Authors’ Guild’s Diversity Webinar Asks: Can Book Publishing Change?

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Organized by the Authors Guild, “Centering Black Voices: Short-Term Progress or Sustainable Change?”, An online panel held on July 27, offered an in-depth examination of the history and potential of the continuing struggle of the book industry to address diversity, equity and systemic racism. The webinar is part of an ongoing series of virtual panels on diversity in publishing hosted by the Guild.

In opening remarks, moderator Kelly Starling Lyons, author of children’s books and founding member of The Brown Bookshelf, described the central question the panel would address: How do black authors get attention? Lyons has taken note of the current state of the industry when it comes to diversity in the wake of the protests and outcry over the murder of George Floyd. “Things are changing, there are new offerings of black authored books every day, new programs to nurture black writers, but a lot of the industry is unchanged due to white supremacy,” Lyons said. .

Lyons (like all panelists) took the opportunity to pay tribute to famous author-illustrator Floyd Cooper and author, editor and publisher Bernette Ford, two highly respected black book professionals, both recently deceased. Both have been cited for their long legacy as artists and book professionals, working to address the industry’s lack of diversity. Lyons called for a minute of silence and then cited the importance of the need to see “the joy, portrayal and authenticity of black people” in children’s literature, noting that it was “Floyd and Bernette who brought us gave this language and showed us what it means to give back to our people.

Following this recollection, Lyons noted that the industry is in the midst of an “equity account.” She asked the panel, which included Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson, also admired co-founders of children’s book publisher Just Us Books, “Who paved the way for what’s going on in book publishing right now?” “

Hudson, a notable author in his own right, gave a quick overview of the long history of black American misrepresentation and omission in American literature dating back to the 18th century. Along with this, he reported on historic counter-voices to black erasure as the abolitionist Freedom Journal, founded in 1827 as the first black-owned newspaper. Hudson cited the importance of the slave stories published in the 19th century, “which told the story of slaves.” There has been progress, but it has always been thwarted by forces trying to push us back. He later stressed “don’t underestimate hindsight”, noting that “this is still systemic racism”.

He was followed by his wife, who mapped out the struggle for literary diversity and inclusion from the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v Council of Education, through the Civil Rights Movement. She cited in particular The all-white world of children’s books, a key and controversial 1965 study written by Nancy Larrick, a white woman who was then president of the International Reading Association. She also cited the work of black children’s writers and illustrators such as Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers, Pat McKissack, Pat Cummings and Tom Feelings.

Describing himself as “probably naive, but hopeful,” Carl Lennertz, executive director of the Children’s Book Council, said that over the past five years of publication, “I have seen growth. [Diversity] was first called a trend, but it really is a movement and the arc of that movement continues; there are more organizations involved like WNDB, the Lee study and Low Diversity, all calling for change. Lennertz said the slow increase in the number of senior executives of color, creators, mentors, editors and officers at BIPOC, as well as conferences focused on the issue, “gives me hope, even s ‘there is still work to be done’.

Hosted by librarian and activist Judy Allen Dodson, the second half of the webinar examined new developments and new organizations, activists and movements now focused on diversity in publishing. Additionally, Authors Guild General Counsel Cheryl L. Davis described Guild programs offering contract review and legal advice (including this webinar and others) designed to assist writers.

The new generation of activists includes webinar panelists Paula Chase, author and co-founder of The Brown Bookshelf, and Denise Adusei, educational entrepreneur and children’s author, founding member of the hashtag movements #BlackCreatorsinKidLit and #LatinxPitch.

Chase discussed the evolution of The Brown Bookshelf from a promotional platform launched in 2007 to a “movement” that “really tries to change book publishing.” We want more than a seat at the table, we want to build the table. Adusei called #BlackCreatorsinKidLit the “babies in the room” post by the diversity activists. She described #BlackCreatorsinKidLit as a “support group for black storytellers and illustrators” focused on ways to “light the path to publication”, demystify the book industry and “increase representation in books. for children ”.

Chase and Adusei described the evolution of their two organizations: The Brown Bookshelf works in partnership with publishers and seeks financial support; “We can’t work for free as publishing consultants, we need publishers to invest in this process,” Chase said. While Adusei said his group was expanding beyond children’s literature to black creators writing for adults, partnering with organizations such as People of Color in Publishing and seeking engagement from white allies in the ‘publishing of books to share how they have been treated in the book industry. “The more we know what’s going on in publishing, the better,” she said.


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