Interrupting Bias in the Book Biz

From Publishers Weekly:

There’s been a lot of ferment about racial equity in publishing, but will it yield concrete results? Much of the focus has been on announcing new imprints aimed at people of color, but that’s no substitute for changing the forces within publishing that create problems in the first place.

Publishing houses have been hiring and promoting more people of color, but in order to do so they often have to promote from outside the industry. That suggests that subtle and not-so-subtle forms of bias are stalling the careers of people of color, or driving them out of the industry altogether. Research documents that bias is constantly being transmitted through formal processes such as hiring and evaluations and informal processes that govern access to opportunities; publishing is no exception. Here’s how the five basic patterns of bias occur in publishing, as well as some suggestions for bias interrupters—metrics-driven, evidence-based tools that are designed to surgically eliminate them:

Prove-it-again bias: Pedigreed white men are assumed to be competent, whereas other groups have to prove themselves repeatedly. “It took seven years of interviews for an editorial assistant position,” says Amistad editorial director Tracy Sherrod, who is African American. To overcome this, publishers should ensure that all candidates—whether for hire or promotion—are assessed by the same objective criteria agreed to in advance, rather than by “gut.”

Tightrope bias: White men need only be authoritative and ambitious to succeed; others need more political savvy to find ways of displaying authority and ambition that are seen as appropriate. “White colleagues are able to speak their mind, but when it’s my turn, I can’t be direct or forthcoming without coming off as aggressive,” says Ebony LaDelle, associate director of marketing at HarperCollins. “I know that I and a lot of people like me have spent hours trying to figure out a way to write an email that appeals to a white colleague or make myself more pleasant in some way, because they can’t handle honest criticism. I’m just tired of tiptoeing around my feelings to protect theirs.” To guard against this, publishers must keep track of who gets personality critiques in performance evaluations and look for demographic patterns.

Tug-of-war bias: This occurs when bias against a group fuels conflict within the group, especially when there’s just one “diversity slot.” Even the experience of gender bias can divide women: “ ‘Race is your thing, feminism is my thing,’ I’ve been told by several of white women—including some I had trusted as allies. Evidently, if you advocate for racial diversity in a field dominated by white women, you will never be anything but the angry brown minority in the room.” Publishers need to recognize that the experience of gender bias differs by race—and make sure there’s not just one diversity slot.

Racial stereotyping and disrespect: This appears to be more prominent in publishing than in other fields. Stereotyping translates into career disadvantage: “As the only Black staff member at the press, I started to notice that I was asked to attend meetings every time there was an issue with a Black author or Black bookseller,” a source told the Scholarly Kitchen in 2018. “At the same time, I was often excluded from higher-level meetings that were more appropriate to my role.” This experience makes clear the need to avoid stereotypes, and match opportunities to talent and experience, not demography.

The maternal wall: The final pattern may be less of a factor in the publishing world: maternity leave is a given in the industry, and Covid-19 has shown the potential of remote work. Going forward, make sure that opportunities are equally available to remote, hybrid, and on-site employees.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG suggests that self-publishing can help anyone avoid the cesspool of traditional publishing.

9 thoughts on “Interrupting Bias in the Book Biz”

  1. Perhaps people of color are smart enough to avoid low-paying jobs publishing, while whites from Smith and Oberlin are not?

    • I think it’s kind of the other way round.

      People who send their kids to Smith and Oberlin to get a degree in snobbery are liable to be dumb enough to pay even more to help them live in New York while they do unpaid internships in publishing.

  2. Diversity slots…

    How’s that working out? Rhetorical question.

    Instead of trying to implement dubious mechanisms do what orchestras do, blind interviews where the interviewers cannot see the colour of the person applying.

    And now we have the technology, voice conversion to gender neutral voice.

    Too radical? Perhaps. Impractical? Perhaps. What do I know? I know I don’t know.

    But I do know that one has to work out what works, and what doesn’t work, and then do what works.

    • Ooh, you naughty naughty meritocrat!
      That kind of thinking gets folks in trouble these days:

      TL:DR – an up and coming highly regarded geological sciences physicists got cancelled at Berkeley (No shock) and MIT (tsk, tsk) for suggesting research teams should feature competent, qualified folk. The director of the climate sciences opetation at Berkely resigned in protest (self-defense, since no rational folk will be taking PRB research seriously anymore, if they ever did). Princeton is hosting him in a private online session that had to be expanded to the thousands for the people interested in his work. Good, right? Well, it’s online be cause it can’t be disrupted by a mobo and because the cancellers aren’t tech-savvy enough to hack the session.

      That is the state of “higher education” in this year 2021.

      Signature quote:

      “In the fall of 2020 I started advocating openly for academic freedom and merit-based evaluations. I recorded some short YouTube videos in which I argued for the importance of treating each person as an individual worthy of dignity and respect. In an academic context, that means giving everyone a fair and equal opportunity when they apply for a position as well as allowing them to express their opinions openly, even if you disagree with them.
      “As a result, I was immediately targeted for cancellation, primarily by a group of graduate students in my department. Whistleblowers later revealed that the attack was partially planned and coordinated on the Ford Foundation Fellowship Program listserv by a graduate student in my department. ”

      Welcome to Animal Farm.

    • There is a push now to get rid of the curtain hiding the auditioning musician. Evaluators who couldn’t see what color the violinist was, and were choosing too many whites and Asians. That meant they weren’t choosing enough blacks and other shades of the spectrum.

      They were listening to the music rather than looking at the musician’s color. Therefore they were deprived of the opportunity to consider skin shade in their selections.

      The link below sounds like something from the Babylon Bee or the Onion. It isn’t.

      • Yup. Racial equality was the goal, to remove legal boundaries that prevented the best minds from rising.

        Racial equity is straight-up racism, lowering standards and hiring by race. Just as the docents at the Art Institute of Chicago, who were all fired because they were middle-aged white women who earned their spots.

      • Par for the course.
        Applying the same quota standards to physics runs into a “minor” problem: ethnic groups don’t gravitate to those careers in numbers large enough to fill the demographically-mandated buckets. Low single digits.

        I was close to that kind of situation several times, most prominently:
        For a while I shared an office with a world class expert in a mainstream technical R&D field who was asked to assemble and oversee a panel of top R&D experts in the field for a congressional hearing. Easy peasy: he personally knew all the top players and they were willing to testify on how the feds could sponsor advanced research in the field. Only problem: the list only featured an array of old white males and one southern lady, all melanin-deprived.
        The Congressional contact went ballistic.
        He demanded the panel feature the appropriate quotas of young ethnics. After receiving conclusive proof that the field, while significant and a big part of the industry, was a mature area and not “sexy” compared to AI, hypersonics, etc and didn’t attract the young minority “superstar” researchers the way more prominent fields did, the apparatchick just cancelled the hearing. Turned out there was no interest in the meat of the subject, just the photo-op.

        Classic IdiotPoliticians™ at work.

        Getting back to the OP: given the nature of the BPH environment (and compensation) any minorities from tbe required social class have way better uses for their time and connections than “nurturing” wannabe authors or guarding literary culture.

        Which is to say it is easier to set quotas than to fill them effectively.

      • There was an article not very long ago, that military promotion boards were giving up on the idea of the candidate’s jackets not including their photographs. They thought that would increase the “diversity” of their recommendations – and it actually decreased them, when the board didn’t know what race the candidate was.

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