On the eve of Book Expo America (BEA) and BookCon, publishing industry expatriates Jennifer Pan and Sarah McCarry conducted an extended written conversation on why they chose to leave publishing.
Sarah McCarry is the author of the novels All Our Pretty Songs and Dirty Wings, and the editor and publisher of Guillotine, a nonfiction chapbook series. Before she jumped ship for good she worked and/or interned for four different literary agents and two small presses.
Jennifer Pan is an assistant editor at Jacobin magazine. She has written for Jacobin, Dissent, and The Margins. She has worked at two indie presses and two literary nonprofits.
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Jennifer Pan: Over the last few months, a small storm has been building around the issue of diversity (or rather, the lack thereof) in publishing. This has ranged from people pointing out the overwhelmingly white editorial staffs of new and/or progressive journalism ventures to people discussing the lack of visible characters of color in YA literature. Most recently, #WeNeedDiverseBooks — a hashtag started in response to BookCon’s all-white lineup and subsequent obtuse justification — trended for several days on Twitter, and the New Yorker released a heart-wrenching essay by Junot Díaz on the hostility of his MFA program to students of color.
These conversations have naturally resonated with a lot of writers. I think for us in particular, they’ve struck the heart of why we (unlike Junot Díaz) gave up. Though we both continue to work tangentially to publishing — in the form of writing and editing, and, in your case, also running a small press — we’ve since fled the industry proper for reasons that have everything to do the recent discussions on “diversity.”
Sarah McCarry: I had worked in some aspect of the industry — for small presses, as a bookseller, and for agents — off and on since I was about nineteen; in New York, I worked part-time for a few different agents for about three years. And when people ask me why I left the industry for good, I always think back to a single moment—we had sent out a young adult novel set at a summer camp whose narrator happened to be Vietnamese, and a rejection came back with, verbatim, “We already have a book about an Asian kid at summer camp.” That was the moment, for me, when I understood I couldn’t do it. I kept working for that agent for another year or two, because I was desperate and really broke and couldn’t get any other work, frankly, but that letter is always what comes to mind first. I had already heard a lot of horror stories; I’d made friends with a broad network of writers of color through my blog, which at that time was anonymous and which I had used a lot to talk about racism within the industry. I had friends whose experiences were so traumatic or just exhausting that they basically quit writing, because it wasn’t worth it.
But I think up until that rejection letter I had had some delusional idea that I could make some difference from within the machine — that if I went on to be a literary agent, I could champion work that I loved, or if I could get myself hired and work my way up to be an editor, I could acquire it. And I realized that was actually impossible from within, for me. As an agent, you don’t make money unless your authors’ books sell, and if you can’t sell their books and you’re not being supported by your parents, you can’t eat. And as an editor, there can be a decade of hurdles to jump before you’re allowed to buy work on your own. I knew I didn’t have the energy to get someone else’s coffee for the next five to ten years until I was allowed out on my own.
Which is another piece of that gatekeeping apparatus you’ve talked about elsewhere: it is basically impossible to get a job in publishing unless you’re willing and able to start as an intern, and not only are those internships only accessible to people with particular social and cultural capital, they’re also internships for people who are very young. So even well-intentioned people within the industry are fully inculcated by that culture, by tenets that are held as truisms by the industry even though they fall apart immediately upon any kind of scrutiny: that “the market” won’t support “diverse” books being a primary example.
And certain people are allowed to point out these problems — white women, myself most emphatically among them, and men of color to a lesser extent — when in fact it’s women of color who started this conversation, and who are consistently ignored by the mainstream flareups of this conversation that happen (especially within young adult publishing) every, I don’t know, six months to a year. I’m so glad Daniel Older’s recent Buzzfeed essay on race and power in publishing got the (much-deserved) attention it did, and I have consistently gotten a lot of attention every time I’ve written about institutional racism on my blog. But I can think of a dozen women of color off the top of my head — Zetta Elliott, Neesha Meminger, Debbie Reese, Edi Campbell, Ibi Zoboi, Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, younger women like Sumayyah Daud and Sarah Hannah Gomez — who have been raising these issues for years, and getting very little credit for it.
JP: That story about the Asian-kid-at-summer-camp book getting rejected brings to mind how unpleasantly editors and publishers tend to react to the idea of instituting racial (and/or gender) quotas as a mechanism for diversifying their lists. But, as that incident and so many others reveal, informal quotas are already in place.
Another thing that I think tends to go unspoken is that publishing jobs, especially at the entry level, tend to be awful and horrifically underpaid — last I heard, entry level salaries at FSG were still below $30k — and I’m sure the fact that women make up 76% of the book publishing workforce is not a coincidence here. It’s hard enough to break into the industry, and, as you point out, even if you do, there’s an additional gauntlet to run before you can work as an acquiring editor. Of course any professional field is going to involve some dues-paying, but publishing is a notoriously difficult industry to ascend. There was an Observer piece a few years ago on the “assisterati” that I think is still relevant. The article was lighthearted, but also made plain that the industry runs on the labor of a glut of un(der)paid young people. Though most of them come from relatively privileged backgrounds and in some ways have a lot of cultural capital, the jobs are shit and there are very few opportunities to move up. Often someone at the top has to retire or die before better positions become available.
I worked in the industry for about five years, during which I experienced a pattern similar to yours of frustrating and seemingly endless hoop-jumping. I did an internship at an indie press, bounced around a few literary nonprofits, and finally landed a job as a publicist for another indie press. My goal was to eventually move over to the editorial side, but it didn’t happen — I burned out. Part of it was the stress and the long hours (which, compared to friends at commercial publishers who would routinely work until ten or eleven, weren’t even as bad as they could’ve been). But probably the biggest factor was how white the industry was. As a publicist, part of my job was going to literary parties and other events to network, and most of the time I’d be one of only a handful of people of color in the room. Often there would be no black people present at all. I remember when Girls first came out and people were criticizing the show’s lack of diversity, saying the all-white cast wasn’t representative of New York. But if we think about Hannah Horvath as a young person who works in publishing (remember how Melville House’s books were featured in the pilot episode?), then her predominantly white professional and social circle was actually a sadly astute representation.
People in publishing were so unfamiliar with interacting with non-white people as colleagues that they would continually confuse me with the Asian woman editor who worked for the same press I did. (She recently joked, “It’s not a literary party unless someone confuses us!”) But I don’t even mean just random people one runs into at parties. I also mean people who had worked extensively with our press, people who’d had long meetings and exchanged lots of correspondence with either the editor or myself. Including authors! It was pretty grim.
SM: I don’t want to project my own deep cynicism and underlying heartbreak onto your experience, but I think we both left because we saw that there is no changing those conditions; those are top-down imperatives and deeply entrenched cultures. For me, there’s a real tension too — I am eager to support reader- and author-led diversity initiatives, which are especially prevalent right now in the YA community. I think it’s a great way to draw attention to the books that are being published by writers of color and/or queer writers, writers living with disabilities . . . but even as I’m listing off what constitutes “diversity,” I feel deeply uncomfortable with it; I think in some ways framing this issue as one of “diversity” only serves to reify those categories as fundamentally other instead of fundamentally integral to the world we live in. And as the brilliant Sara Ahmed so elegantly points out, diversity initiatives are frequently, at best, an opportunity for organizations to alter the way they’re perceived without in any way moving away from the institutional racism that constitutes their basic operating system. Like, we’re justifiably upset about a wedding conducted amidst the funeral meats, but really the issue here is that the state is rotten to the core.
At the same time, as the recent controversy around BookCon’s all-white programming and then their subsequent scramble to throw together a “diverse” panel (just to name one current, glaring example) has made clear, we are talking about an industry that literally cannot even achieve tokenism. Like, there’s nothing. Nothing. In that light, I think we can read consumer pushes for diversity as an important and potentially useful action; I want us to remember, though, that they’re no substitute for burning down the fucking house.
JP: I do have one semi-hopeful anecdote. When I started working at my last job in publishing, the staff was actually majority people of color. (It was a small indie press, so there were only seven people in the office, but five of those were POC.) This wasn’t simply by chance — one of the editors at this press had continually made a conscious effort to recruit candidates of color and working class candidates for open positions. So I do think that in certain instances, internal changes are possible, and we shouldn’t let individual publishers off the hook just because the problem of racism also happens to be structural. However, effective and non-tokenizing affirmative action measures require sustained effort — and few people have the time and wherewithal to fight those battles nonstop. For example, a few staffing changes later, and that press where I worked is now majority white. (And I think the indie press where I interned before that, which had only two people of color on staff during the time I was there, is actually now entirely white.)
I agree that “diversity” is a fraught concept, and a woefully inadequate substitute for “ending racism.” I think a lot about how New York is technically a “diverse” city, but simultaneously an extremely racist place, if you consider the material effects of gentrification/evictions, police brutality, and policies that criminalize poor people of color, like stop-and-frisk or the ban on the motorized bicycles that are used predominantly by Asian and Latino delivery people. I also think that “diversity” — at least the way it’s invoked in so many of these publishing discussions — can end up being about Showcasing Marginalized Groups in Order to Provide Colorful, Enriching Cultural Experiences for White People, instead of being about shifting the balance of power or redistributing resources across the industry.
In my politics, I’m not really a “let’s pack up and move to a hippie commune if we don’t like society” type, but I do think that spirit transfers pretty well to a lot of cultural production. Tons of people who quit traditional publishing (or never even got their foot in the door) go on to start incredible independent publications, or found small presses, or write books, or any combination of the aforementioned. And it goes without saying that a lot of those people have radical inclinations! But the question then becomes how to make these DIY projects sustainable, in the absence of the kind of capital that traditional publishing commands. There’s obviously a lot of volunteer labor that goes into these side projects, and people have rightly pointed out that the idea of “labors of love” often becomes a justification for exploitation. Dropping out of publishing is definitely not a perfect solution, but I don’t know of a better one at the moment.
SM: I have been racking my brain trying to find a positive note to end on, and the truth is that I don’t have one. I’m deeply pessimistic about the likelihood of change from within the industry. Which is, I think, a clear sign that it’s time for me to get out of the way and make space for people who are working toward that structural change — most notably, I think, women of color and young women of color in particular, who have been tireless in their willingness to push that conversation to new places and to utilize online activism to do so. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag was spearheaded by women of color. I agree with Twitter user @leonicka: as she says, “the proposed ‘action’ is focused entirely on readers/ consumers,” instead of “on pressuring the industry to change their habits.” And as she points out, “blaming consumers is a way for the industry to pass the buck and we need to be careful not to fall for it.” But it’s also really heartening to see how far this conversation has gone in this iteration, and how much energy people are pouring into it.
I do also think that directing capital — whether that’s grant funding or commercial funding of some kind — to publishing projects initiated by writers of color would be a huge step forward. (I mean, obviously.)
I think real change is not going to come from within — it’s going to come from people who are moving outside of those systems of power, and who aren’t indebted to the guys who are ultimately running the show. I don’t mean to oversimplify, but radical change is not going to originate within a company owned by Rupert Murdoch. It’s just not. Even from people within those systems whose hearts are in the right place; well-intentioned white people do not a revolution make. So I think for me at this point, looking for ways to act in solidarity with people who are pushing for that change, who are calling out not just a lack of “diversity” within publishing but also foregrounding the fact that this is fundamentally an issue of institutional racism — many of whom are a lot smarter than I am and have much better ideas about how to move forward — is really where the future lies.