Voices From Inside the System

‘We Need People Within Our Publishing Houses Who Reflect What Our Country Looks Like’

Book publisher Lisa Lucas reflects on her career and how the literary world still isn’t diverse enough

Photo illustration. Source: Gennaro Leonardi/EyeEm/Getty Images

Voices From Inside the System is a new GEN series where we interview people who have had firsthand experience in industries with especially fraught histories of systemic racism and inequity. We asked our subjects to think deeply about the role they played and the work they did. We asked them why they stayed or why they left, how they might be complicit, or if they thought they — or anyone — could fundamentally change the system.

Lisa Lucas, 40, is the outgoing director of the National Book Foundation and the incoming publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books. The publishing industry is often criticized for showing slow progress on diversity. A survey released by Lee and Low Books earlier this year found that 76% of the industry was white. Every other racial and ethnic group ranked in the single digits, with 7% of survey respondents identifying as Asian, 6% as Latinx, and only 5% were Black. Lucas spoke with journalist Melinda Fakuade about how she’s seen the industry change over the years.

I didn’t have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do as a young person at all. I knew I needed a job, and I wanted to do something that didn’t bum me out.

I was the first person of color to be the director of the National Book Foundation. It’s been an extraordinary experience, and I hope it remains so until the bitter end when I leave in December. Publishing and books can feel exclusive. It can be a really difficult community to be a part of. People are really proud of what it means to make a book and to live in the world of books. It’s a relationship business. I wanted it to feel like a party for everyone. I didn’t want people to feel they weren’t the right color or age for the party, or that they didn’t live in the right place to be invited. I wanted to make this be something that all people can enjoy.

Publishing is going through a reckoning right now. Publishers Weekly does a report on demographics, and it’s very, very clear that you don’t have a lot of people of color sitting at the table. One of the big conversations our industry is having is: What do you do with data that tells us we’re not diverse enough for the year 2020? We make the culture — we make books. If we are serving a whole country, then we need people within our publishing houses who reflect what our country looks like.

As a young Black reader, I read everyone. I read Sandra Cisneros and Flannery O’Connor and Gabriel García Márquez and Toni Morrison. The Baby-Sitters Club! Everyone likes their own literature where they can see themselves, but it’s just as satisfying to read about someone who’s not like you. I think half of the problem that we have nationally is not knowing the other and not wanting to know. People are starting to realize that’s a real problem.

People are really open to thinking about a much broader canon of literature than maybe 10 or 20 years ago. That’s going to change the reading habits of everyone. But you still see very small numbers of people at the executive level and very few decision-makers, respectively, who are helping to push that forward. If that changes, we have a real opportunity.

People of color have always been a part of the publishing world, and we’ve always been good at our jobs.

This is an inclusivity conversation that’s been brewing inside letters for years. Just like Black Lives Matter, a lot of people thought about it for the first time this year, but it’s the result of years of organization and activism that allows us to have this fully formed movement that appears seemingly out of nowhere, but is, in fact, part of a multidecade fight for civil rights. We’d always talked about how we weren’t sitting at the table.

And what an unpleasant year for publishing to lose some real icons. Carolyn Reidy and Sonny Mehta and Susan Kamil, and the retirement of Nan Talese. These are huge earthquakes; these were legends. You have a vacuum that’s created in their absence that needs to be filled. And then, of course, there’s a natural generational shift that happens. You also have the reckoning. If this had happened four years ago, we might’ve seen a very different group of people rise up into those positions.

People of color have always been a part of the publishing world, and we’ve always been good at our jobs. What changed was how we were being looked at, and whether or not we felt welcome, and whether or not we were welcomed.

The question is really more on the side of the institutions. How do you create spaces that absorb different kinds of people into your corporate or institutional culture? How do you make this a desirable place to work for people of color, rather than a place where you feel that you must do battle or listen to opinions that don’t make sense because they don’t acknowledge diverse markets as meaningful?

It’s interesting to watch the conversation shift in real time. But I think that the experience of desire in an institution is very different from feeling welcome. And so we need to see more of a welcome offered: that there’s support, that there’s a home, that there’s a culture that includes you. The hope is that people won’t feel put off by the past and will instead believe there is a new future for us. When that feels real, that will be a real incentive for young people to come and do this work.

For me, maintaining equitable panels and picking people who are open and modern is important. Creating visibility around extraordinary work made by all kinds of people has been a real privilege. On a smaller level, I’ve tried to live my life out loud, primarily on Twitter, and talk about my challenges and my frustrations, and talk about the professional community that I inhabit, and be really transparent.

I’m really proud of the diversity of our office, and it wasn’t like I had to pick the lesser candidate at any point. I just had to really make sure I was seeing résumés from all kinds of people. And it’s really very easy at that point. Creating an institutional culture that is supportive of all kinds of different people was a big deal. For me, that’s the work.

There’s always going to be a thousand people telling you to do something this way or that way. No matter what happens, don’t let it change you. Believe in the reader, and the system is going to have to follow the reader too. It’s important not to rest on one’s laurels and say, “Oh, it’s all different now.” It’s not. But we have to harness the energy of this moment. Everybody does.

Melinda Fakuade is a culture writer in New York. Her work has appeared in The Outline, The Cut, Vox, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @melindafakuade

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