Spreading the Word
Latinos Bring Diversity to Publishing
It may seem like diversity and inclusion are the latest buzzwords for human resources departments (HR) across the county. Actually, they’re not particularly new. According to a 1997 study by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, “Increases in competition and demographic changes have convinced many business leaders that diversity should be an essential part of their business strategy … leading-edge organizations have numerous unique efforts under way to deal with their diverse workforce.”
Fast forward to October 27, 2016 and the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Diversity and Inclusion Conference in Austin, Texas. According to the conference description on the SHRM website, “Diversity and inclusion (D&I) are at the core of an organization’s culture. Having a diverse and inclusive culture will positively affect innovation and your organization’s bottom line. It’s no longer a nice-to-have; a strong D&I strategy aligned with your organization’s business objectives is imperative. Gone are the days when it was only about affirmative action.”
That’s good to know, now could someone please tell the major publishing houses in New York City?
Actually, some already have. Several Latino pioneers in publishing have joined forces to form Latinx in Publishing, an advocacy initiative that hopes to help create a support network for Latino writers and publishing professionals to increase the number of Latino adult and children’s book projects.
“What we are building is a community where connections can be made,” says Nancy Mercado, editorial director at Scholastic Press and one of eight members of the Latinx in Publishing steering committee. “Since we began to organize, we have Latino agents in the group who now have a whole list of Latinx editors that they can approach, editors who perhaps were not on their radar before. We also hope young people who want to enter the industry will hear about us and connect with us. It’s about networking and making real strides in terms of the numbers of Latinx in publishing.”
The group, which chose to use the term Latinx for gender inclusiveness, began to organize in 2014. It evolved over discussions with Nora Comstock, national founder of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, a non-profit advocacy organization for Latinas, Mercado, and other Latino publishing professionals.
They eventually agreed that a synergy needed to take place to increase the number, quality, and demand for Latino published work. Comstock sent an Evite to Latino publishing professionals to meet to discuss issues of concern regarding Latinos in publishing and Mercado agreed to host the meeting at Scholastic. “I didn’t think this would change without reaching out to publishing houses in New York and finding Latinos in publishing who were already advocating for Latino authors and for increasing the number of Latino publishing projects,” says Comstock.
Her instincts were right. A synergy did take hold after the meeting and the New York-based group of writers and professionals continued to meet monthly, coalescing into Latinx in Publishing in 2015. This October they launched the website, latinosinpublishing.tumblr.com. The site hopes to help prospective authors not only connect to agents—there’s a tab with 38 agencies listed already—but also to perfect their craft as writers with information about writers conferences, residencies, grants, and scholarships. While most professionals are based in NYC, they also hope to expand membership through digital communication tools like Skype.
“We thought it was an interesting idea to bring both Latinx adult and children’s publishing professionals as well as authors together,” Mercado shares. “There were about twenty of us at the first meeting, we were really surprised and delighted by the turnout. Many of us had never met each other before, and there was a desire to keep meeting. There was a clear need for community, and a shared desire for Latino voices to be seen and heard more, in terms of the books we were publishing. We decided to hold monthly meetings, and each time, rain or shine, gatherings were full and energetic.”
While Latinx is the first to focus on the Latino side of the business, it’s not the first group to call for diversity in the publishing industry. Launched in 2014, the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) website and social media campaign addressed the lack of diverse voices in publishing, especially regarding children’s literature. “They’ve done amazing things to raise awareness,” offers Adriana Dominguez, an agent with Full Circle Literary agency. “Before WNDB, there were just a few of us chugging along. The campaign showed the power of social media. It was phenomenal and partially inspired by the lack of diversity in Book Con’s lineup. After the campaign, WNDB was able to get a diverse panel together at the event— it was standing room only.”
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has also tracked diversity in publishing children’s and young adult books since 1985. A statewide book examination center, it receives the majority of new U.S. trade books published for children and teens each year. Of the 3,400 books received in 2015, only 83 were about Latinos and 59 were written by Latinos. There were more books about African Americans, 270, while more books were written by Asian, Pacific, and Asian Pacific Americans, 176.
Some would say these figures reflect the lack of diversity among publishing professionals who shepherd book projects. Over the years, some Latinos have been hired in an effort by publishers to diversify the company, but the effort didn’t go much further than hiring that one Latino who became the sole voice of an entire Latino community, i.e. a token, which was not always a recipe for progress.
“For years, I was often the only Latina editor in a roomful of editors,” says Dominguez, a publishing veteran with more than 20 years of experience and now an agent for the last seven. “It was a huge responsibility to represent an entire community and often difficult to get projects approved when I was one of the very few who could see their value.”
In 2015, children’s book publisher Lee and Low produced the most revealing figure regarding diversity in publishing to date with its Diversity in Publishing survey distributed to reviewers and publishing employees. For women, the results were great—they make-up the vast majority of publishing employees, 78 percent. For Latinos, however, the news was not good. Only six percent of publishing professionals were Latino, two percent were executives, and four percent worked in editorial departments. Three percent of book reviewers were Latino.
With this dearth of diversity in publishing, Latino writers hoping to find a Latino editor to help them break into the industry may have a long wait. While not all Latino editors work on Latino projects, many do appreciate the chance to promote them.
“I think the statistics show we have a long way to go to bring more voices to market,” says Joanna Cardenas a Latinx steering committee member and editor with Viking Children’s Books, an imprint at Penguin Random House. “But as an editor, I am really excited about the conversations happening at many publishing houses. The industry is working towards creating actionable steps to address the numbers.”
Before an editor can shepherd a book project, he or she needs to find one, and that’s where agents factor in. Most large publishing houses do not accept unsolicited work, i.e. they only deal with agents, not directly with writers. While Latino agents do not handle Latino authors exclusively, the consensus from the Latinx members interviewed for this story is that they are more likely to seek them out.
“There are so few Latino agents, but they are certainly on the lookout for Latino writers, absolutely,” asserts Linda Camacho with Prospect Agency in New York. “They give writers more of a chance; they take on people who have the talent but haven’t quite hit it yet, and work with them to develop their craft.”
While agents may receive multiple queries from writers, they also seek new talent at writer’s conferences, which is why launching the Comadres and Compadres Latino Writers Conference in 2012 was such a breakthrough. “We wanted to provide Latino writers with a welcoming environment where they can be free to talk about their work without first having to explain who they are,’’ asserts Dominguez.
“I don't only represent Latino authors,” she continues. “I don’t know of any agents who do. The idea is not to be exclusive, but to be as inclusive as possible. As a Latina, I naturally connect well with Latino material and understand where the author is coming from, or what he or she is trying to say in many instances. That’s also why we need more diverse editors: because people tend to veer toward works that speak to them in some specific way.”
As an editor, Dominguez was also frustrated by the lack of support she experienced when trying to get approval for Latino authors with acquisitions, only to be trumped by another publishing house that ultimately published the book she had recommended, and with great success. When the economy tanked in 2008, publishing was not immune. In the downturn, her opportunity to reassess her career path arrived and she opted to switch teams.
“It made me take stock of what I thought were my assets and limitations,” she admits. “As an agent, I could work on a variety of projects and not limit myself to the taste of a single publisher. Now I can have different criteria, choosing who I want to work with, who I feel passionately about and to see that the project goes somewhere. When I made the switch, I was also keenly aware that I was one of the very few Latino agents in the industry.”
Camacho also adds that writers may need to diversify their perspectives as well. Latino literature has been defined for years by autobiographical stories from writers like Rodolfo Anaya and Sandra Cisneros. While all the Latinx members we spoke to encourage writers to write the story they feel most passionate about, it may also be advantageous to separate from the pack and embrace a new genre, like sci-fi, horror, mystery, or romance novels.
“I get a lot of stories featuring issues, immigration, etc.,” shares Camacho. “It’s very hard to find a Latino who submits a story that’s more commercial.”
It’s one thing to encourage the publishing industry to diversify its ranks and products. But that always exposes the Catch 22: How can the industry diversify if Latinos aren’t applying for the job?
According to our experts, a career in publishing doesn’t always present itself. Many Latinx members admit that they found their way into publishing serendipitously. But for Latinos who love books, a career as an editor or agent could be very rewarding.
“A lot of writers do have mentors, but I’ve noticed that Latino writers don’t have the same access,” shares Camacho. “I grew up in the Bronx, not the most literary community where they bring writers to schools, I did not experience that. I didn’t realize publishing was a job.”
In fact, it was a friend who worked as an HR professional in banking and who happened to serve on a panel at a conference with another HR professional from Penguin publishing that suggested it to her. Camacho had just graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in communication and wasn’t sure what profession she wanted to pursue. Her friend remarked that Camacho should consider a career in publishing and connected her to the recruiter at Penguin who hired her to work in production. She left after a year but returned and was eventually hired by Random House to work with their children’s book imprints.
Another issue is that the industry does not pay professionals handsomely and based in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world, it can be difficult to survive. “If you don’t have family or other means of support, it can be very challenging,” admits Jose de la Vega, an agent for Indent Agency, who sells Latin American imprints to U.S. publishers. He worked in New York for a time, but will soon leave Indent to return to his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico.
As the industry continues to evolve and with initiatives like Latinx, the future is bright. “There are more Latino agents now than five or ten years ago,” Dominguez asserts. “Young people are coming up. Publishing is being driven by a whole new generation of young people, for whom diversity is as natural as breathing, who want to be inclusive, who want to make thinks happen, to make a difference. I know that they can.”
Affirmative action may have entered a new chapter, but Latinx hopes to give this new tale of D&I a happier ending.