books · Publishing

Who Guides the Publishing Industry?


Though diversity in both authors and books has increased in recent years, the publishing industry itself remains fairly homogenous. But what does a typical publishing professional look like? Who are the people who make decisions about editing, publishing, and marketing books?

Last year Lee & Low Books created the 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS) to answer those questions. Over 3400 publishing employees from over 40 North American companies including Bloomsbury Publishing, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House completed the survey. According their survey, the typical publishing employee is a lot like a fictional person who I’ll call Mary.

So who is Mary?


Mary is a white cis-gendered woman. She is straight and non-disabled. Let’s say that Mary began her career in the marketing department of a major publisher. It was the most racially diverse department at the publishing house, and 1 in 4 staff members in it considered themselves to be a race other than white/Caucasian. There weren’t that many men though. In fact, only 3 people out of her department of 20 considered themselves to be men or gender nonconforming.

Mary eventually moved to the editorial department and began working with authors to edit and publish books. That was her passion after all, and she was thrilled to work more directly with books. However the people that surrounded her in the office began to change a little. Only 1 in 5 editorial staff members identified as a race other than white/Caucasian. 4 out of 5 people who work in the editorial department considered themselves to be women, which, when she thought about it, wasn’t all that different from her days in marketing.

Now Mary has been promoted to the role of editorial director – she is so excited about the move, and her favorite contributing author even sent her a fruit basket in congratulations – and the people who surround her in the office have changed even more. When she is in the meetings with the other executives, only 1 out of 10 is a race other than white/Caucasian. The proportion of men has grown a great deal though; 2 out of 5 people on the executive team are men.

Throughout the course of her career, only 10% of the people Mary has worked with have been gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or asexual, and HR tells her that 5% of the staff have some degree of disability though many of those disabilities are invisible ones. For the most part though, Mary has always been surrounded by people who are a lot like her: white, straight, and not disabled.

Though Mary is a fictional person, the levels of diversity that I had her encounter at each level of her career reflect the data collected in the Diversity Baseline Survey. In general, this tells us that the types of people who work in publishing are very uniform. It also means that if people in publishing consciously or unconsciously choose to publish books either about or by people who are a lot like themselves, very little in the industry will change.

Now it is up to publishers to find ways to create more diversity within their departments and among their publications. After all, one of the beauties and strengths of books is that they open windows to multiple perspectives, and right now, publishers aren’t accessing all of the vantage points that they could be addressing. I say all of that as though it is simple, but initiatives are often slow going. When filling out the race portion of the survey, for example, some participants “simply called themselves “Human” and wondered why [the survey] cared so much about this.” Choosing to ignore the experiences that people of different racial backgrounds bring to the table won’t result in a more varied season of published books even if we are all “Human”. I know that some authors bypass the problems of the industry by self-publishing, but that comes with its own drawbacks; self-publishers don’t receive marketing support after all, and often don’t receive the kind of respect or acknowledgement that traditionally published books do.

If you haven’t yet read through the results of the Diversity Baseline Survey, I encourage you to check it out. It features some fascinating data as well as some graphics that offer a much quicker way to visualize the publishing industry than my story of Mary does.

I’d also love to hear from anyone who has had interactions with publishing or publishing adjacent industries. The numbers that the survey reports reflect my experiences working with North American publishers, but different companies can employ very different types of people. (And that isn’t even considering the publishers based outside of the US.) Regardless, I’m very interested in hearing what you all think and if you have any solutions to the problem of who runs the publishing industry.

—     —     —


All data was taken from: Lee & Low Books, “Where is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results,” 26 January 2016, accessed 1 November 2016,

Image: Beth Kanter, “Laura Allen – cofounder of 15secondpitch”, 2012. (Please note that though this image was used to depict “Mary”, Allen’s life in no way resembles Mary’s. Her image is, however, openly available through Wikimedia Commons.)



10 thoughts on “Who Guides the Publishing Industry?

    1. I think that the gender proportions are often switched in a lot of US companies, but you are right; companies do tend to be fairly homogeneous. I’m glad the group did this survey though. It is much better to have the information than it is to not know it.


  1. Kristen, I have become of a fan of your writing. If I recall, I found you listed on Two Drops of Ink. I am not involved in the publishing company, but I have a good friend that is. I am sending him the post. Yes, he is a male, not straight, and retired Editing Supervisor from a major publishing house. So Mary he’s is not, although, in my world, we often call each other “Mary”. My point, before I lose my thought, is I love your tongue in cheek approach of describing Mary. Thanks for the good laugh as well as an interesting and informing post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m glad that you enjoy the blog and Mary – I certainly had fun creating her – and I hope that your friend finds the post interesting. (Though I suspect that he won’t find the data all that surprising.)


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