Lee & Low Books recently came out with their 2019 Diversity in Publishing Baseline Survey Results. The statistics were disappointing–but not surprising. At the same time, they affirm why I feel like I’m at a crossroads with my potential career path in publishing. I was especially struck by the statistics of higher diversity in interns in comparison to full-time staff. I was also like, woah, I was a publishing intern in 2019, and there are stats about someone like me! But do interns with marginalized identities have access to the resources and sustainable benefits to consider staying in the field? Do they have access to a pathway to be promoted to executive positions to be able to make systemic changes? This is also following the heels of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins–a white woman who was given a 7-figure book deal to write a story about Mexican immigrants. You can read more about it in Patrice Caldwell’s awesome piece in Refinery29, titled “American Dirt Is A Problem. So What’s The Solution?” I wanted to talk about my experiences and how I’ve been thinking about my career trajectory after my publishing internship. This is not an expansive look at the publishing industry and current discourse on diversity.
A little about me: I graduated with a B.A. in English – Creative Writing in May 2019 from Mills College and exploring the publishing field seemed like a good fit for me, post-grad. So, from September to December 2019, I was an editorial intern at a publishing company in Berkeley, CA. I really enjoyed my experience there: the staff was down-to-earth and cared about my needs as an intern, even providing me with a partial travel stipend. I was new to all aspects of the publishing process, and the editors I worked with were patient and cared about my growth. They even told me that my name is being published in the credits of some of the books I worked on, which is a really cool thing to hear as an intern. This was also my first time working at a company, so I had a solid experience and got to observe what kind of company culture is best for me.
Being in publishing spaces energizes me. Like, I recently went on a tour of Chronicle Books and got to hear some of their editors talk about Chronicles’ process and vision, through Creative Mornings, San Francisco, and that made me miss working at a publishing company. Even so, I’ve been wondering more about how I, a young South Asian-American/Muslim woman, fit into the publishing industry and whether it’s actually a good fit for me. I wanted to break that down into 2 sections: how my background informs my understanding and the experience gap I feel.
MY BACKGROUND – The staff at the publishing company I interned at was primarily white (maybe 75%) and the next category represented was Asian, with very few Latinx and Black people working there. What I came to realize is that I do hold some privilege as a South Asian woman in the publishing industry. Asian representation has also been on a rise in the past 2 years, with many different cultures and topics woven into books. Part of that is the work of Asian publishing professionals, literary agents, and writers working to get that representation. As someone with a lighter skin tone, I recognize my privilege in benefiting from structures that uphold whiteness. I feel like my ethnic ambiguity did help me get leadership and job positions at Mills, because I fit into a palatable idea of diversity. I also don’t wear hijab, so my religious identity isn’t known to others unless I say that I’m Muslim. At the same time, I’ve always struggled in English and literature spaces that are primarily white, not feeling like I fit in (because my immigrant Indian parents didn’t read Shakespeare to me before bedtime–j.k. but true) and, instead, feeling a sense of imposter syndrome. I think that leads to my next point about experience. I’m still exploring the things I’ve internalized about being South Asian-American and Muslim and how that seeps into my experiences.
EXPERIENCE GAP – I had this strange idea that after 1 publishing internship, in addition to things I did during undergrad, I’d be able to get an entry-level editorial assistant position. In reality, I don’t think I’m ready by industry standards; I’ve only scraped the surface of skills that build a strong foundation in this field. My undergrad Creative Writing program also wasn’t necessarily geared toward career-building and had a strong emphasis on craft. Some suggestions I’ve accumulated: get a certification in copyediting and/or copywriting, publish articles & blog posts, attend writing/publishing related events, gain internship experience with varying job descriptions, free-lance proofreading and editing, work with writers to help them with things like research, and more. I’m unsure about what kinds of opportunities I should be pursuing right now–whether to pivot into a different creative field or continue to build publishing-related skills.
JOB MARKET – What’s also very discouraging is the lack of jobs. The are pockets of publishing jobs in very few cities, like New York City and San Francisco, and these places have high costs of living that cannot be covered with an entry-level publishing salary (I think that’s $35-40,000 in the Bay Area, CA). So, some people work 1-3 other jobs, in addition to their publishing position or are supported by their family’s or partner’s income. You can see how it would be hard for someone with a lower socio-economic background to consider a career in publishing, especially People of Color. With the lack of positions available, people with a range of skillsets are applying for entry-level positions. So, someone with only a Bachelors degree could be competing with someone with a graduate degree. In a company’s P.O.V., it makes sense for a hiring team to consider the candidate with the highest level of education and experience. And, of course, the cost of higher-education is very disheartening, especially Masters degrees. A Masters degree also often comes with a pay raise, and the position might change from Assistant to Associate. There definitely needs to be less barriers-to-entry in the publishing field and clearer pathways to full-time positions. Disclaimer: this may not be true for all publishing companies, but it’s relevant to the job market in general, too.
WHERE AM I AT RIGHT NOW WITH ALL THIS? – Great question, because I’m not really sure, haha. I’d love to work in the publishing industry, but there are clear factors that are dissuading me. For now, I’m taking some time off to follow my curiosities, travel, work on social impact projects, create content, and apply to opportunities. I would be so, so appreciative to have more mentors in the publishing industry or creative fields to talk to; if you have the capacity for that, please let me know! Lately, I’ve been thinking about how grateful I am for my family and for being in a position where I can slow down and really reflect on what’s right for me and what would be most fulfilling. I know that there’s going to be a lot more trial and error with figuring out my career path; it’s important for me to be open to all kinds of opportunities. I’m also writing a novel, so insight in the publishing process is always valuable, especially filling in my knowledge gap on the business-side of writing (See the Writing Resources I Recommend in my About section).
There’s so much I could say, and there’s so much I’m still learning about the publishing industry. We can continue to pose solutions to the many systemic problems, but the gate-keepers that uphold whiteness and Western conceptions of literature are still here. They’re moving things forward centimeter by centimeter thinking that it’s progressive–a good enough compromise, but it simply isn’t. As a South Asian-American/Muslim woman, it’s important for me to support the work of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous writers, creatives, and publishing professionals. It can be things like sending opportunities to people that I come across and keeping my inbox open to young Writers and Creatives of Color. I am always here for anyone in the humanities who needs someone to talk to. Take care of yourselves; you are more than what you think you need to be! – S.A.