“Diversity in Publishing” Doesn’t Exist—But Here’s How it Can
Chris Jackson On How to Anchor an Abstract Question in Reality
The following essay is adapted from a talk given to the Association of American University Presses at its annual meeting in June 2016.
I’m often asked to speak about a thing that doesn’t actually exist: diversity in publishing. Ironically, I don’t think this is because people get any pleasure from hearing me talk about this thing that doesn’t exist, any more than they get pleasure from hearing strangers tediously relay the details of their dreams. And yet we keep talking about this abstraction, this thing that doesn’t exist, as if it could be conjured through the power of lectures and panel discussions.
The word itself has suffered from its failure to describe a reality. Diversity has become an empty, ugly, punishing sound, like a wave of coughs or the revving of a stalled engine. It’s in the category of thing that people generally agree with in principle, although they’re not exactly sure why they’re nodding their heads, and are confused about how to actually achieve—or perhaps not confused at all but worried that it will cost more than they’re willing to bear, which for many people might be any cost at all. But I think there are ways to anchor the question of diversity in publishing in reality—and ways to achieve it that will only grow the work we do to greater abundance, with no meaningful loss.
My own story of getting into publishing, a story about my own luck and the generosity of others, is illustrative in some ways. My first attempt at a real job in publishing was when I was called in for an interview at a strange small (now defunct) publisher called Paragon House. I had just graduated from high school when I came in for that interview and hadn’t yet enrolled in college. While still in high school I interned at a small book-packaging company, and the summer after I graduated, I freelanced for other small, weird publishers of the kind that used to dot New York City. It was a strange job choice for an 18-year-old, but I’d loved books and libraries and bookstores all my life. I had been raised in the projects, raised in an apocalyptic religion, primarily by my mother and a host of old ladies who still talked with southern accents and retraced the Great Migration every summer. Books had been my salvation on project playgrounds and in the backseat of our beat-up car driving back to North Carolina and back—first fantasy epics, then the hodgepodge of popular fiction my mother brought home from the library, then Kurt Vonnegut, which led to Joseph Heller and Herman Hesse and Celine, and then, awakened by hip-hop, I took a turn into the black arts movement, to Baraka and Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni, and then back to Ellison and Wright and Baldwin, and then forward again to Lorde and Reed and Bambara and Morrison.
There was little popular publishing for black readers, at least from mainstream publishers; what there was was done by small houses like Holloway House, who published thrillingly well-crafted pulp like Pimp by Iceberg Slim and the works of Donald Goines, which I found on the book tables of 125th Street in Harlem, where I lived. Up the street from those tables was Liberation Books, where I found works by Afrocentric scholars like Molefi Asante and John Henrik Clark. New York’s tonier independent bookstores back then used to look on black boys with the same suspicion, contempt, and fear as the rest of the city in that era of the Central Park Five and Bernie Goetz. I would mostly go to Barnes & Noble—there was only one in Manhattan back then, on 18th Street and 5th Avenue—a store large enough that no one really took mind of my presence. You could go to a Barnes & Noble and go to the black books section and see nothing but great literature. I’d just go through the books in that section one by one. All winners. These weren’t writers who were necessarily taught in my classes in school, but their work awakened me and transported me and reframed my own vision. I would dive into the worlds the books created and then look up from every page and notice that my own world was changing, too.
But I wasn’t ready to go to college—my father died when I was four, and my mother was very sick in my last year of high school and died that summer. The religion I was raised in forbade college—a prohibition which was an almost unnecessary additional impediment to most of the kids who were in it, or at least the ones I knew, who were already stuck in low-income housing and failing schools and living at the peak of the most murderous period in the city’s recent history. Still, I needed a job. I thought about driving a bread truck, like one of my close friends, or learning how to repair air conditioners. I tried to get a job as a security guard or loading freight or answering phones for the Better Business Bureau. I could not get any of these jobs.
“There are ways to anchor the question of diversity in publishing in reality—and ways to achieve it that will only grow the work we do to greater abundance, with no meaningful loss.”
But I did get that job at Paragon House. My high school internship led to summer work, and that led to an interview with the editor in chief at Paragon House. He came right out of central casting, or out of my own imagination of what an editor in chief might look like—I remember him, an impishly mischievous white man, jaded and ruefully grinning (or grimacing) all the time. Bald and round and always in rolled-up sleeves; in my memory he’s chomping on a cigar, but that seems unlikely. He told me in the interview that the company was owned by Korean businessmen. He laughed about the creative ways he was burning through the “Korean investors’” money, publishing the idiosyncratic books he loved in beautiful, award-winning, expensively designed packages. He hired whomever he wanted (as long as they wanted to work at Paragon House, which narrowed the field), and knew he could get away with it all as long as the company also published a series of esoteric conference proceedings the Korean investors insisted on.
I was 18. It sounded like fun, although I found his glee at sticking it to his investors peculiar and maybe a little racist—this was 1990, a time when fear of rising Asian power was at one of its periodic peaks. I sat in his office for hours. We talked about the books we were reading. He pulled some books about publishing off his shelves and gave them to me—Scott Berg’s biography of Maxwell Perkins among them. I found the whole scene intoxicating—the buzzing office, the book talk, the idea that I was following in the footsteps of Maxwell Perkins, whoever he was, and that I was looking, finally, at literature’s workshop up close and possibly taking a place in it.
The editor in chief asked me to immediately do some part-time work on a probationary basis, filling in for an assistant editor who’d gone off on a some long, exotic-seeming journey. I walked out of the interview into a cubicle, and the first task I was given was to type a rejection letter, the first, maybe, of millions. A busy-looking editor came over and quickly dictated the letter to me while I scrambled to write it all down on a pad. Then I pulled my chair up to the typewriter, eager to prove myself, and realized that I had no idea how to type a letter. I’d never typed a letter in my life. Where on the page do you start? I decided to start at the upper left-hand corner of the page, tight against the edge of the paper. I didn’t really understand margins, so the whole letter sat up at the top left corner of the page. I typed the letter quickly—I was at least a fast typist—and handed it over to the editor, who, I remember, was smoking a cigarette in her office at the time. She looked at the letter—in my memory it was stained with the sweat of my anxiety—and shook her head. “You have no idea how to do this, do you?” she asked.
And then she told me how to do it. And then they hired me.
Now the job, it turned out, was a little crazy. The Korean investors turned out to be Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. The back-office staff was made up entirely of church members, many of whom were married to each other. But the editorial staff was made up of secular, frankly godless, publishing romantics. A French editor who handled our translation projects took me out once a week for a lunch of mimosas and a little book club—she wanted me to read all of Faulkner with her. A freelance lawyer with whom I worked to create a contract boilerplate—well, I typed it—taught me all about publishing contracts and law. Two exotically beautiful assistant editors—one a salty, militantly bohemian English man who’d just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in advanced mathematics, the other a young black woman with dreads who’d just finished at the New School—did their best to corrupt me after hours and with more reading assignments: Anaïs Nin, Rimbaud; Didion, Hunter Thompson; Luc Sante, Barthes, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Amos Tutuola. I worked there for less than two years, mostly part time, and eventually enrolled at Columbia, but I never looked back; I worked in and around books and publishing more or less from that point forward.
So what does this say about the way publishing can diversify? Well, a few things. First: I was not, to put it lightly, qualified for the job in a technical sense. I was a recent high school graduate. I’d never worked in an office before. I didn’t have a résumé and didn’t even know how to type a letter. I’d read deeply in certain areas but in the style of an autodidact, not a scholar. But I was passionate about the work. I was willing to learn. And I became an asset to that strange company, instead of a likely terrible security guard.
Publishing, it turns out, is a job you can learn while doing, if people are willing to help a little. I was lucky to find my way into a publishing house that was not constrained by corporate hiring practices, so they could take a risk on someone like me. Those of us in publishing are here—at least this is what I believe, in my heart of hearts—because we love literature and ideas and we want to share those ideas. There is a kind of generosity at the heart of publishing: in fact, that generosity is the engine of the business—our work is premised on our irrepressible impulse to share ideas and art, to tell stories. And this impulse—the sharing of knowledge, the sharing of art—is what allowed me to get a foothold in the business itself. The people I worked with didn’t expect me to arrive fully formed, and they loved the opportunity my massive ignorance presented: they could teach me even as I was assisting them. It gave them a chance to articulate and rethink and even question how they worked, what they thought they knew—and whether Faulkner was actually any good or not. It was an exchange that strengthened all of us.
“Publishing, it turns out, is a job you can learn while doing, if people are willing to help a little.”
Today, too often I see the opposite in book publishing. It is, despite its periodic challenges, a competitive business to get into, and editorial assistant openings usually generate a pile of great résumés and recommendations from colleagues. But I try to think about my job as not just hiring the person whose credentials add to my own status; or even, necessarily, hiring someone who is ready to do the job on day one. The job is fairly uncomplicated at the technical level—what’s important is that you be able to read and write exceptionally well and that you think and care deeply about art and ideas and stories, traits that people with multiple degrees might never cultivate, but that an 18-year-old for whom books and stories and ideas are a salvation might. It takes five minutes to learn how to format a letter; it takes a week to learn most of the internal systems of a company. Every new hire is a chance for me to learn something new in teaching them—to question something I thought I knew, to have my ideas challenged, to have my status quo in some way shifted. And in publishing, those opportunities are far more valuable than a premastery of technical knowledge that can be easily learned on the job. And yet a lack of credentials, connections, and certain forms of experience can sometimes bar people at the entry level. They never even get in the door.
I’ve taught at the City College Publishing Institute—and I also work sometimes at the Columbia Publishing Course—and can see firsthand how brilliant students at CCNY are sometimes handicapped by a lack of social capital and certain forms of easily acquired technical knowledge, by a lack of confidence, and by not even knowing what’s expected of them, whereas the kids who come through the far more expensive Columbia program are more polished and likely to be hired, but no smarter or more likely to contribute in substantive ways to the mission of a publishing house. Educational institutions should do more to prepare those students from less wealthy backgrounds—and publishers can contribute to helping schools that serve working-class and poor and African American and immigrant students—but on our side, the hiring side, we should think about what the true qualifica- tions for these jobs are, what can be taught and what can’t. We’re all strapped for time and resources, but there’s no better way to sustain the status quo than to refuse to take chances, even chances that might put us as some risk.
What’s the payoff of having a more diverse workforce? Well, there’s obviously the moral case to be made—and that’s a case that I think applies to any industry. But in book publishing, I think we have a special obligation, given our central role in shaping the culture. I hope a couple of stories will show how I’ve come to this idea.
One of the authors I’ve worked with is Eddie Huang. Eddie is Taiwanese American and a cultural sponge. He’s a brilliant polymath, and as a writer he’s trying to build a fresh idiom out of the languages that mix and merge in his own consciousness. The language is sometimes obscure, sometimes vulgar—it takes from Mandarin and hip-hop and feminist theory and a million other idioms. But it’s also often beautiful, and using this new language he is able to say new things about the world.
I published his first book, Fresh off the Boat, at the house where I worked before my current one. Some readers loved the book—it was a bestseller—but some people found the language jarring. One of my bosses at that publishing company actually asked me to go back into the now-published, bestselling book and edit out the more obscure references and the passages she found vulgar. It was pretty astonishing. I refused, of course, because I felt like what Eddie was up to was something that I kind of wanted her to find vulgar and maybe even obscure. Because for a certain audience, reading Eddie’s work was the moment when they finally felt their own language reflected in a book.
One night recently Eddie and I had a public conversation about his second book, Double Cup Love. The event was in a packed room full of black readers, and Asian American readers, and white readers, and Native American readers, who all responded with passion and gratitude to the same language that this colleague of mine had found so vulgar that she thought some of it should be excised from Eddie’s work. For this second book Eddie appeared on NPR and The Daily Show and hip-hop radio stations and on the front page of the arts section of the New York Times. The world was catching up to what he’s doing—and even as he evolved, at no point did he feel like he had to compromise his voice to achieve this effect, which was part of what I thought of as my role: to protect him from the pressure to conform to the gaze of the dominant culture. I knew from my own life experience as an outsider what can be lost when we aren’t allowed to speak our own languages—the ways meaning and nuance are diminished, the way some stories go untold altogether, or are told wrong.
In 2015 Marlon James wrote about how writers, sometimes without realizing it, pander to the person they imagine to be the gatekeeper and how we are all poorer for it. Marlon, who won the Booker Prize that year, has since told me that there were books he wanted to write but never did because he knew they’d be written in vain, because that imagined gatekeeper would reject them. And based on my experience, he may have been wise not to try. When we expand the range of the industry’s gatekeepers, we expand the range of our storytelling, which expands our ability to see each other, to talk and listen to each other, and to understand each other. It allows more people to see themselves represented in literature; and it allows the rest of us to listen in, to understand our neighbors and fellow citizens, their lives and concerns, their grievances and their beauty, their stories and ideas, their language. The empathic bridges this creates between us is one of the essential functions of literature in a democracy. But it can only happen if we widen the gates of literature and diversify the gatekeepers.
Another quick story about the value of diversity: In 2015 I published a book called Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I had met Ta-Nehisi a dozen or so years earlier—we were set up on a lunch date by his agent, the remarkable Gloria Loomis, because she felt like we should get to know each other. We were both youngish black men, from somewhat similar backgrounds and with some of the same tastes and interests, so she thought we should meet. We met by his office at the Village Voice and talked for hours about a book idea he had about his own father, a Black Panther and a radical publisher and an aggressive proponent of free love. We eventually shaped that idea into his first memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, which I bought for a few thousand dollars—I was, it happens, the only person who even wanted to bid on the book. I thought Ta-Nehisi was a brilliant writer and a fascinating thinker, if not particularly well credentialed at that point in his life. But he was a writer. What he didn’t know about writing a memoir—which was a lot—he would learn or, better yet, ignore. By the time he started working on The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nehisi had quit the Village Voice and lost a pretty terrible job at Time magazine. He was blogging to an audience of dozens. But I felt like the story he was telling—of growing up in a radical household in the drug and murder-scarred 1980s in a Baltimore not so dissimilar from the Harlem of my own childhood—was a vital and largely untold one. So together we took a chance.
“When we expand the range of the industry’s gatekeepers, we expand the range of our storytelling, which expands our ability to see each other, to talk and listen to each other, and to understand each other.”
That book has now sold over 100,000 copies, but when it was first published, it didn’t do much business. But Ta-Nehisi and I had developed a creative connection and spent some years concocting another book idea, one about the Civil War based on his immersion in history and scholarship of that era. By this point Ta-Nehisi had been brought onto the staff of the Atlantic. While we contemplated that Civil War book, Ta-Nehisi wrote one blockbuster magazine piece after another, culminating in his award-winning “The Case for Reparations.” As the drumbeat of murders of young black folks—starting with Trayvon Martin and then on to too many men, women, and children to name—got louder and louder in recent years, Ta-Nehisi and I talked about attempting a book that would address the crisis and the anguish we were feeling about it. At Ta-Nehisi’s recommendation, we decided to reread, together, Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. When he finished his reading, Ta-Nehisi called me and asked: Why don’t people write books like this anymore? And I said, You should try. So he did.
We went through several drafts and many more arguments—Ta-Nehisi and I always argue, but, I like to think, we argue like brothers, people who fundamentally believe in each other’s integrity and our sense of common cause. And, of course, he wins most of the arguments because it’s his book—and I’m usually, eventually, grudgingly, grateful to take the loss. Eventually the book—Between the World and Me—came out and became a sensation: selling over a million copies, winning a National Book Award, and in some ways changing the conversation about racist violence in this country.
Would that book have been the same without a black editor working on it? I’m not sure. I really don’t know and wouldn’t want to speculate, but what I do know is that the relationship I developed with Ta-Nehisi was rooted in his trust that I was not trying to soften his message or channel him into a position of pandering. He knew that I understood in an intimate way the human consequences of white supremacy. It allowed for a deep collaboration and, I think, a special book.
At the time of writing this piece, I’m preparing to relaunch an old imprint at Random House called One World. Rather than just cranking up the engine on a typical publishing imprint, my dream is to treat it in a prefigurative way—to create, in a small corner of the Random House building, the model for what I think all of publishing should look like, what the world in some sense should look like. It will be an attempt to bring some meaning back to that shell “diversity,” to actually put the concept into action, to give it blood and life. That will inform the way we hire, the way we acquire, edit, and publish books, and the ways we cultivate audiences. This will require some work and time, but what it won’t require is a diminution in the quality, or even commercial prospects, of the imprint. It will only make it stronger. I believe in book publishing, in its capacity to help us all retrace our paths back into history, to see the present in all its complexity, and to imagine different futures. To do that we have to build a publishing industry—at all levels of publishing—that honors the potential, the complexity, and the fullness of the world itself.
From What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing, ed. Peter Ginna. Used with permission of University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 2017 by Chris Jackson.