From The Los Angeles Review of Books:
On November 9, Publishers Weeklybroke the news that the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white — 86 percent white, to be exact.
Every year, Publishers Weekly (PW) releases its annual Salary Survey. Since 1994, the Survey has been circulated among industry professionals, who are asked to respond to demographic and opinion-based questions about their experience in publishing. True to its name, the Salary Survey reports on trends in compensation, wage gaps, and promotions. Since 2014, the Survey has focused on one particular problem: the staggering lack of diversity in the ranks of New York houses. The numbers are bleak, and suggest little change.
2014: 89 percent white
2015: 89 percent white
2016: 88 percent white
2017: 87 percent white
2018: 86 percent white
To their credit, PW acknowledges that the problem of representation in the workplace is also a literary problem. PW explained the connection in 2014: “The dearth of minority employees directly affects the types of books that are published, industry members agreed, and for this issue to be addressed, there needs to be more advocates for books involving people of color throughout the business.” Quite right. Yet, the problem is far more complicated, and far more entrenched, than the PW Salary Survey suggests. To be sure, these numbers are bad. But they are only one part of a large, institutional problem — a by-product of an industry that is discriminatory by design.
People of color are not only underrepresented on the payroll of publishing houses; they’re underrepresented throughout the literary world. And while the fact of their discrimination has been accepted anecdotally, it has yet to be thoroughly accounted for. In 2012, Roxane Gay responded to the annual VIDA “count” of Women in Media in an essay called “Where Things Stand”, arguing, “Race often gets lost in the gender conversation as if it’s an issue we’ll get to later. I’ve wondered about where race fits into the conversation and who will take up that issue with the same zeal VIDA has approached gender.” To date, no group or individual has taken up her challenge.
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At the Stanford University Literary Lab, we use computational methods to study literary history on a large scale. I’m also writing a book that considers how the business practices of the Big Five have shaped contemporary fiction. All this is to say: The question of counting, and who counts, in literature is an important one to me.
. . . .
One editor explained, “You get into the type of author that somebody is, and the type of audience that they’re reaching more than you do content. And that is very voice-driven. […] There’s a limited number of readers for a book like that, and you kind of know who they are and what books those people are responding to.” The writer’s identity — their voice — matters significantly to editors because it needs to align with a particular audience. Comps are proof of that author-audience alignment.
And if there’s no comp to be found? If a book hasn’t ever “worked” because it hasn’t ever happened? If the target audience for a book isn’t considered big or significant enough to warrant the investment? “If you can’t find any comps,” one editor explained, grimacing, “It’s not a good sign.” While intended to be an instructive description (“this book is like that book”), some editors suggested that comps have become prescriptive (“this book should be like that book”) and restrictive (“…or we can’t publish it”).
. . . .
Comps perpetuate the status quo, creating a rigid process of acquisition without much room for individual choice or advocacy. One problem with the PW Salary Survey is the tacit assumption that People = Publications. If there were more people of color working behind the scenes, the thinking goes, then there would be more books by and about people of color published. But this assumption reduces a systemic problem to an individual problem. It assumes that “minority employees,” or, more broadly, “advocates for books involving people of color” might simply choose to acquire, market, and sell more diverse books. And, quite simply, acquisitions don’t work this way. The system, more than any individual, reinforces discrimination.
Comp title data don’t show us the output of this system — they show us the system itself. Comps are the books that most frequently influence editors’ decisions about what to acquire, the books to which new titles are often compared, the books whose effects the industry longs to reproduce. In other words, comps are evidence of what the publishing industry values.
It turns out the industry values whiteness.
From 2013 to 2019, publishers identified 31,876 comps — about three comp titles for every new title published. I wanted to know which comps get cited most frequently (and, by extension, communicate high value), so I winnowed the list of 30,000-plus comp titles down to the top 50 most frequently used comps. Because many books have been cited as comps the same number of times, this list is actually comprised of 225 titles. I then worked with my undergraduate research assistant, Jonathan Morales, to research the race of each of the authors whose books are listed here.
The majority of these comps — these books used to justify decisions about who gets published — have been written by white authors. Nine books by people of color appear on this list, including N. K. Jemisin’s A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, We the Animals by Justin Torres, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Just nine out of 225 books.
Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books
PG notes that KDP doesn’t care about comps.