The Demographics Of Publishing


* I covered book publishing for more than 15 years as a reporter, up till the early 2000s, and during that time it was my impression that the editorial side of the business was about 3/4 female, and that many if not most of the men were gay. (It’s a very unappealing field for a straight white male to get involved in.)

And sure, IMHO at least, that fact definitely affects the kinds of books that get published. If boys are reading books less than they once did, that’s at least partly because books (especially fiction) have become a lot less alluring and entertaining (in a boy sense) than they used to be.

Another thing to recall: book-publishing gals don’t tend to be earthy, showbizzy, rock and roll, or motherly types. They’re English-major types, generally. Recall the smartest girls from your college Lit class — that’s the kind of person the book publishing industry is largely staffed by. In another era we wouldn’t have been shy about referring to many of them as librarian or even blue-stocking types. Not the sorts of people whose work is likely to attract the attention of a lot of irreverent, rowdy boys.

* Back in the 90′s, some national organization of bookstores estimated that blacks, who were thirteen percent of the population, were buying one percent of the books sold in the country. Of course, they were lamenting that fact, and blaming whitey for it. But I doubt if that percentage has changed much at all, because the simple fact is that the vast majority of blacks have zero interest in reading. And the books they do buy tend to be trash, and I’m not talking about Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou level hogwash. I’m talking about stuff like Baby Momma Drama and Confessions of a Side Bitch.

* This seems way off to me. Pop publishing for black audiences is a major niche market — go to any Barnes and Nobles in the Northeast or an area with a significant black population and you will see lots and lots of books on the shelves by black authors for black audiences. Black romance (some of which is effectively soft core porn) is a huge genre, so is self-help and religious/christian. Black editors must play a major role in this business.

At the fancier/more literary level, blacks have done pretty well in the major literary award/prestige sweepstakes — James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison back in the day, Toni Morrison today (whatever you think of her she has been very successful in those circles), lots of respected mid-range authors like James Ellroy (genre), Colson Whitehead (literary) etc. When you consider that blacks are just 12% of the population they seem if anything overrepresented in literature at lots of different levels. As they are in many of the creative/performance fields.

* There’s nothing special about books. Many people are prone to get sentimental and/or pompous about “the book,” but in reality “the book” is just a container for content of one sort or another. Books don’t automatically mean wisdom, seriousness, significance or permanence, let alone immortality — most books that are made wind up getting pulped (as in not-sold, and then chewed up by giant machines). Many are dopily commercial, many are padded-out magazine articles or short stories, the fact-checking in many nonfiction books is worse than the fact-checking is (or at least was) at magazines … The idea that the book industry of the past did a lot of responsible caretaking of the culture is a myth. Some publishers and editors did, but a lot of them were pirates, opportunists and bandits.

And now that we have digital electronics, publishing material in book form often doesn’t make a lot of sense. There are often more appealing options. Reference works benefit from constant updating, multimedia and hyperlinks; there are many statements that are better made at shorter rather than longer length; fiction is easier and often more appealing to digest when it’s acted-out and made visual; blogging and social-networking technologies make getting ideas, jokes and observations out in public a lot faster and easier than ever before. Think about the quality, the brains, the quickness and the humor that we Steve fans get from Steve on a near-daily basis, for instance. Those are huge virtues that no book or book-publisher can match. And electronics have enabled lots of people who couldn’t get published before to join in the general cultural conversation. That’s made the conversation a lot richer than it used to be.

What mainly strikes me these days when I prowl a bookstore handling new books is the question, “Did this really need to be a book?” And I’m often struck by the impression that the editors, agents and authors wrestled with that question too. (If you’ve been in and around book publishing, you experience bookstores very differently than civilians do — you see the books, and understand the books, as so many publishing decisions.) Often the answer seems to me to be “No.” A substantial book might take me ten or fifteen hours to read. How many subjects do I really have that much interest in? Very few. Meanwhile, the number of subjects I’ve got a couple of minutes’ or a couple of hours’ worth of interest in is gigantic.

Focusing on “the book” per se often seems to me to be as misguided as focusing on the ad campaign instead of the movie, or focusing on the can instead of the food inside. The important thing is the material, not the packaging.

I say all this as someone who was a bookish kid and who still enjoys book-reading a lot, by the way. 15 years in and around the book biz will burn a lot of illusions off a person, though.

I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that the business is antagonistic to straight guys, though. An ambitious, dynamic, talented male youngster could make a big impact. That said, if that youngster were in many visible ways un (or anti)-PC I think he’d have a very hard time. (There always seem to be some slots for contrarians, though.) What’s happened is a more general, self-reinforcing thing: as the business of book publishing has become more corporate and more female, it’s become more bland and more worthy. And as that has happened (and as other technologies and media have proliferated), boys have lost interest in books and turned their energies and enthusiasms to other fields. I mean: Is the elementary-school world anti-male? I imagine a straight guy could land a job as an elementary school teacher if he really wanted to. But in practical fact there aren’t many straight guys who want to, because, hey, what’s really in it for them?

Nope, there are very few black people in the mainstream publishing business. That’s just a fact of life, and the business subjects itself to regular throes of self-flagellation about it. And reading and writing just aren’t the factors in black life that they are in (say) Jewish life or educated-Brit life. But that certainly doesn’t mean there are no black readers or writers. And black publishing, writing and reading are really interesting topics anyway — I did a lot of reporting about it over the years. There used to be a fairly large number of black bookstores as well as small publishers publishing black writers and catering to black readers. That’s less the case these days — as with book publishing and selling generally, many stores and publishers have closed up shop. As for mainstream publishing, every now and then some phenom (like Terry McMillan) will come along, sell like mad, cause a huge fuss at bookstores and leave publishers thinking, “Good lord, so there *is* a market for black-oriented books after all!” (I liked Terry McMillan’s early novels a lot, fwiw.) But then it all disappears to virtually nothing until the next phenom comes along. But as you point out, there are fairly lively subgenres (erotica, romance, etc) that do cater to black people. But generally speaking black people don’t read or write books (or get involved in the book publishing biz) in anything like the numbers that some other populations do. They’ve got their own verbal traditions: preaching, rap, storytelling, standup, playing the dozens, etc.

* The short version is that everything that is natural for a boy to do is wrong, nonconformist or violent. It seems a short step to me that the same gender that creates its own paper superiority (at who knows what innovation sacrifice) would be similarly bigoted in making decisions regarding what to publish. However, I am acclimatizing to the third world.
Fifteen years ago I remember resolving not to help a choking baby or girl so no angry crowd would mistake me for a pervert. Now when I talk to my age group, we want to survive, we want to not feel this way about our country, but we clearly are looking at keeping quiet in word and deed as a necessary survival strategy. Is whatever we have to offer our country in terms of really applying ourselves (as opposed to dropping out, disconnecting, NEETing and so forth) really worth the undisguised hatred and aggressive violence our country offers to us?

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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