Publishing Needs to Face Its Ableism Problem

From Publishers Weekly:

“This is not a remote position. Candidates are expected to perform work on-site in our office,” is a line that I look for in every job posting before I decide whether or not to apply. I’m disabled; I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and I’m autistic, and working remotely is a reasonable accommodation that I need to do my job.

Up until the Covid-19 pandemic, most book publishing jobs have required employees to work in the office with little room for remote flexibility. Now the same publishers who denied disabled and chronically ill people the ability to work from home are requesting that their staff do just that. Accommodations to work remotely are prioritized when public health issues affect everyone, including nondisabled staff, but are deemed impossible when the request comes from a disabled employee.

While there are definitely functions in publishing that can’t be performed entirely remotely, such as warehouse jobs and production jobs, the pandemic has made it clear many tasks can be completely or at least partially remote if publishers allow them to be. Over half of American workers could work from home at least some of the time, according to an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics by research firm Global Workplace Analytics.

If there’s a lesson that publishers can learn from this pandemic, it’s that our industry needs more remote-friendly opportunities if we want to address the widespread ableism and inequality in publishing. We need more remote opportunities in book publishing. Of 166 recent job listings for positions at Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster, only two specify that they are open to remote candidates, and one of those two is a contract position, not a full- or part-time job.

Not offering remote-friendly opportunities widens the ongoing diversity gap in publishing. According to Lee & Low’s “2019 Diversity in Publishing Baseline Survey,” 89% of those working in publishing are nondisabled, 76% are white, 97% are cisgender, and 81% are straight. Many publishers are based in New York City, where only one in five subway stations are wheelchair accessible and average rents for a one-bedroom apartment are $3,000 per month, according to the “Zumper National Rent Report.” Glassdoor puts the national average salary for an editorial assistant at $43,761, making it difficult to live on in New York. More than 400,000 disabled employees regularly work from home, so allowing people to work remotely would give publishers a bigger employee pool to create a more inclusive workplace.

Common advice for those pursuing careers in publishing who can’t work in an office or can’t afford to move for a job is to freelance. Copyediting, proofreading, book reviewing, and sensitivity reading are areas where contract work is common. According to Lee & Low’s diversity survey, 19% of book reviewers identify as disabled, while in most other areas of publishing it’s closer to 10%.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

After he calmed down from mentally condemning Big Publishing for its multitudinous faults once again, PG was interested in the 19% of book reviewers disabled statistic.

PG didn’t know that anyone was counting book reviewers, let alone querying them about their disabilities.

After a few strokes on his latest keyboard, PG discovered that Lee & Low Books, headquartered in New York City, is, “the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States. We are your diversity source.”

Lee & Low sponsors The Diversity Baseline Survey. They conducted their first survey in 2015 and a second in 2019. Here’s a bit more about the surveys:

Why We Created the Diversity Baseline Survey

Lee & Low Books released the first Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS 1.0) in 2015. Before the DBS, people suspected publishing had a diversity problem, but without hard numbers, the extent of that problem was anyone’s guess. Our goal was to survey publishing houses and review journals regarding the racial, gender, sexual orientation, and ability makeup of their employees; establish concrete statistics about the diversity of the publishing workforce; and then build on this information by reissuing the survey every four years. Through these long-term efforts, we would be able to track what progress our industry shows over time in improving representation and inclusion.

Why does diversity in publishing matter? 

The book industry has the power to shape culture in big and small ways. The people behind the books serve as gatekeepers, who can make a huge difference in determining which stories are amplified and which are shut out. If the people who work in publishing are not a diverse group, how can diverse voices truly be represented in its books?

Here’s a chart from the 2019 survey:

PG (and others) started forecasting the sunset of traditional publishing acting as a gatekeeper some time ago. Since he (and others) began their doomsaying, the publishing sun has continued to drop like a fading orange pie chart in the metaphorical west.

That said, PG entirely agrees that tradpub definitely does not reflect the demographics of the world, the United States or any other place besides a few tiny spots on a map of New York City and its nearby environs.

PG does suggest that indie publishing is a much closer reflection of the demographics of humankind at large.

On Amazon, nobody knows your race, gender, orientation or disability unless you choose to tell them.

The computers don’t care. A self-published book by a genderfluid Navajo asexual paraplegic gets the same amount of space and service as a book written by, edited by and published by a variety of White Cis Woman Straight Non-Disabled persons who also happened to graduate from the right colleges after growing up in the right suburbs.

16 thoughts on “Publishing Needs to Face Its Ableism Problem”

  1. In addition, though we’re not being PC right now, it is a pink ghetto, so they can pay their employees as little as possible, even the white, female, straight able-bodied ones.

    • I wonder why people pursue such low-paying jobs? Especially in a high cost of living place. I’d be very interested in a breakdown of qualified applicants by sex.

      One reason for low pay is people competing for low-paying jobs.

      • Lack of other skills, expectations that the job will morph into a better one, the ‘aura’ of publishing and books, hoping to get a leg up as a future author, being ‘part’ of something, degrees in English or Literature or other language arts, living in NY where you can see plays, a potential credential for grad school, a gap year…

        If there’s no glamour, it wouldn’t attract a lot of people who have to live six to an apartment in NYC to do them.

        There are probably a lot of disappointed young women who then have to do something else. But there’s always a fresh crop, and the government doesn’t require much of the publishers in the form of pay or benefits, and the colleges put out far more degrees in these fields than reasonable spots are available for the skillset (to keep their own professors employed).

        • I agree. Those are far more substantial reasons than a pink ghetto.

          And the the only pay requirement the government has is to exceed minimum wage. Many of the reasons you cite simply highlight that the incumbents aren’t competitive in the market.

  2. Amazon KDP doesn’t give a hoot about identity. Worse, lacking such information, consumers continue to click the buy button. They don’t care.

    And it keeps growing.

  3. I worked call centers for twenty years and tried every step of the way to get them to let me work from home. This has nothing to do with technology or whatever lie they tell you. If you’re at home then how will mid level mangers check up on you? How will they know your working hard and not taking too many breaks? I love how everyone with a problem assumes every obstacle is about that problem. Nope. Just greed and pettyness.

  4. Well, I agree with PG. Except for the racial representations, all of the other traits are heavily skewed in favor of the minorities.

  5. To advocate for the devil a bit:
    The melanin-deprived, non-representative employees they hire don’t typically come with activist agendas and the attendant issues that come with them. Instead they will quietly do their jobs, happy to be employed in such a vital industry without trying to organize a union, complain about carbon footprint, or make noises about working conditions, low pay, or political correctness. And if the air conditioning dies one summer day they won’t have to worry about it still making headlines in the NYT fifteen years later. Or get the CEO called to congress by grandstanding politicians.
    There’s a lot to say about labor peace and motivated employees just happy to have a job.

    That said, who’s to say that breakdown isn’t representative of the part of Manhattan where they operate? Obviously it isn’t representative of the lower Bronx or Washington heights, but then neither is Manhattan. Maybe they’re just thinking globally but acting locally. They can hardly be expected to go headhunting in Shaker Heights, after all.

    Or maybe their employee distribution is just representative of their applicant base. I’ve yet to see a demographic breakdown of the literati subculture feeding the publishing establishment. Maybe competent diverse folks in NYC have, uhm, different employment goals.

    People these days are so quick to vilify perfectly innocent outcomes even when they’re the result of well-meaning practises.

    (More seriously: the quiet secret of Federal small business set-asides and affirmative action policies is that the lion’s share of the beneficiaries, by far, have for decades been white, CIS, middle-class females with college educations, often Ivy Leaguers. And on the business side, often “sub-contracting” large, rich white male-run corporations who get the bulk of the money for the contracts they front. Shhh! Let’s not let the K Street gang know we know, okay?)

    Finally, the reality is competent diversity hires everybody wants to buff their demographics tend to adhere to the Woodward/Bernstein rule: follow the money.

  6. I skip anything with a headline that contains imperative words. “Need”, “Stop”, “Don’t”, “Must”, etc, etc. Nope.

    • Good policy.
      Might leave you short of recent material, though. 😉

      Everybody is quick to tell others how to live their lives, without doing much about theirs.

  7. Faced with any survey my normal reaction is to ask if I can believe the results. Typically, the answer is “probably not” but my gut feeling here is that this is a fairly reliable picture of the industry. Other than the under-representation of white males – which does not seem to be a concern to Lee & Low – the results do not seem to be too far out of line with the American population.

    However, this is ideologically unacceptable to the report’s authors, who in response to a comment say that:

    The issue is not with the number of physical people as implied by your comparison to the U.S. Census. The issue concerns BIPOC and LGBT people not having an equal voice in an industry that shapes education and culture.

    Quite why the voices of the various minorities should have an equal weight is not made clear, possibly because the idea is so ingrained that the possibility that this is incorrect has never been considered. Personally, I have no idea what an equal weight means in practical terms (short of giving each separate group an equal share in the available slots, with an impact on the bottom line that would not please the conglomerates who own the big 5).

    What I find troubling is the extraordinarily limited idea of diversity that is being put forward. It’s as if only disability, ethnic origin and sexual orientation matter and as if these define what is going on in people’s heads and will therefore determine the views they take as to which books to publish. It is quite possible that the staff surveyed are much less ideologically diverse than the population as a whole, but the survey is not interested in such an idea. There are huge differences within every community (at least if community is defined as in this survey) and any group setting itself up as representative of a community – including self identified minority groups in publishing – will often simply be deluded in their belief that they understand the people they claim to represent.

    Of course, in the end this is all about controlling the gatekeepers so as to control what people can read, and is very much a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. However, I guess that they can still aim to control some parts of the market, maybe the paper books in school libraries?

    • This surprises you?
      It’s the result 50 years of identity politics in academia.
      Makes perfect sense in that world: divide the body politic into as many different groups as imaginable and then assign each group, despite its size, goals, and significance, equal power and equal say in all decisions, especially the ones that don’t involve them. That way you cancel a 70% majority and give all power to a small activist crowd that pretends to speak for the minorities, even when their agenda runs counter to the actual needs of the people they pretend to speak for, or the nation as a whole.
      By now they’ve been doing it so long they think it’s the natural order of things and are surprised when anybody dares challenge them.

      • Definitely not a surprise, but still worthy of objection. I long ago realised that education and intelligence are no bar to astonishingly stupid beliefs. In fact, at times it seems to encourage the more extreme ideas, particularly when in an environment that limits contact with those segments of the general population who might deride your ideas.

        At times the elite’s disconnect from much of the population can be amusing to observe, witness the “headless chicken” reactions to Trump and Brexit. ( The amusement coming from observing their astonished disbelief that this could happen, though amusement may be muted if one has skin in the game).

        • Sometimes it’s best to just shrug and move on.
          The whole movement is self-defeating in the long haul. It creates its own worst enemies.

  8. Has anyone considered that blacks and various other minorities might be too smart to pursue such crappy jobs?

    • The ones they would like to hire are.
      The ones that might submit, don’t interest them.

      True story:
      Once upon a time, a Congressional committee asked for an expert briefing on the state of the art in rotorcraft technology for a dog and pony show on CSPAN. The agency assigned tbe task dutifully contacted the organizations building or designing helicopters and assembled a who’s who of that segment of aerospace. The politicians were aghast that the roster of eminences were all old white males and a couple of younger white females. They demanded answers. When they were patiently told that rotorcraft was a mature business and since government had no big multi-billion dollar projects in it, like rockets or hypersonics, the majority of bright young minds saw no challenge in it and gravitated instead to the “sexy” fields. Or went into finances or politics. In fact, if Congress didn’t soon authorize some new research programs, the present cadre of experts woud be the last. The politicians took the information under advisement…
      …and cancelled the hearing.

      The Manhattan Mafia responds to its own diversity numbers the same way.
      Doing nothing.

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