And the newest numbers are as discouraging as ever, showing the racial makeup of publishing staff and review journal staff to be 80% white and 78.2% female or cis female. These percentages point to an environment even less diverse than many may have predicted, reviving troubling concerns about opportunities for non-whites and prompting the question whether, as the survey compilers express, “the lack of diverse books correlate to the lack of diverse staff.”

Not surprisingly, the starkly disproportionate male/female ratio was quickly translated into headlines declaring women’s unequaled power in the industry. “Straight White Women Run Publishing” was the headline on Electric Literature, and Quartz was quick to declare that: “While business and politics are ruled by straight white men, book publishing is run by straight white women.”  “Don’t Blame White Guys for Publishing’s Diversity Problem,” read one cheeky response on Takepart.com.

Yet these attempts at attention grabbing glazed over one of the more subtle aspects of the data, which shows that while the industry employs far more women overall, the difference is smaller at the executive level, with “approximately 40% of executives and board members identifying as men or cis-men.” As the compilers of the DBS report note: “This reflects the reality that males still ascend to positions of power more oven, even in female-dominated industries.”

Which raises questions about the distribution of pay, which the DBS didn’t measure. While it’s difficult to take the results of the PW survey too seriously, it is worth noting that their data put the average annual compensation for women in publishing at $51,000, compared with the $70,000 claimed by men. Would the salary breakdown have been similar if the DBS had also gathered data on compensation? It’s hard to tell. But without a more in-depth report, it’s a bit early to call publishing a woman’s game.



Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.