Some editors, like Lucas, are trying to figure out how to do the same for the vast swathes of America that big publishers have mostly ignored. Complicating this effort is a long history of neglect, in turn linked to the fact that, until recently, publishers have not taken diversity seriously within their own professional ranks. In interviews with more than 50 current and former book professionals and authors, I heard about previous failed attempts to cultivate black audiences and an industrial culture still struggling to overcome the clubby, white elitism into which it was born . As Lucas sees it, the future of book publishing will be determined not only by his new hires, but also by how he answers this question: instead of fighting for pieces of a shrinking pie, can publishers work to increase readership for everyone?
When I entered In the world of book publishing—where I spent two years as an assistant and another 16 years as a book review editor, critic, and reporter—Barbara Epler, now editor of New Directions, warned me that the starting pay was abysmal, in large part because publishers think so assumed that only a few of their newcomers would have to make a living from it: in the past, salaries were considered “clothing money”. She said it with an indignant laugh, and I thought it was a joke, but I soon found that she was right. When I joined Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1997, I was making $25,000 a year for a job that required a college degree, industry experience, and often in excess of 60 hours a week. I could have made more money with the temp work. Over the years, publishers have been reluctant to raise wages. In 2018, the median salary for an editorial assistant was $38,000, according to a Publishers Weekly industry survey.
For much of its history, book publishing, particularly literary publishing, was an industry established and operated by wealthy white men. One of the founders of Farrar, Straus & Giroux was Roger Straus Jr., whose mother was an heiress to the Guggenheim fortune and whose family ran Macy’s department store. Grove Press was owned by Barney Rosset, whose father owned banks in Chicago. When Bennett Cerf, the son of a tobacco heiress, bought the Modern Library, which was renamed Random House in 1927, he and partner Donald Klopfer brought $100,000 each to the table — about $1.7 million today.
Up until the 1960s, American literature was characterized by black authors needing white publishers to gain national recognition. In her recent article for Publishers Weekly, “Black Publishing in High Cotton,” Tracy Sherrod, editor-in-chief at Little, Brown — who served as editorial director of the black-issue imprint Amistad Press for nine years — notes that both poet Langston Hughes and the Novelist Nella Larsen got book deals in the 1920s with the help of Blanche Knopf, an editor at the renowned publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. After that, you could always point to a few great black authors published by New York publishers. However, white editors did not necessarily see themselves as service providers to black readers.
“There is a subgenre of the essay in the African-American literary tradition that can be loosely referred to as What White Publishers Won’t Print,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., professor of English studies at Harvard University. Both James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston wrote more or less essays with this title. Gates said, “Among Black writers for nearly 100 years there has been an awareness of the racial limitations and prejudices of the American publishing industry.” For example, Richard Wright, whose 1940 novel Native Son sold 215,000 copies in three weeks, still saw the half of his 1945 memoir Black Boy to please the Book-of-the-Month club, which had an audience of white, middle-class readers.
Pressured by the civil rights movement, America’s major publishing houses made their first attempt to serve a more diversified market in the 1960s. Teachers and school boards in cities like Chicago and New York called for textbooks that acknowledge the stories and experiences of non-white Americans. On Capitol Hill in 1966, as part of the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on De Facto Segregation, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Democrat of New York, examined the depiction of minorities in classroom writing. His hearings revealed that only one black editor headed one of the new textbook lines the publishers had launched: Charles F. Harris of Doubleday and Company. In response to this revelation, many publishers began hiring black editors for their education departments, and some of those editors later moved into the general trade books departments of the companies as well. “Those were the glory days,” Marie Brown, who was hired by Doubleday in 1967, told me. “We Were Invited” Among the newcomers was future Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who was working in a science department at Random House while writing her first novel, The Bluest Eye.