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Business of Writing, Criticism, Economy & Society, Publishing, The Writer's Life

Some Thoughts on Gender/Race/Class Issues in Publishing

Part 1, probably

A friend recently sent me a link to The Writers’ Institute classes in New York City. This is a year-long series of classes designed to “to introduce talented writers to New York’s finest and most prestigious editors.” The tuition: $13,500. This is not out of line with most master’s programs, although I saw no opportunity for scholarships or even financial help when I visited the application page.[1]

The instructors are all prominent editors and publishers—not just successful. We’re talking editors from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Paris Review, etc.; and publishers from Knopf, FSG and others.

But here’s what struck me when I landed on the home page: pictures of 15 white men and 7 white women—the prominent editors and publishers. No brown or black faces. Two to one ratio of men to women. This harkens back to the VIDA: Women in Literary Arts studies of the last couple of years, which show that in high-profile publishing positions, men—white men—still held the power.

As many of you know, I’ve been querying agents for my novels. I’ve researched probably more than 100 houses, and in the course of that research, I couldn’t help noticing there’s an overwhelming majority of women (predominantly white) working as lit agents. I’d estimate about 80% or more of the agents listed in the Agent Query database are women, and that of those, 90% are white and 10% are Asian-American. There were a few of Hispanic or African-American heritage, but not enough to garner a percentage. Dozens of agencies are staffed by all women.

A couple of years ago, when the VIDA study first came out, I did my own count to determine the ratio of women to men on literary journal staffs. Of the approximately 1,100 staff members, about 60% were women.

I teach writing classes, and participate in and attend readings in my local area. I’ve noticed there are many more women than men involved in writing, and very few people of color.

What, if anything, do these figures and observations mean? Some questions:

  • Considering the liberal social and political positions often supported by people in the book industry, do the demographics of top-level editors expose a gross case of hypocrisy? Can we just throw claims of fairness out the window, or do the books and stories published by these people accurately reflect the writing and reading communities? I have to admit, I can’t help noticing a certain bourgeois sensibility in literary novels, journals and magazines, especially those produced on the east coast.
  • Even more important, I think, is this: Does seeing an overwhelming majority of one gender or race or economic class in positions of authority discourage writers from other demographic groups from submitting, or even from pursuing writing as a career?
  • Should I care? Does any of this matter to my success as a writer?
  • Should we care? Is there nothing really wrong with this business as usual, or is there an insidious undercurrent to our culture and society we on the outside feel essentially powerless to address?

I do not know the answers. Like any good writer, I only ask the questions.

More next week, but I would love to get others’ thoughts on the subject.

[1] And no, I’m not thinking about applying.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


22 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Gender/Race/Class Issues in Publishing

  1. It reminds me of sports, how the change from being white men’s games started with the players and took years, decades even, for someone of color to become a coach, and even longer for them to reach management. Unfortunately this analogy stops short because sports has become so insanely lucrative while publishing and agenting seems to be tipping off the other edge.

    To answer one of your questions, I don’t know that this climate prevents a person of color from submitting work. If anything, the current political climate seems to encourage it.

    Posted by Teri | March 30, 2013, 1:31 PM
    • Actually, I think the world of sports is quite close to that of writing. It’s only the top one percent of athletes who make the big money, while pretty much everyone else works away in anonymity for little pay, hoping to catch a break. It’s all (sports, writing, acting) just entertainment to the public and to the even less than one percent who run the show.

      Posted by jpon | March 31, 2013, 2:25 AM
  2. While there’s no question that the statistics you’re observing need to change, I really don’t know how one would go about it. It sounds like there are several different sorts of glass ceiling, one against African-Americans, one against Latinos, one against more Asian-Americans, and one against women in general. You as a white male are unusually open-minded in asking the questions that so desperately need to be asked, and perhaps that’s one of the key things needed: those in power who are willing to share the power (I know from what you say that you don’t consider yourself to be in a powerful position, but it would be oh! so easy for you to neglect your humanistic responsibility to ask the important questions, and just take advantage of the advantage, as it were. I think it’s admirable that you are concerned and involved enough to ask the questions).

    Posted by shadowoperator | March 30, 2013, 1:39 PM
    • It probably has something to do with my Catholic upbringing, but I’ve always been someone who doesn’t understand favoritism, nepotism, cronyism and the dozens of other -isms that dominate every industry, writing included. Sure, it’s human nature to stick with people from similar backgrounds and appearance, but that just limits the talent pool. As I said, more intelligent people can look past the wrapper to what’s inside.

      And thanks for the compliment.

      Posted by jpon | March 31, 2013, 2:31 AM
  3. Why does corn grow in a corn field? The answers to this question are the answers to your question.

    Posted by Jon Zech | March 30, 2013, 2:22 PM
  4. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. I wish I could show you some of the sexist rejection letters I got from agents before my book was published. The good news is I got two publishers within two weeks without an agent by going to conferences. One male agent told me that no one would ever publish a book about a woman boxer. He underlined woman three times. I kept that letter. He did not mention the quality of the writing, showed no interest in story, only gender.

    Filmmakers in Ireland have asked for a film treatment and are showing lots of interest in a documentary and possibly a narrative movie. I spoke to an American entertainment attorney who told me that there was already a woman’s boxing movie made and no one would be interested in another. I told him that there were two movies made in two years about men boxers. And numerous films have been made about men boxers over the years. Million Dollar Baby was based on a fictional short story and Dee’s story is a true. That each one is different. As I was speaking, he realized his sexist statement and began to stutter and changed the subject.

    I do think there is an elitist element in publishing and that men and women are discriminated against. I also think there is age and race discrimination. And I must say I’ve been surprised because I used to think people in publishing would be more open minded than most. Wrong. They are human. They have prejudices. Sad but true.

    The only way I know to combat the problem is to persevere. To write the best damn book you can write. Keep going to conferences to meet agents and publishers in person. Make eye contact. Shake their hands. Forge relationships with published authors. And don’t give up.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | March 30, 2013, 3:15 PM
    • Thanks, Darrelyn. You are so right about all of that. (And I’m so glad to hear that your book is being considered for a movie.) Sounds like you’re talking about the kind of people who, frankly, shouldn’t be in an industry devoted to the arts–the kind who care only about what they think will sell. They see every project in only the most general terms and fail to see (or even look) for the uniqueness. Believe me I’ve had plenty of rejections that sound like that too.

      Posted by jpon | March 31, 2013, 2:40 AM
  5. You raise interesting questions, and yes, there is an ingrained, unconscious, almost nonchalant sexism and racism that imbues all aspects of our society. The good news is that most people, including editors and pulishers, are amenable to reason and respond to persistence on the part of authors.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | March 30, 2013, 3:53 PM
  6. Joe, What about the age of writers? Can you talk about that bias? k.

    Posted by prasanga | March 30, 2013, 4:04 PM
    • I’m not Joe, but…Some twenty years ago I heard Terry Gross interviewing a writer who had just published his first book. She said, “Isn’t forty a bit late to publish your first novel?” I was forty-seven. Took the wind out of my sails.

      Posted by Jon Zech | March 30, 2013, 4:15 PM
    • Worth a blog of its own, actually. But it’s funny that people think that 40 is too old to publish a first novel, since a substantial percentage of the writers considered among the best are older–some in their 60s, 70s and older. The nice thing is that no one can tell from a submission the age of the writer. As far as I’m concerned, experience makes a big difference in the ability of the writer to gain perspective, and to translate that perspective into great stories.

      Posted by jpon | March 31, 2013, 2:47 AM
  7. An interesting topic, to be sure. Here’s my fifty cents..

    Regarding age: Cervantes published part one of Don Quixote, arguably one of the greatest novels ever if not the greatest, well into his 50s. There’s no excuse to let age get in the way of effort. If you can still see, type/use a pen, you can still write. (Also, congratulations Jon Zech!)

    Regarding a solution: Many books we look on as classics now were originally self-published. (See this post which contains links to pages with lists of self-published authors, some of which might surprise you: http://365daysofverse.wordpress.com/2011/12/24/on-self-publishing/) If you can’t find a publishing house to release your book for any reason, consider publishing it yourself. The difficult fact may be that publishers don’t see a market for your work. They may be right, they may be wrong. I self-published 365 sonnets in 3 volumes. People, by and large, don’t read sonnets or verse, but that didn’t stop me from putting it out. The experience of doing it has been pleasurable regardless of who published it. I’m currently revising them for a second edition, which is itself an enjoyable, though difficult task. I’m not going to wait for the world to change or for more like-minded publishers to appear. It would be lovely to have a major publisher behind your work, but it might also be better to have the work out there, than not.

    About the industry: It doesn’t surprise me that there are elite grad school programs, I say elite because of the price tag, which foster relations with business contacts in the industry. Certainly those with money can in part, buy their connections. It may be the case that publishing success will always depend on two major factors: 1) who you know and 2) luck meeting perseverance in the face of rejection. I don’t see this as being primarily a factor of what race or gender the publishers are. Many writers don’t stand a chance of having an honest and meaningful conversation with major publishers in the first place.

    Publishers care about money more than they care about who you are or what you write. (Yes, there are exceptions, but they are not the rule.) If a publisher thinks that they can make money off of your writing, they will treat you differently than if they don’t. It sucks, but it’s true. It’s a hard fact: publishing is a business. I don’t see that changing if the majority race or gender changes in the industry. I think to assume that things would change dramatically for the better is a bit of wishful thinking. Anyone who’s worked in higher ed (I do) knows that a more balanced workforce in terms of race and gender doesn’t necessarily lead to utopia. The public buys what it wants to buy and read. It may not matter who is at the head of the companies which publish books, they have only so much power to change what the public wants to buy. Certainly, some may be more willing to give opportunities to authors who write books that they think won’t sell well, but they can only do that to the extent that they can cover losses if the books don’t sell. And if they don’t think they can sell the books in the first place (again they may be wrong) it may ultimately have nothing to do with an author’s demographic or their demographic. It might, but it may be more a matter of risk avoidance.

    Perhaps what we really could use are patrons. Wealthy people who find, cultivate, and support artists on an individual and person-to-person basis, rather than spending their fortunes to exclusion on real estate. I don’t imagine that happening anytime soon, if ever.

    One last thought to end this rambling comment: we should keep in mind that probably the best selling author of our or any other time is a woman. I think we can all safely say that J.K.’s race/gender is less a factor in her success than 1) her writing and 2) the topic of her writing being something that the world’s children evidently were longing for on a scale that no one could have predicted.

    Posted by 365 Days of Verse | March 30, 2013, 7:46 PM
    • What a great list of writers who self-published. I had no idea. It does get me thinking. And of course you’re right about sales uber alles, but I can still complain about it. Maybe the idea of sales leveling the playing field has merit to a certain extent, but it’s tough to see that when the decision-makers all seem to come from the same background/class/schools. I don’t see how the publishing cabal, printing the same kinds of books over and over widens readership.

      Posted by jpon | March 31, 2013, 3:02 AM
  8. Sure. Patrons. Because you know you’ll have total freedom to produce whatever you heart desires while you’re under the kind cloak of your patron.
    And to be honest, I’d much prefer to be picked up by a publisher who was into it for the money. That would mean they’d be working hard to make my book a success. If I could see copies of my work popping from the shelves, I wouldn’t care if the publisher could even pronounce my name.

    Posted by Jon Zech | March 31, 2013, 2:06 AM
    • I don’t think you understand how patronage worked, traditionally. You should read up on it. Here’s a good one:


      And also this one if you have limited time: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17272855

      It should be noted that without such patronage, it’s doubtful that Haydn would have not only written as much as he did, but that he would have developed as he did over time in the relative freedom that he did. It may not have been a perfect life, but he was much better off than most of his contemporaries. If Mozart had had proper patronage, who knows what he could have achieved. Beethoven was perhaps luckiest, having patronage but a lot of freedom. I’d say he did okay, what do you think?

      Also, you seem to have particularly rosy views of publishing. Consider this piece, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/05/16/an-authors-nightmare/

      And,thanks for the sarcasm. (in case you’re wondering, that was sarcasm.)

      Posted by 365 Days of Verse | March 31, 2013, 2:52 AM
      • Patronage can be a wonderful thing for a writer. I do know of a publisher where this is popular (board members pay for books to be published from authors they admire, and no conditions are placed on the text as far as I know). And, oh by the way, I’m available for such an arrangement. :-)

        The Dick Cavett story is good too. Personally, I’ve heard enough horror stories about publishing from good friends who do not, like him, have celeb status and can call a publishing executive directly to resolve the problem. Frankly, his is a problem I wouldn’t mind having.

        Posted by jpon | March 31, 2013, 3:11 AM
      • I should have stuck with cryptic corn commentary. (No sarcasm intended.)

        Posted by Jon Zech | March 31, 2013, 4:18 AM
  9. Thanks Joe. I’ll echo what others have said about the cruciality of these issues, their complexity (a number of glass ceilings/areas of discrimination cutting across age, race, gender, class, and probably sexual orientation as well as degrees of physical ability [ablism]), and the tough historical trajectory of writers as an artesanal group (Cervantes et al). I think we should and must care about this. Inequities poison a society, an art form, a profession, an institution, a mode of knowledge. Where would we be without Octavia Butler, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Sherman Alexie, and so many other writers of color? Octavia Butler never went to college, let alone grad school, but learned writing from UCLA extension and reading at the library. So, for that matter, did Bukowski — a working class German speaking California boy. If writing belongs only to the privileged — we are in big trouble. That means we need success — not just for us — but for the people we know. As a privileged, straight, white person I know I’ve got to help others get their work out, and that may ultimately be a more important job than pimping my own writing. thanks so much for this.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | March 31, 2013, 5:56 AM

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