Publishing is not diverse, that’s a fact, and though there is some progress happening, the lack of representation at all levels is still stark. Of the thousands of professionals who make up publishing, from editors to agents to writers to illustrators, only 8 percent are Latinx. And if we look even further at, say, Penguin Random House, a member of the elite circle of powerhouse publishing houses known as the Big 5, data found that only 5 percent of its authors, illustrators, and translators were Latinx, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office commissioned by Rep. Joaquin Castro earlier this year. It’s become so dire that seven Latinx-led organizations formed a coalition to address the lack of Latinx talent in every aspect of the publishing industry.
But is it enough? Is it enough to hire and recruit more people from the Latinx community and expect diversity and equity to naturally follow without proper attention, support, care, and retention? If not, where do we go when the industry is so monopolized that the Big 5 might as well be owned by the same people? Having worked in various avenues of publishing, from traditional to indie to the space in between, Toni Kirkpatrick, Kiara Valdez, Monica Rodriguez, Davina Ferreira, and Naibe Reynoso spoke to HipLatina about their experiences navigating a system that wasn’t designed to share our stories in the first place.
Across the board, publishing is designed to be confusing, where not every publishing house is created equal and hierarchies exist to an almost exhausting degree. At the top is traditional publishing ruled by the Big 5, where authors have the least creative control over their own work but the more money set aside for marketing, publicity, and book tours, and therefore the most potential money to make. Below that is indie publishing, which is made up of self-funded, donation-based, or non-profit presses run by a team of volunteers that may not have as much funds to market books but are nonetheless eager to work in partnership with authors and make their titles a success. Finally, there is the self-publishing route where authors have full creative control over every aspect of the book production process and yet run the risk of not being taken seriously by bookstores, media outlets, or even other writers. At every level, there is a constant give and take, sacrificing control for prestige, creativity and self-expression for respect. And that’s not even touching the weeds of genres, which ones are read widely and promoted and chosen for awards or book clubs, and which ones are left behind. For decades, publishing has become a tangled web that is difficult to navigate and even harder to undo even by people who work in the field.
Having worked in traditional publishing since 2004, Toni Kirkpatrick has become a bit of an expert when it comes to discussing how much, and yet how little, the industry has changed. Before transitioning to her current role at the indie press Crooked Lane Books, she started out as an Editorial Assistant at St. Martin’s Press, owned by Big 5 house Macmillan. For over a decade, she was the only Latine editor at her imprint.
“We need to remember, the houses did not decide to value diversity on their own. They had to be called out,” she explains. Because though they had published a few Latinx titles during her time there and even paid for her to attend a Latina-led literary conference, the commitment wasn’t there. “I really didn’t get the sense that Latine writers were sought after at all. There was no inherent excitement for Latine authors and their stories. And I saw it makes a big difference for a book when there are people in several departments who are excited about it, not just the editor. I feel my interest in Latine authors was tolerated, not encouraged,” she adds.
She recounts instances in recent years of hearing hiring managers from other publishing houses reaffirm their commitment to diversity, only to turn around and hire another white, non-Latinx staff member, even if they weren’t the most qualified applicant. There was so much more they could’ve done had they been authentic and committed to diversity and inclusion. This belief continues to fuel her current work as a board member of Latinx in Publishing, which brings Latinx publishing professionals together to offer resources, support, mentorship, and professional development, help increase the number of Latines in publishing, and uplift Latinx-authored publications. Over the years, the work they do, as she’s seen, is necessary if we want the industry to change from the inside.
“If you don’t have people of color on staff, it’s still going to be white editors choosing which stories by people of color to publish, and it’s still going to be white publishers and marketing people deciding how to publish them. And when it comes down to it, that means marginalized communities are still without any real power or voice,” she says.
Yet, as Kiara Valdez experienced, being hired is only the first step, a band-aid to what has proven to be a much bigger problem in today’s landscape. As an editor at First Second, a graphic novel imprint also owned by Macmillan, and the only woman of color at her imprint when she started out seven years ago, she’s had a mixed bag of experiences. On one hand, she emphasizes that she wouldn’t trade her job for anything. She feels lucky to be working in an environment that supports her goal to publish stories for, about, and by people of color to “make people feel seen, especially the younger me,” and that her superiors have hired more people of color to work alongside her.
At the same time, she shares that it’s been a long seven years of frustration, racist interactions at publishing events, and harmful work-life balance. For a time, she was burnt out because she was always taking her work home, working past the 9-5 workday and on weekends, a practice that continues to be the norm across the industry. It’s taken time for her to fall back in love with her job, put up realistic boundaries for herself, and encourage others to do the same. But the problem that always persists is the hypocrisy of an industry that keeps making promises about including more diversity in the business, only for the responsibility to fall back on the shoulders of the few people of color who already work there.
Staff like her, she says, are always expected to be mentors to aspiring publishing professionals, say yes to all the conference panels, be intentional about every business decision, work to an unrealistic standard of perfection, fight against white people who once felt guilty and agreed to everything because of Black Lives Matter and now have no interest in diversity three years after the fact. Every failure is proof to the industry that people of color don’t read, and every success puts more pressure on them to keep making history again and again.
“We literally cannot rest. As an editor of color, you can’t just do your job, you have to do everything around it,” she explains. “You have to fight for your books harder than anyone. You have to care so much more about your culture being represented. You’re always expected to always bring the ladder up, to open doors. You have to make sure you’re acquiring people of color. Every decision can make or break the next book, or another book might make it because you made it. You are relied upon 10 times more than any other than any white editor in the industry. And it’s exhausting. There’s just so much more on our shoulders.”
But it’s not just Latinas within the industry who feel like it’s been designed to keep our community out. As a literary agent, Monica Rodriguez functions as the middle ground between publishing houses and authors, whose work would otherwise go into an editor’s slush pile. Her whole job works from the outside, trying to break the thick walls of publishing in order to sell books to editors like Kiara and Toni. It’s an important job and yet one that also requires a certain degree of privilege, patience, and the understanding that success is few and far between. Because agents work off commission, it’s easy for it to become an all-consuming 9-5 job without any immediate financial reward, making the job accessible to only a select number of people who have both the time and other means of making a living. And the people whom this setup most affects are, of course, from marginalized communities.
“It’s like the industry and that side of it is set up for you to sink or swim,” she says.
Still, from her perspective, Rodriguez is seeing more demand for diversity from her perspective and in her position, she is more than enthusiastic to answer the call. When it comes to choosing which writers she represents, she prioritizes people of color and makes sure to reach out to editors of color at both Big 5 houses and indie presses. However, what she feels still needs to change is the degree of transparency when it comes to helping authors, agents, and editors of color navigate this industry. As she’s seen, it’s not enough to merely recruit Latinx talent. It’s also about giving them the support, resources, tools, skills, knowledge, and information they need to thrive in an industry that is perhaps more white-dominated and western-centric than ever before in its hiring, work, and business practices.
There are many willing to make the sacrifices and do the hard work needed to integrate into this system and change it from the inside. But then there are others like Davina Ferreira and Naibe Reynoso who have decided to take this journey independently, taking total creative control over the stories of our community into their own hands by starting indie presses.
Ferreira initially founded Alegria Press as a magazine, which then blossomed into a press that exclusively publishes Latinx-authored books across genres like poetry and nonfiction, as well as more experimental work. From the beginning, she wanted to ensure that the entire structure of the business would benefit writers, going as far as to split royalties in half between the author and Alegria. When the industry standard is at most 15 percent, it’s clear that her approach is completely community-oriented. She also continues opening up opportunities for her list of authors even after their book is published through open mics and other community events. The grassroots approach is essential considering her press doesn’t have the financial advantage to send authors on tour or support big publicity campaigns, which she says leads to the stigma that indie presses often face from others in the industry. But what she truly values are her authors, their voices, and their stories, no matter where they may be in their careers.
“We value the art over the commercial aspect and we bet on these authors from like day one,” she says. “Of course, we have authors that have a lot more experience and following but many of our authors and poets are just pure talent, and that is a beautiful aspect of our community.”
Reynoso, meanwhile, had zero experience in the publishing industry outside of her job as a journalist prior to founding Con Todo Press, which publishes nonfiction picture books for children and offers individual coaching to aspiring authors, school visits, and book donations. But as a mother, it was important to her to fill that gap where she saw not enough books being published for Latinx children, especially bilingual ones. After all, the books we read when we’re young, as well as the ones we don’t, have the potential to impact us for the rest of our lives—our self-esteem, our place in the world, our view of ourselves and our loved ones. Especially considering the political climate of 2015 when she first got the idea, it became more essential that kids from our community had a safe place to turn to and a reason to feel empowered and connected to their culture amid so much hate directed to the community at the time.
“It was something that I felt was needed. It wasn’t just a game or an experiment. It was something that I felt was deeply needed to have more options of books for Latinos of all ages to see themselves reflected to see that their culture is celebrated, honored, and highlighted. Because why should a country that has 20 percent Latinos where we are interwoven into the history of this country? Why should we be ignored? Why should our stories be invisible?”
Across publishing, it’s clear there is no easy path, each with its own setbacks, frustrations, and potential for success. Yet, for all the pain and discomfort, everyone agrees that the work is worth it. That advocating for our communities is worth it. That inclusion of our community can only work when we’re actually given the tools and transparency to do our jobs meaningfully and we’re not the only ones carrying the burden on our shoulders. Within the Latinx community, it’s easy to paint the industry as a competition, as an “us vs. them,” and it has been plenty of times. But as Ferreira and Reynoso point out, there’s the possibility for these various sides to work together in that mission and support one another across the lines we’ve imposed upon ourselves as well as those established from what seems like the start. That can look like advocating for each other at retailers or supporting one another at conferences or just respecting and recognizing the work we do. At the end of the day, the goal is the same in that Big 5 and indie publishers are all trying to accomplish the same thing, just in different ways: to share great stories and celebrate great writers. Ferreira notes:
“How can we benefit each other? The Big 5 has a lot to gain from creating more social impact, becoming more in tune with today’s audiences and the diversity and beauty of so many authors of color out there. And independent presses and businesses can benefit so much from the knowledge and insight of these big companies that quite honestly dominate and have dominated the publishing world. More than saying what they’re doing wrong or what we’re doing right, my dream is to create more connection between the big companies and the indie world, and see how we can mutually support communities of color and underrepresented creatives.”