The book business is notoriously difficult to break into without the right connections. It is also notoriously white. But a two-year-old mentorship initiative, started by two editors in the Penguin Young Readers division of Penguin Random House, is working to change both of these facts—to the benefit of the business and aspiring publishing professionals alike.
“It came out of some conversations that we were having here at Penguin Young Readers about how we could improve diversity by attracting more diverse talent and becoming a more inclusive company as a whole,” said Joanna Cárdenas, an editor at the new Kokila imprint. She is also on the steering committee for Latinx in Publishing (see “Latinx in Publishing,” p. 15) and, along with Viking Children’s Books associate editorial director Kendra Levin, is one of the initiative’s cofounders.
“I found that the majority of people reaching out to me for informational interviews were white,” Levin said. “And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if I could be doing more of these interviews with people of color?’ ”
The conversations between Levin and Cárdenas resulted, in 2016, in the launch of the Representation Matters Mentorship Program (RMMP), a free program that connects aspiring publishing professionals who identify as people of color with industry insiders who teach them the ropes and help them land jobs. The roughly 150 mentors come from all over the industry, from adult publishers to children’s publishers and from the Big Five trade publishers to independent and academic houses. They are part of an all-volunteer staff that comprises the mentors in addition to six or seven volunteers for day-to-day operations and two reading committees to help process applications—four members on the kids’ side and four on the adult side.
Each mentee is paired with two mentors—one a junior member of the industry and one a senior member, each from different house. (To date, RMMP is an editorial-only program, although it hopes to expand into other departments in the industry in the future.) And each mentee has at least six hour-long conversations with his or her mentors, either in person or remotely, over a six-month period.
The program has already seen success, with its first alumnus finding a job in the industry through the program in January 2017 and 15 more matches made since then—some for internships and others for full-time jobs. And graduates have been effusive in their praises of the program.
Erika Turner is now an editorial project manager at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Verify imprint and has already acquired two books for the imprint, which launches in spring 2019. “RMMP really helps just in terms of literally getting a foot into the door,” she said. “It’s really hard to make connections if you haven’t had a series of internships, and if your background isn’t in publishing.” Turner is now close friends with her mentors, Kate Sullivan from Delacorte and Patrice Caldwell from Disney (who is the founder of PoC in Publishing); they helped her put together a résumé that landed her the HMH gig and an offer from Knopf, and they continue to have dinner with her frequently.
“Everyone talks about publishing being the last great apprenticeship,” Turner said. “This was a lot like that.”
Another alum, Wendolyne Sabrozo, who recently transitioned from a job at Atria Books to an assistantship to agent Johanna V. Castillo at Writers House, said the program made her feel “seen, important, and represented—especially from the stance of someone who was desperately trying to do all the right things to break into the industry.” She added, “The relationships with my mentors provided an outlet through which I could have honest conversations with somebody in the industry without feeling judged or misunderstood. This type of relationship was truly insightful.”
The group is weighing its options as to whether nonprofit status would be beneficial to its goals. But one thing is clear: Cárdenas and Levin don’t see this as a form of activism but as a program that benefits prospective publishing professionals and the industry alike.
“This isn’t an act of giving back so much,” Cárdenas said. “It is volunteer work, but it’s about access.”
Levin concurred: “It’s really a two-way street. Everybody gets as much value out of it as everybody else.” She added, “You don’t have to be an activist to change something that’s bothering you. You can do it by doing what comes naturally to you and what you enjoy doing.”