When I got into book publishing in 1986, one of my first reactions was, "Oh my god, the only black people here work in the mailroom." While not 100% accurate (there was one African-American editor and one African-American copyeditor that I recall), it was a pretty lily-white business--to its detriment. It seems like, only 34 years later, that things are changing. But I remember sitting in editorial meetings and hearing phrases like "Blacks don't buy books," or "Blacks don't read." That was the "conventional publishing wisdom" at the time--rather, conventional WHITE publishing wisdom. It was pretty disgusting, and pretty stupid, but as an assistant I had more to gain by keeping my mouth shut than by confronting that blatant racist point of view. And this was at a time when Terry McMillan and Walter Mosley were hitting the NY Times bestseller list. As I've long maintained, people in publishing really don't know what the hell they're talking about until proven wrong.
Years later, as a Senior Editor at another one of the major NY houses, we had a terrific African-American summer intern. One of my fellow editors and I offered him a job as our assistant and he turned us down. Not us, specifically, but I believe he turned down the company and the industry. I don't blame him--why would he want to work at a place where no one looked like him? It felt awful not to be able to attract and hold onto a talented kid like him.
An author, literary agent, marketer, publicist, editors and booksellers talk about how race affects their careers — and the books you read.