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'American Dirt' emphasizes the need to make publishing more diverse. Let?s get to work.

It’s a good thing that these questions are now standard where they once were rare. But as an editor and author who has worked in magazine and book publishing for more than 20 years, this moment feels somewhat anticlimactic. It’s important that figures such as Oprah Winfrey are hosting the discussions, as she did after facing criticism for choosing “American Dirt” for her bestseller-generating book club. But we already know what has to change for the publishing industry to hire and retain editors of color and make sure great writers get the book deals and the attention they deserve. 

A recent Lee & Low Books survey of publishing industry professionals found that only 6 percent of people who work in publishing identify as Latinx.

One major barrier to entry is publishing-industry salaries. Depending on the national salary aggregator you look at, editorial assistant jobs, the typical entry point to an editing career, pay an average of $36,534 or $43,761. It’s almost impossible to live on that salary in New York, where many publishing industry jobs are concentrated, without outside financial help. That poses a significant obstacle to some aspiring Latino or Latina editors and other job applicants of color.

And getting in the door is just the start. Editors of color are often pulled in multiple directions or forced into no-win scenarios.

To your colleagues you’re often cast in the role of advocate and ambassador. Being one of the few Latina editors in this industry is a lonely, complicated endeavor. I’ve had to fight to prove that books that don’t have easily identified comparative titles in the industry can still be profitable. I also cannot count the number of times I’ve had to explain that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and don’t identify as “immigrants,” or that the majority of Latino people living in the United States were born here.

To Latin communities, you’re cast as either a resource or a politician. You’re under constant evaluation — judged as either lifting up your communities or being a sellout.

What some advocates don’t understand is that for Latina editors already working in the field, the “conversation” on race and representation in publishing houses is not taking place on the terms we set and may be uncomfortable and exhausting for us. We are doing what we can, in addition to our jobs.

That dynamic has been particularly painful during the conversations about “American Dirt.” Some of the writers who appeared at Winfrey’s town hall have been called “whitetinas” or “vendidas,” meaning sellouts, on social media just for agreeing to appear on the show or to engage with Cummins.

The reality is that those of us representing our communities in publishing will never fulfill any of these roles adequately enough for some outsiders. Most of our time is spent attempting to serve, and make visible, a reader who has been ignored by this industry for decades.

Changing the salary structure and culture in publishing will take time, as will winning the trust of underserved communities. But as the conversations that drive these shifts take place, there are simple steps that all of us inside and outside publishing can do to make things easier for writers and editors of color.

If you are a publisher, stop asking Latina and other editors of color whether their ideas will appeal to a “book-buying audience”; people of color are a book-buying audience. If you are an advocate, start promoting specific, recently published books by people of color on your social media at least once a week, rather than simply waiting to tear down a problematic book by a white author. We need to make sure the great books we all say we want can find the audiences they deserve.

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