What Does Lee and Low’s “Diversity Baseline Survey” Reveal About Equity in Publishing?

Many people are familiar with the term diversity, and many companies have created Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committees or positions to help move toward a more inclusive and equitable workspace. But what about publishing? How does equity play a role in publishing, and has there been any progress towards achieving more equity within the publishing industry? According to Lee and Low, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the world, the answer is no. Lee and Low created the Diversity Baseline Survey in 2015 and then updated the survey in 2019. Based on the differential data from 2015 to 2019, the publishing industry remains as white in 2019 as it was in 2015. According to the 2019 survey, “76 percent of publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents are white;” in 2015, that number was 79 percent. So, why is this important?

Literature shapes culture. When those who decide whose story gets told and how it gets told are predominantly white, our culture remains defined by whiteness. This is problematic because it doesn’t accurately represent the cultural make-up of America, and it hasn’t for a long time. If the industry hopes to make a transition into the future, it needs to recognize the value of stories told by traditionally underrepresented groups and start getting those stories out into American culture. One critical and encouraging piece of data from the Lee and Low survey shows that interns in the publishing industry are much more diverse than the rest of the industry: “Of the interns surveyed in 2019, 49 percent identify as BIPOC, 49 percent are on the LGBTQIA spectrum, and 22 percent identify as having a disability.” These numbers are encouraging, but it remains to be seen if these changes will bear out and if the interns will continue moving up in the industry.

Lee and Low assert that “the people behind the books serve as gatekeepers who can make a huge difference in determining which stories are amplified and which are shut out. If the people who work in publishing are not a diverse group, how can diverse voices truly be represented in its books?” One of the ways we can help create more literary equity in publishing is to begin hiring more diverse voices as acquisition managers and editors because those positions champion books and fight for them to be published. Though there are more diverse books being published, Lee and Low’s survey shows that editors are still overwhelmingly white (85 percent), and these are the people who are shepherding stories through the publication process.

Though it is encouraging to see that there are some shifts being made toward literary equity with the publication of more diverse books, the gains are still small and not nearly enough to create true equity. Lee and Low ask some thoughtful questions to consider: “Have recent conversations on bias and privilege changed your perspective on the systemic problems that exist in society today? Has your empathy grown or receded toward diverse causes in the last four years?” These are great questions for everyone involved in the publishing industry to ask themselves and those around them, and they are critical in the move toward more literary equity.

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