the group portrait

Publishing’s New Power Club

A wave of hires is set to pick up where the reckoning left off.

Clockwise from top left, Phoebe Robinson, Jamia Wilson, Dana Canedy, and David Yoon. Photo: Victor Llorente; Dana Canedy (Courtesy Canedy)
Clockwise from top left, Phoebe Robinson, Jamia Wilson, Dana Canedy, and David Yoon. Photo: Victor Llorente; Dana Canedy (Courtesy Canedy)

Not long ago, Dana Canedy, the recently appointed publisher of Simon & Schuster, was visiting the Jersey shore when she strolled past an independent-bookstore display that caught her attention. Although the bookstore was owned by a white person, and the area surrounding it was populated mostly by white people, every single book in the store’s display had something to do with race. Canedy (the first Black person to hold her new position) took out her phone and stopped to take a picture. “People are focused on this issue right now,” she said, “and we need to capitalize on that and make the changes to help make this permanent.”

By the time that America’s reckoning on race reached a fever pitch last year, publishing was months into a messy upheaval of its own. On Twitter, publishing insiders railed against the blinding whiteness of the industry, while writers of color used #PublishingPaidMe to show that they often received far less money than their white peers. The resulting move by the big-five publishers to hire executives and editors of color has been viewed by some as a sea change for the industry. But as Lisa Lucas, the new publisher of Pantheon and Schocken, put it, “We’re not going to change it on our first day. It’s a step.”

Clockwise from top left, Nicola Yoon, Thomas Gebremedhin, Krishan Trotman, and Lisa Lucas. Photo: Victor Llorente

Each of the executives pictured here has a slightly different approach to their new role. Novelist Nicola Yoon created an imprint dedicated to YA romance with her husband, David, because “people of color are so often left out of that sort of yearning.” Krishan Trotman at Hachette, too, is pushing to expand genres. “How many Black self-help or business authors do you see hitting the New York Times best-seller list? Are they not good at business? Do they not have advice?” Dana Canedy of Simon & Schuster spoke more about managerial strategies and mentioned that she’d asked her staff to prepare a detailed diversity plan. Her own includes publishing more conservative authors, although there are limits. Earlier this year, Simon & Schuster announced it was canceling Senator Josh Hawley’s book after “his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy” on January 6.

Of course, change at the top doesn’t change everything right away. Phoebe Robinson, the comedian who founded Tiny Reparations Books, said she was encouraged by the way her publisher responded to her request to hire a Black lead editor. “It was refreshing to hear ‘This sounds great’ and not ‘Maybe you being Black is enough,’ ” she said. “I really like to use my platform for other people. I’m not Kate Winslet on that door at the end of Titanic taking up all the space. I would’ve made so much room for Leo. He’s too fine to just let him die like that.” New York talked to nine of these publishing-industry power players about how they got their jobs and their hopes and fears for their new positions.

Lisa Lucas

Senior vice-president and publisher at Pantheon & Schocken Books

Current book loves: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, by Deesha Philyaw; Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu; and Endpapers, by Alexander Wolff.

Right after George Floyd was killed and #publishingpaidme took off, right around the beginning of June, I dashed off a tweet that basically said, ‘does anybody want to hire someone to run an actually equitable publishing house?’ You can’t look at publishing over the time that I’ve participated in it and not understand that there’s a problem, unless you’re willfully not looking. It was so extraordinarily painful to watch people putting their advances on the internet, to be collectively expressing so much exclusion. I haven’t ever been professionally upset like that before. Jesmyn Ward was talking about fighting for $100,000 for Sing, Unburied, Sing. That’s the book that won her her second National Book Award. It felt to me then that I could only do so much work at the award level. I needed to get in where the sausage is made, where the money is. After I tweeted, Reagan Arthur, who is the publisher of Knopf, reached out and she said, ‘you raised your hand. Want to talk?’

I’m coming from outside the publishing houses, from nonprofits and theater and film, so some of the dyed in the wool traditions of publishing are lost on me entirely. And I think that that’s a good place to start from, because I don’t have to do things the way that they’re always done. I don’t have an expectation that everything will be super different the moment I take this job. What I do hope for is to feel the openness to change that has been communicated throughout 2020 by publishers — less talking, less I understand you, I hear you, I agree with you, more Now I must do something. Now I must make the hire, now I must think about how I compensate entry-level staff.

Thomas Gebremedhin

Vice-president and executive editor at Doubleday

The first book he fell in love with: I wrote my college essay on Song of Solomon. I actually have a Toni Morrison tattoo on the back of my thigh—“The function of freedom is to free somebody else.”

It’s tricky because sometimes in these moments of great change or disruption, people of color are expected to bear the weight of long-term failures at the structural level. I just started in September, a few months after the black lives matter protests were at a fever pitch. It’s hard to know if the industry is changing, but my instinct is that it is. Bill Thomas, the publisher of Doubleday, reached out to me early last year, and we had a couple of conversations over the following months. In the pandemic, everything seemed so ephemeral, but books are less ephemeral than magazines, and that really appealed to me.

The big thing for me, and this was true even in magazines, is always thinking about who we are missing. I think that we sometimes assume that literature is for a select group of people who can attend a reading in New York or London, but there are serious and smart readers wherever there’s a public library, and you have to assume that some of them want to be writers too. Not every writer is going to have access to an MFA program. Maybe it’s a matter of going to community colleges, the way editors and agents visit MFA programs. It’s also a matter the kinds of media that you’re consuming. So you read the major publications, but you also read various substacks.

The greatest challenge is ensuring that everyone gets a fair shot. When I was in magazines, people pitched me stories, and I always always read every last pitch, no matter what their background was or where their bylines had been placed. I’m doing that here as well. Sometimes the people who submit to me don’t have agents, and I read their work and I try to give them a very thoughtful response.

Krishan Trotman

Vice-president and publisher at Legacy Lit, an imprint of Hachette Books

Book that made her want to work in publishing: The Bluest Eye. When I read that, it cracked something open in me that made me want to provide that feeling to other young women.

Last spring, while I was working as an executive editor at Hachette, I approached the company, the CEO and my bosses, with the proposal for Legacy Lit. Things were boiling over, and we were all having this conversation, about George Floyd, and about publishing. The conversation wasn’t new to me — I’d spent a lot of my career in publishing as the only person of color in the room. I was happy that the discussion was happening, but I knew that it could just go away. I wanted to make something out of this moment, so that when the discussion dies down, something tangible would be left behind. That’s where the name of the imprint comes from — to create a new legacy, something that will last.

The reason I went into publishing is because a black editor walked into my class one day and told us about her job, and the multicultural books she was working on, and I was so fascinated and that I asked her for an internship. There aren’t a lot of us working in this industry. The standard path is that you come on in an entry level position in New York. But that’s a low salary job. If people don’t have a certain level of privilege, they just can’t do it. What we need to do now is bring people in and teach them publishing. We have to look for them in different places than we normally would.

The thing that’s gotten me through all these years in the industry as a woman of color is other women of color. When I started in 2004, I was an editorial assistant. I was in my 20s and I had dreadlocks, and I didn’t know how to show up for work, because I would wrap my hair like Erykah Badu. My boss was a black woman, so I asked her whether it was okay to wear my hair wraps and my dreadlocks. I basically was asking her, ‘do I need to whitewash my look?’ She told me absolutely not. I was asking her because I just didn’t know if this was a place for me. She was someone who helped me see that I did belong here, even though I was different. The more you can see your people, and have someone to talk to, the more these publishing houses become a place you can stay.

Phoebe Robinson

Founder of Tiny Reparations Books, a Penguin Random House imprint

The new book she’s most looking forward to reading this year: I just got The Prophets, and I have tissues ready.

For a long time, I’ve had this idea at the back of my mind that I wanted to have my own imprint. I remember when we were shopping around You Can’t Touch My Hair in early 2015, and so many editors passed. They told my agent, ‘this isn’t relatable. Nobody wants to read an essay collection by a black girl, nobody is going to be able to identify with this, this would never sell.’ Of course, my agent did manage to sell it and the book became a New York Times bestseller, and those same editors who passed reached out to my agent and asked why didn’t you give us this proposal? we would have published it! And he was like, I did. This is what happens when people allow their biases to get in the way.

I’ve kept that experience at the back of my mind. Last year I had a meeting with Plume, my publisher, and told them that I wanted to come out with an imprint, and they seemed very open to it. I think the timing was a confluence of factors: Covid played a part, because I think people have been searching for distraction, or something enriching to their lives in a time when we can’t go outside. But I think the social uprisings after the killing of George Floyd, and #publishingpaidme, were part of it too. My first advance was $25,000, which is literally LOL. (Ultimately, my editor went to the publisher and asked them to bump it up to $50,000.) There’s a discrepancy between what a new white author can get and a new Black or Latinx author, and that’s huge, because six figures means you can take time off from work, or go on a writers retreat, it means you can do the work you want to do and not be worried about how you’re going to make rent. When I was writing my book, I was working full time. I remember I would do my stand-up shows, my freelance writing, and then I would work on my book from 10:00 PM to 4:00 AM and then get up and do it all over again.

Nadxieli Nieto

Executive editor for Flatiron Books

The book that made her fall in love with reading: Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People, by Nikki Giovanni.

I was brought on by Flatiron as part of the conversation that followed American Dirt. Those of us from marginalized communities often don’t get perfect opportunities. Part of what I thought about when I was approached was: what can I do there? What are the things I can change? Can I be useful? And the answer to me was, yes. I can count the number of Latinx editors with acquisition power on one hand, so having even one more Latinx editor at a big five house makes a huge difference. Did it feel great to spend an entire year talking about American Dirt with every agent and author I spoke with? Not really, but it was a conversation that needed to be had and still needs to be had. Still, it can be a little taxing to have to talk about a book that I did not have anything to do with over and over again.

Any time you’re dealing with a white institution, there’s naturally going to be a culture clash. I was talking to a younger colleague earlier today, and she asked me whether I’d experienced microaggressions at work. It took me a second to answer, because it’s so expected that I almost don’t feel them anymore. When you’re attempting to change the culture of an imprint, especially a big five imprint, you’re also affecting the larger ecosystem of publishing. Every one of the big five has created a book like American Dirt, but one of the things I saw with the team at Flatiron was how invested they were in having a conversation and talking about how to do better — how to publish better, how to communicate internally and externally about the books better. That was really compelling. I’d rather be in a room with people having a conversation openly and honestly, than be in a room where everybody’s pretending everything’s okay, and I know it’s not.

I’m at my happiest when I am in an auction with four other brilliant editors of color, and this is happening more and more. And that gives me a great amount of hope. It’s nice to see that there are enough of us who care about these authors that we’re making a competitive market for them. In terms of advances that writers of colors are able to get, I do think there’s been a shift. I will say that every single one of the auctions that I’ve been in for authors of color has been for a very healthy amount of money. You’re also working with agents, to help them understand the shift. When I first started, I received a lot of submissions that were heavy on Black and brown pain and trauma. I had to start having conversations with agents and talking about the full breadth of the work that I wanted to see.They now know that there’s me and a few other editors who are looking for this kind of work and are willing to pay good money for it.

Jamia Wilson

Executive editor at Random House

The book that made you want to work in publishing: The Diary of Anne Frank. My parents were professors, and they said, you need to know about the Anne Frank House, because you need to know about the parallels of fascism and racism and antisemitism.

I first heard about the opportunity in the late summer. I was interested in being a part of these sea changes in the culture that we’re seeing, conversations that I hold dear around feminism, around racial justice and social justice. One of the things that really motivated me when considering the opportunity was thinking about how I was lucky to be brought up by parents who were the first African-Americans in their degree programs during a time when they were in openly hostile environments. My mother, who is now deceased, was a speech pathologist, and my dad, who is retired, was a speech scientist, and it was so normalized for me to hear their stories about what it was like to be the first African-Americans in their PhD programs. I was also thinking about Kamala Harris, and the comment from her mother, saying, when you are the first or one of the first, a big part of the work is to help create the conditions where you are not the last.

I don’t believe that my specific role at Random House is the end all, be all of change in an industry, writ large. That’s too much for one person to carry. But one of the most important parts for me, of choosing publishing as a career path, is that I truly believe that having people who represent the fullness and diversity of who we are, at all different levels of decision-making, is important to ensuring that we have equity and inclusion in our systems in the world, and in the books that we publish. I was the first African-American in the role that I had at Feminist Press, and when I was there, we changed our motto to “creating a more just world where everyone recognizes themselves in a book.” That’s very much the mindset that I have about the list that I’m planning on building in my new position.

Nicola and David Yoon

Co-publishers of Joy Revolution, a young-adult imprint of Random House Children’s Books

The first book that made them want to work with books: Nicola: The Little Prince and The Bluest Eye. David: The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury.

Nicola: David and I met in graduate school 1000 years ago, and the idea for this imprint really began then. We never saw ourselves in books, especially in romances and love stories, when we were younger. Then we got book deals, and published books, and then, last year, I got it into my head that I was going to pitch the imprint to Barbara Marcus, the head of Random House children’s books. We’ll see how much support we get. So far they’ve been terrific, but the proof is in the pudding with these things.

David: Our pitch was super simple. We wanted to get more POC into romantic lead roles because it’s such a humanizing characterization—they’re just people who want to fall in love and live their lives. We wanted to give POC readers a safe haven to enjoy their lives as people, and not as some sort of lesson about racism.

Nicola: As cheesy as this is going to sound, I really do think that love is what makes the world go around. It’s the thing that everyone wants. And we chase it in all sorts of ways – love of work, and love of friends, and romantic love. It’s a universal. People of color are so often left out of that sort of romantic yearning, and that vulnerability, and the softness and the kindness, and the hope. There are a lot of books that exist to teach a lesson, and I think we still need those books, but also need the wish fulfillment fantasy. And a lot of kissing. I think that changes and that can really change a person.

It’s always hard to know whether something will be lasting while you’re still in it. I moved from Jamaica to America when I was 11, and I remember being amazed by how many black people were on TV. And then it just sort of went away.

David: It’s the same way I felt after I saw Crazy Rich Asians. I looked at that movie with a mixture of joy and also wary suspicion. I thought, enjoy it while it lasts.  What I’m personally sensing right now is that there’s this idea that books by POC should teach things about culture. My book Super Fake Love Song came out a few months ago and I’ve heard some feedback from readers who will say, ‘The book was fun. It was romantic, it was cute, but I didn’t learn a lot about the Korean culture.’ It’s weird to say, but I think it’s necessary for a large majority of the readership to have an orientation period. Once we get past that, we can start considering these characters on purely universal human terms.

Dana Canedy

Senior vice-president and publisher at Simon & Schuster

The first book she fell in love with as a kid: This is going to sound corny, but I thought that some of the most beautiful, complex, and interesting writing was in the Bible.

Jonathan Karp, the CEO of Simon & Schuster, reached out to me two and a half years ago now and asked if I’d be interested in joining the company. He should get a tremendous amount of credit, I think, for the fact that he started speaking to me long before the racial reckoning that was going on last summer and fall, long before publishing was looking to diversify in the way that it has in the last six months. The industry, like so many others, including journalism, was heavily white. And of course that influenced whose voices got amplified. But I don’t focus on the legacy. I focus on the work we have to do. I am a black author, and I understand what authors need, and the way that diversity in leadership can impact the quality of a book. I focus on where we’re going and becoming a part of the new legacy.

I recently had a meeting with my staff where I asked everybody to present and bring me a plan for how they are going to think about diversity — of all kinds — this year, and what specific steps they’re going to take. I told them that I want to set the pace for the industry, for what a diversity strategy looks like. I will be holding them formally accountable for that, and they should hold me formally accountable, too. When we have the meeting where those plans are presented, the first thing I’m going to do is put mine up on the screen. I told my staff that when we talk about how to address diversity, that could mean the voices of black male authors, or white female authors from Appalachia. I’m looking right now to hire a conservative editor to acquire books by and about conservatives. There’s an opportunity in the marketplace to fill something of a void. There are others who do publish conservative books, but we need to do more of that. I want to do more books on religion, too.

Historically, the publishing industry has relied on comps to make decisions about what to publish, but, in general, even when the books that have nothing to do with race, the best books are the ones that have no comps period. The industry needs to be diversified at every level, but you need people who are in leadership roles to say, ‘we’re going to make changes to the way we are going to publish this book — you may not understand this, but we’re going to do it.’ And then the results will speak for themselves.

*A version of this article appears in the February 15, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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Book Publishing’s New Power Club