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  • Writer's pictureJustin Liang

The Business of Books

Inside the book industry’s existential crisis over whose stories deserve to be told.

By Justin Liang

Shaye Areheart, Director of the Columbia Publishing Course and veteran editor in the book business, has worked with the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, George Plimpton, Ray Bradbury, Martin Amis, Christopher Isherwood, and Sir Edmund Hillary. In her hour-long conversation with The Blue & White, she recounted episodes from her three-decade career which included picking up Forrest Gump from a then relatively unknown author. The last major title she discovered before quitting to head up the Columbia Publishing Course was Gone Girl. No one is more convinced of the value of physical books in a digital world than Shaye Areheart.

Walking around Morningside Heights, it is difficult to conceptualize books as an endangered species. After all, they can be found not only lining the rafters of a building right in the middle of campus, but also in the hands of students bent over their Homer and Marx, Austen and Woolf. Yet, to the chagrin of the Arehearts of this world, college campuses seem increasingly like zoos with books as their pandas: an endangered species more and more difficult to locate in the wild.

In 1950, Manhattan had 386 booksellers. Now it is down to less than 80. Downtown, the legendary Strand Books, having only recently averted its own closure, was once part of an ecosystem comprising over 50 used and antique booksellers on the stretch of Fourth Avenue between Union Square and Astor Place. Even Amazon, the contemporary retail behemoth, had to admit defeat when it recently announced the closure of its brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Still, there are signs that the tides are turning. Book sales rose measurably for the first time in decades during the pandemic’s first year, prompted perhaps by boredom and a desire for escape from the apocalyptic tidings borne online. Even non-readers may be unknowingly consuming literature by proxy: 70% of the world’s top 20 grossing films are based on books, with television adaptations not far behind. As a result, successful shows, such as Bridgerton and The Queen’s Gambit, have pushed their fans to pick up the books that inspired them in the first place. For all its faded luster, literature retains a privileged position as gatekeeper in the value chain of culture.

For all her experience as a linchpin of the literary world, Areheart occupies a surprisingly modest office in a corner of Columbia Journalism School, which is better known for hosting the Pulitzer Prize than for housing the Columbia Publishing Course. Still, the influence of the latter looms large in the book business. Its alumni include the CEO of Penguin Random House, the world’s largest trade publisher, alongside executives and senior editors across a range of other national imprints and magazines. Columbia’s course, which offers a six-week certificate program every summer in New York, is the oldest such program in the country. Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, it is widely considered a top feeder into the publishing industry.

Illustration by Vanessa Mendoza

Despite the cultural influence of the book business, it is a small and narrow world. After decades of industry consolidation, power is now concentrated in just five large publishing behemoths headquartered in Manhattan, which collectively represent over three quarters of the total market. Many of these “Big Five” are themselves part of larger media empires like News Corp. Last year, the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit to successfully block the proposed merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, arguing that excessive concentration would lead to lower advances to authors, as well as higher costs and less variety for readers. That same year, the Big Five were also hit with a class action lawsuit that alleged collusion to fix prices.

The past two years have seen the publishing industry at a crossroads: Even as book sales rose during the pandemic, the Big Five were facing renewed skepticism of their extraordinary power as the gatekeepers of the nation’s culture. These two trends collided with a third. As the nation convulsed under the shattering impact of a pandemic, it was also confronting anew the systemic problem of structural racism, which returned to the spotlight following the murder of George Floyd.

The results of a 2019 American publishing industry survey showed that 76% of respondents identified as white, and 74% as cis women. Among editors whose job it is to acquire new books, the percentage of white-identifying respondents increased to 85%. Analysis by the New York Times, meanwhile, showed that 89% of books published by the Big Five in 2018 were by white-identifying authors. These numbers are vastly at odds with the demographic composition of the United States.

Of course, the demographics of book readers tend to skew whiter, wealthier and more educated. A 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 25% and 38% of Black and Hispanic respondents did not pick up a book in the past twelve months, compared to 20% of white respondents. But this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: If fewer books are published that speak to minority audiences, then these audiences are less likely to buy books in the first place.

At Columbia, the longstanding debate over the Core Curriculum’s privileging of “dead white men” obscures the fact that contemporary literature is plagued by similar inequities. In some ways, the tide is actually going in the wrong direction: 2021 saw conservative attempts to ban books—typically those representing Black and LGBTQ perspectives—surge to their highest level in two decades in the United States.

“We need more diversity in the industry,” Areheart concedes. Columbia Publishing Course utilizes its location in New York to bring in a range of current industry practitioners, and she highlighted efforts to include guest lecturers and panelists from a variety of backgrounds. However, she confesses that more needs to be done to increase diversity in the student body. In part, this stems from the dearth of minority applicants: “We’re trying to do more outreach.”

Part of the problem is pay. Just a few years back, salaries for entry-level positions at the Big Five started at around $35,000, well below what was cited as necessary for survival in New York, one of the world’s most expensive cities. Starting salaries at smaller and independent publishing houses were even lower.

The result, as an opinion piece in Publishers Weekly remarked, is that the only students who could afford to get their foot in the door were those from wealthier backgrounds without student loan debt, whose families could supplement their incomes in the early years of their careers. The Columbia Publishing Course gives students a very high likelihood of stepping straight into paid roles, circumventing the unpaid internships that are often a rite of passage for new entrants. But with tuition, room, and board totaling over $9,000 for a six-week program, the price of admission is steep.

There are signs that the industry is becoming more inclusive and accessible. Last year, several of the big publishers and independent presses announced pay hikes to between $40,000 and $45,000. However, the draw of the publishing industry is only so much related to the monetary component. “It’s not going to be the same as going to work for an investment bank,” Areheart admits. But her students “don’t want to work for an investment bank … they want to work with creative people and ideas.”

Sabrina Castillo, a graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course, started working full time at Random House earlier this year. She cohabits with her partner—who earns a higher wage than her—in Chicago, citing the pandemic with allowing her to work remotely to offset the industry’s extreme concentration in a city as expensive as New York.

Castillo remarked that growing up in an immigrant household, not many members of her Latinx community were readers. Being a writer or an editor was outside the realm of imagination; her family and friends were always more focused on jobs that offered “financial security” for their immigrant parents. It was only after becoming an English major in college that she began to meet more like-minded peers. Castillo’s experience may help explain the dearth of minority applicants that Areheart referenced: There is simply not enough awareness.

Kitanna Hiromasa, another graduate of the program and now a publicity assistant at Riverhead Books, credits her family for inspiring her to pursue publishing. She recalled a second cousin who had worked as a literary agent, and her grandfather who had published a number of books. As a person of color, she recognizes that her family is more the exception than the norm. Because publishing is not necessarily a high-profile field, it relies more often on people who are already in the know to replenish its ranks.

Indeed, one more barrier to inclusion is the culture of the publishing industry, which remains centered around personal connections. “There’s a great deal to be said for networking,” according to Areheart. Some of this is intrinsic to the book business: Editors, agents, and writers must have a certain chemistry and build relationships over years to understand each other’s literary preferences and personalities. Areheart’s own break came just as she was graduating college when one of her professors, a nationally recognized poet, surprised her with a job offer to be his personal assistant.

Columbia Publishing Course can sometimes sound like a finishing school for the book business. According to Hiromasa, resumes and cover letters are worked over meticulously, while workshops simulate the experience of acquiring, pitching, contracting, and marketing new titles. But it can also be thought of as a bootcamp for networking: “You send thank-you notes to every single person that comes through to give a talk and it gets so much easier as you go on.” She also mentions the value of having Areheart as a mentor and ally, given she “holds such power in the publishing world.”

Siena Brown is a graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course who now works at W.W. Norton & Company. As a publishing professional who is half-Black and half-white, she is hopeful that she can become a role model for other women of color in what remains a culturally influential industry. “I want to give back to the community,” Brown says. “That’s part of the reason I want to be in this industry … but there are times when I am the only woman of color in a room … and that can be disheartening.” The fact that cis women comprise three quarters of the workforce only makes it more notable that white men continue to predominate in the upper echelons of management, where salaries and bonuses run in the six figures. The CEOs for four of the Big Five publishers in the United States are white and male.

Riley Hubby, an alumnus of the Columbia Publishing Course who now works in sales at Penguin Young Readers and is nonbinary and transgender, cites children’s publishing as an area especially in need of diversity. “This is where children see themselves in media for the first time. We’re very concerned with making sure that every child gets that experience.” Hubby continued, explaining that more diversity can help to “bring perspectives that cis straight colleagues might not be able to, not because of anything they’re doing wrong, but just because they have a different life experience.”

Brian Smith, who is a Black alumnus of the course, now works at Columbia University Press, where he is a member of its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee. Smith echoes the idea that diversity in publishing cannot be limited to just content alone. He mentioned instances when a Black author felt misunderstood by the way a white copyeditor approached their work. On the other hand, he cautions against a siloed “separate but equal” scheme where authors and editors are obliged to share the same background: There is still value in the cross-pollination of ideas and perspectives. Rather, the mere presence of different voices in a publishing team can help diversify the overall environment in which books are acquired, edited, and put out into the world.

One aspect of the acquisition process that has been particularly contentious of late is the compensation gap for non-white writers. “We talked a lot in the Columbia Publishing Course about authors of color getting paid less,” said Hiromasa. In particular, the year 2020 saw Black writers start the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe to underscore the discrepancy in their advances compared to their white counterparts. The writer Chip Creek, who is a white man, tweeted that “#PublishingPaidMe an $800k advance for my debut, which changed my life. I’m still in shock about it. But I’m more shocked to see the numbers from writers of color like the extraordinary Jesmyn Ward.” Ward, the first female fiction writer to ever win two National Book Awards, tweeted that “my agent and I fought and fought before we wrestled our way to” a mere $100k advance. The lack of diversity in publishing is not merely a cultural problem of authors of color being misunderstood. It is an economic issue, too, of their being literally undervalued.

The various obstacles to greater accessibility and inclusion in the book business, from the financial to the cultural and relational, make it imperative that publishing houses be more intentional about diversity. Providing more competitive salaries to level the playing field is only the first step. Hubby noted that publishers responded to a summer of activism in 2020 by renewing their commitments to diversifying new hires. Brown has even observed an increasing trend of publishing houses specifying that certain positions are open for all, but that people of color are especially encouraged to apply. While not a silver bullet in itself, this can be one more step on the way to bringing historically underrepresented communities into the fold.

No change is overnight, and the longevity of careers in the book business means that the upper echelons in particular will take time to diversify. “People love publishing. People who are editors, they want to stay there forever,” Brown observed. Today’s senior editors began their careers at a time when publishing was much less welcoming to women and people of color. “Seeing that very white, that very male hierarchy … can I even make my way up the ladder?” Brown said. “That’s what’s stopping people from applying.” It can be a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: A lack of diversity in leadership positions can dissuade people of color from entering the industry in the first place; but without more diverse entrants, those leadership structures will never change.

Concepción de León, a Black Latina graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course, was hired to join Pantheon, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday, as a senior nonfiction editor earlier this year. She was previously a reporter with The New York Times. She explained that after publishing companies’ reckoning with antiracism in 2020, many that had insufficient diversity in their own pipeline often turned to hiring from adjacent industries to more quickly diversify their senior ranks.

Nonprofits like We Need Diverse Books are hoping to turn the tide, offering programs such as internship grants to financially support marginalized students looking to work in publishing. However, as Hubby observed, it is not only a matter of bringing more diversity into the door: Retention is equally important. A program called Rise Up, for instance, targets mid-career publishing professionals, helping prevent burnout and building a support network for editors of color who might otherwise feel alone in their respective journeys. The Columbia Publishing Course, too, could potentially benefit from more targeted outreach, support, and financial aid programs.

Ultimately, there is only so much the book business itself can do to combat structural racism. Fundamental inequalities in household income and educational attainment weigh on the purchasing power of minority readers and this cannot be solved by books alone. Yet the publishing industry, which remains a gatekeeper of the multitudinous stories that populate our shelves and our screens, remains a powerful influence in our culture. And if, as Joan Didion suggested, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” then the stories we collectively choose to tell are determinative of who lives and thrives. Perhaps more diversity in the book business will prompt non-readers to turn a new page, convincing a new generation to appreciate books as much as Areheart does.


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