The Latinx advocacy organizations Presente.org and #DignidadLiteraria received long-awaited news on June 23.
Almost five months after the #DignidadLiteraria campaign pressured Macmillan Publishers to address the lack of diversity in its publishing house, the corporation’s CEO John Sargent announced that he was stepping back from daily duties, allowing a new “trade management committee” to take his place in an effort to place more representative leadership at the top of the publishing industry.
The committee would consist of current Macmillan employees: Guy Browning, Malati Chavali, Erin Coffey, Sonali Goel, Jenn Gonzalez, Helaine Ohl, Leslie Padgett, Dan Schwartz, Natasha Taylor, Jon Yaged, President Don Weisberg, COO Andrew Weber, and a new head of diversity and inclusion. The idea behind the committee, according to Weber and Weisberg, is that multiple voices in executive positions would help foster inclusivity at Macmillan.
Industrywide, Latinx individuals comprise 3% of publishing executives, according to a 2019 study by Lee & Low Books. Blacks comprise 4% of publishing executives while Asian Americans have a slightly higher representation, at 5%. Whites make up a whopping 78% of publishing leaders.
To put the issue into context, it wasn’t until July 6 of this year that journalist and author Dana Canedy became the first Black publisher at Simon & Schuster in the company’s 96-year existence. The CEOs of the “Big Five” publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan) remain white and largely male. #DignidadLiteraria’s critique against Sargent and other publishing leaders is that the lack of a diverse worldview at the executive level has consequences that trickle down the ladder.
Sargent’s letter arrived after a series of faux pas this year by Macmillan and other members of the Big Five.
In a Feb. 3 meeting with Macmillan, Presente.org and #DignidadLiteraria demanded representation in publishing be improved following the Jan. 21 release of the controversial novel “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins, which landed the white author a seven-figure contract and a movie deal. Oprah Winfrey selected the novel for her book club the day it was published.
Roberto Lovato, author and co-founder of Presente.org and #DignidadLiteraria, and other critics called “American Dirt” a stereotypical and inaccurate depiction of the Mexican migrant experience.
“We need to change as a company,” Weber and Weisberg wrote in a separate letter following Sargent’s announcement he would be stepping back. “We need more diversity in the titles we publish, more committed positioning and marketing of these titles, more hiring and promotion of diverse staff, more inclusivity in the decision-making process, and more open dialogue throughout the organization.”
The #DignidadLiteraria meeting with Macmillan resulted in a deal that called for the company to hire more Latinx individuals and to publish more Latinx authors and stories. Macmillan was given 90 days to come up with the next steps. The development of the trade management committee is the first major reformative action Macmillian has taken since the initial meeting, nearly three months after the deadline.
Lovato stated that Sargent was trying to use COVID-19 as justification for backing out of the original promise. But allied with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and organizations such as Latinx in Publishing and Dominican Writers, advocates stood firm.
“Right now, we’re confident we’re going to see something serious from them,” Lovato said. “We have to give them the benefit of the doubt. Now that John Sargent is out, there’s no excuse for Macmillan not to follow up on its commitments to the Latinx community.”
Separate internal pressure brewed following a June 8 day of action where employees from Macmillan and other publishers stopped work to protest systematic racism within the publishing industry.
“John Sargent had become a liability, especially at a time when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening in the country, conversation about race and racism is intensifying,” Lovato says.
Myriam Gurba, author and co-founder of #DignidadLiteraria, says she is skeptical of the committee’s ability to make real change within the organization and doesn’t think Macmillan should necessarily serve as a model for other members of the Big Five.
“I think that [John Sargent] is a dangerous and ignorant person,” Gurba said. “So to have him step aside, could potentially minimize harm, although he hasn’t stepped down completely, so that allows for the possibility that he can continue to do harm.”
Even though the committee is new, Gurba noted that all but one of the members who make up the committee are currently Macmillan employees.
“If the folks who created the problem to begin with sit on that committee, they’re going to continue to perpetuate the same type of hostility and the same micro-aggressions, the same racism,” Gurba said. “They’re going to bring all those problems to the transformative committee, so I don’t have that much faith. I have some, but not enough.”
Underwhelming representation of people of color at the executive level is one issue. But authors receiving the liberty to tell true-to-life stories about being a person of color presents other challenges. Gurba says multiple publishers have tried to tame her voice, which they labeled as “angry.” Her most recent book, “Mean,” a true-crime memoir that focuses on her coming of age as a queer Chicana woman. It has won multiple awards.
“You can’t expect companies that don’t hire Latinos to be very sensitive to Latino issues,” Lovato said. “You get what you pay for.”
David Bowles, author and co-founder of #DignidadLiteraria, has published novels and children’s books with Penguin Random House. He says he has had an overall positive experience with the literary giant, which he says has made true efforts to diversify its publishing practices. This does not mean that the company has not had its fair share of recent blunders — on the heels of Macmillan’s.
Earlier this year, shortly after the “American Dirt” controversy, outrage ensued over a Black History Month campaign by Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble. The literary giants put people of color on the front of classic books featuring white characters and experiences. Titles included “Alice in Wonderland,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Three Musketeers,” “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” “Peter Pan” and “Treasure Island.” The books were pulled from shelves, and the corresponding event was canceled.
Bowles says he was ultimately impressed by Barnes & Noble and Penguin Random House’s ability to own up to their mistake and is more concerned about the future of children’s literature within the Big Five as a whole.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that 5% of children’s books depict Latinx characters. Fifty percent of books represented whites and 27% focused on animals.
These statistics can be problematic for children who grow up reading books that do not reflect their experiences, Bowles says.
“They feel like we’re not worthy of being represented or talked about or discussed in literature,” Bowles said. “And that creates all kinds of psychological and social problems and allows for racist systems and attitudes to be accepted by them as the norm. That’s all they’ve ever seen in the literature that’s then supposedly forming their academic understanding of the world.”
Despite his success as an author in adulthood, Lovato, who grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, says he intimately knows the feeling of not relating to childhood literature. The books he read looked nothing like his reality of growing up with parents from El Salvador.
“My experience of literature in the San Francisco Public Library, and San Francisco Unified School District, was one of not seeing any story that said much about Latinos, except maybe the occasional Cesar Chavez story, which has, quite frankly, gotten boring at this point,” Lovato says.
Lovato’s memoir, “Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas,” which debuts on Sept. 1, is the first nonfiction book published by one of the Big Five written by and about Central Americans. “The Central Americans have been here for decades,” Lovato said. “But only in 2020 are we getting our first nonfiction book about us in the U.S., in the English language. So I feel the honor and the responsibility of being one of the first. So that’s one of the things that motivates me to do the work with #DignidadLiteraria.”
Bay Area native and Cuban author Jesus Sierra says he recognizes that the current action by Macmillan isn’t going to change the publishing industry’s long-ingrained problems overnight. But on a local level, Sierra has worked to advance writers through the Writers Grotto’s Rooted & Written program — an initiative co-founded by Sierra that supplies free writing classes to people of color.
Despite grassroots efforts, Sierra says people cannot just focus on the Latinx stories and writers who are not getting published.
“If you look at the industry itself, there’s not enough Latinx people working in the industry,” Sierra says. “Forget the writers. I think that’ll come as long as you start to get people involved that are familiar, that are culturally sensitive, that understand the work that’s being submitted and lend a different perspective that’s not currently within the publishing industry. I think that’s where the winning aspect of this thing is.”