The pervasive lack of diversity within the book publishing industry, both in terms of the composition of the workforce and the types of books being produced, has been the subject of numerous surveys and discussions, and the inspiration for the We Need Diverse Books and #ownvoices movements. Publishing staffers from a number of houses and agencies have recently gathered to form People of Color in Publishing, a grassroots organization addressing the need for greater inclusivity within all areas of children’s and adult publishing. The group was founded this past July by Patrice Caldwell, associate editor at Disney-Hyperion, with the aim of “supporting, empowering, and uplifting racially and ethnically marginalized members throughout the industry.” An official launch event was held on December 6 in New York City.
During its first year, the group has held events, webinars, and programming to foster career development for professionals of non-majority backgrounds. In early 2017, the organization partnered with Latinx in Publishing to host a Three Kings Day event with Chris Jackson—v-p, publisher, and editor-in-chief of Random House’s OneWorld imprint—and a free Webex webinar for students interested in learning about publishing career options. People of Color in Publishing has also organized meetings and discussions for employees to connect year-round and during conferences such as BookExpo.
Founder Caldwell told PW, “The idea for the group came from wanting a safe space for people of color within the publishing industry. I wanted a place for activism and organizing, where we could vent our frustrations but also work towards solutions.” The core members of the team came together during the summer, after Lee Low marketing and publicity assistant Jalissa Corrie reached out to Caldwell, whom she’d met through online networking. According to Caldwell, who worked at Scholastic at the time, “I got an email from Jalissa, asking me how I seemed to know all of these people of color within the industry. I realized it was because of the mentors I had, and decided why not create [a group].”
Following that initial email, Caldwell quickly turned to her peers for support. “I remember running from my desk, around the corner into [Scholastic v-p and editor-at-large] Andrea Davis Pinkney’s office. Andrea has been a mentor of mine for a while, and [she] encouraged me to start [a group]. My friend Kait Feldmann, who was Andrea’s assistant at the time, was there and we immediately got to brainstorming.”
To date, People of Color in Publishing’s private Facebook group connects more than 470 members, many of which support the organization’s work through participation on five subcommittees. Porscha Burke and Saraciea Fennell, co-chairs of the PR and Communications subcommittee, are responsible for managing the organization’s social media outreach, blog, and growing newsletter. Burke, who is a publishing manager at Random House, joined the group in its initial stages. “Colleagues added me to the Facebook group in its early days, when it was still called Young People of Color in Publishing, and despite being older than everyone else, I was inspired to join and help them develop as a community and as a resource for publishing employees, writers, and illustrators,” she said.
Fennell, who is a freelance publicist and formerly worked at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, said, “Our goals are to continue to build our platforms and connect even more meaningfully with current industry insiders, while also helping advance opportunities for other people of color to break into publishing.” Fennell is also involved with Latinx in Publishing, and described plans for continued partnerships, including another Three King’s Day event next month with National Book Award finalist Erika L. Sánchez.
Ebony LaDelle, senior marketing manager in HarperCollins’s YA division, joined the group via Fennell’s invitation and became co-chair of the Outreach and Partnerships subcommittee following Emi Ikkanda’s departure in September. A particular focus of the committee is on reaching out to individuals of diverse backgrounds who are working to break into the business. “During our first meeting, we discussed where we’re from and how we got into publishing, and realized we all had nontraditional but similar stories. It seemed like navigating your way through publishing and finding a job was like searching for a needle in a haystack, so we’ve made sure that our goals reflected POC who may not have the same access or resources,” she said.
So far, LaDelle has seen an “extremely positive and supportive reaction” to the organization from members of the larger publishing community, though she described the work that remains to be done. “I do think there’s an assumption that the industry is already tirelessly trying to hire people of color, which is not totally true. At the end of the day, it’s up to hiring managers and colleagues who are passing along resumes for recommendation, and the people in our group are becoming the hiring managers and colleagues that can bring more people in.”
In addition to recruitment of diverse staffers, the group is also dedicated to supporting individuals of color who are already established in the industry. Saba Sulaiman, an associate agent at Talcott Notch Literary Services, serves as co-chair for the Mentorship and Retention Committee, alongside fellow literary agent Beth Phelan. “We focus on identifying and addressing the challenges currently faced by young publishing professionals of color or of Native origin, with respect to reaching their career goals. Our major goal for next year is to facilitate a mentorship program in order to enable young POC publishing professionals to seek guidance from more senior members regarding career planning and advancement,” Sulaiman said.
People of Color in Publishing is also committed to serving the needs of diverse authors and illustrators. A member of the group since its early stages, Jalissa Corrie is now co-chair of the Writers and Illustrators subcommittee, which she said is working “to better serve the needs of writers and illustrators of color including Native/Indigenous writers and illustrators.” One of the group’s first projects has been to design and distribute a survey assessing the needs of diverse children’s book creators. “Overall, the writers and illustrators who have completed the survey are thrilled that we, as an organization, are dedicated to [assessing] their needs so that their voices will be heard,” Corrie said.
Off to a Good Start
On December 6, People of Color in Publishing held an official launch event, open to all members of the publishing community, at the Society of Illustrators in New York City. There was a line out the door to enter the sold-out event, which had been relocated from its original venue to accommodate the crowd. The event was sponsored by Gallt Zacker Literary Agency, Lee Low, Scholastic, the Children’s Book Council, and Inkluded.
Caldwell said of the decision to host the celebration one year after forming the group, “We thought about launching publicly earlier, but I’m really glad we waited. We have done some amazing things in this year and the extra time allowed us to really hone our mission and the way we work together.”
During the launch, Caldwell and fellow members of the various subcommittees introduced themselves and their group’s mission, and revealed the official logo. Addressing the need for a wider range of “mirrors and windows” for readers and publishing staffers alike, Caldwell said, “We often forget the most powerful mirrors and windows are people—role models to look up to. It’s never just about books.” She spoke of her group’s mission to “find the [diverse] talent, and ask them what they need to succeed.” Caldwell offered a final word of encouragement to her peers: “You are all unstoppable.”
Next, Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander took the stage to deliver the keynote address. He stressed that diverse books are for all readers. “The books don’t necessarily segregate themselves; we do that,” he said. Alexander echoed Caldwell’s statement on the importance of hard work, determination, and mentorship, saying, “I am a 24-year overnight success.” The author cited his friend and former professor Nikki Giovanni as someone who helped shape his career. He concluded by telling aspiring authors and publishers, “You have to be willing to be mentored. Always be present and say ‘yes’ to that opportunity. If it was meant to be, it will be.”
Buoyed by the success of the group’s first year, Caldwell and the rest of the team are looking toward future goals, including potential partnerships with the We Need Diverse Books internship program. Though all agreed that much work remains to be done, they are encouraged by the community’s growing support. As Caldwell said to the attendees during the launch event, “By stepping inside these walls tonight, you’re moving beyond just asking, ‘Why is publishing so white?’ ”