Are the Big Five Backing Up Their 2020 Promises?

Between the outrage over American Dirt, Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing, the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and #publishingpaidme, there has been tremendous pressure on the Big Five to do their part to decolonize book publishing. As a show of good faith, each of the Big Five publishing houses made public promises to be more socially conscious. We are now well into 2021, which is heralded as the year that is meant to save us from the horrors of 2020, so let’s see if the Big Five have made any progress on following through with their promises.
In the second half of 2020, both Hatchette Book Group and Penguin Random House reviewed their hiring practices and analyzed the diversity of their staff. Both houses claim to have plans to hire more BIPOC professionals and publish more books by people of color.
Hatchette also created a BIPOC specific imprint called Legacy Lit, which is headed by Krishan Trotman, a Black woman.
Simon & Schuster began the new year by canceling Senator Josh Hawley’s book, The Tyranny of Big Tech, following the Senator’s support of unsubstantiated claims that the November election was illegitimate. The day after the attacks on the capitol, the publishing house announced that they were pulling the book, claiming that Hawley’s dangerous rhetoric was a threat to democracy.
Then on January 14, Simon & Schuster announced a two-book deal for Black journalist Errin Haines, whose books will detail the role of Black women in politics. Haines is currently editor-at-large for The 19th, a “non-profit, non-partisan newsroom reporting on gender, politics, and policy.”
Simon & Schuster also hired Dana Canedy, a Black woman, as publisher of its adult publishing group.
Not bad, Simon & Schuster, not bad.
HarperCollins recently announced that their minimum salary will increase to $45,000 for employees in New York City and San Francisco. This should probably be implemented throughout the world, but it’s a start. Now, if we could just get them to increase advances for BIPOC authors as well.
It’s noteworthy to point out that the hiring page for HarperCollins internships now says that they are searching for candidates from traditionally underrepresented groups. It is difficult to say if this is simply a boilerplate addition to the job posting that was made in order to cover some diversity quota or if it is a true effort to diversify hiring.
A quick glance at the top five books on the New York Times Best-Seller list reveals that not much has changed in regard to BIPOC authors. Former President Barack Obama is holding strong at number one on the nonfiction list, followed by Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste at number five, and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, which is number four on the fiction list.
Hopefully, we will not only see more BIPOC authors at the top of these lists but also more book deals—and bigger advances— for these authors from the Big Five.
It’s great to see initial progress being made, but there is one thing that publishers haven’t touched in an effort to be more socially conscious: ebook price fixing. On January 14, the Big Five and Amazon were accused of ebook price fixing. The suit, which was filed in a New York district court, alleges that Amazon and the Big Five agreed to keep prices artificially high for other ebook sellers so that consumers will be more inclined to buy their ebooks from Amazon.
Just when it looked like the Big Five were actually trying to be socially conscious, capitalism once again reared its ugly head.
There are definitely some good starts here, and I hope that the Big Five continue making improvements to support BIPOC authors and their employees and using their platforms for good. While it is too early in the year to tell how the rest of 2021 will play out, here is hoping that diversity continues to be a priority.

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