79% Of People Working In Publishing Are White — But This Editor Is Trying To Change That

by Kerri Jarema
Photo courtesy of Mark Oshiro

For Patrice Caldwell, books and activism go hand in hand. The founder of the organization People of Color in Publishing — which started as a closed Facebook group for people of color who are working or want to work within book publishing — works each and every day to give POC the resources they need to make headway in the industry. On top of that, she's an associate editor at Disney-Hyperion, the books publishing arm of Disney, and a figurehead for the diversity movement in the industry. Yet none of that was necessarily her original career goal.

"I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and I was just your average voracious reader. So I had always loved books, but I was actually really into theater," Caldwell tells Bustle. "It was my mom who wanted me to pursue something more stable. So when I arrived at Wellesley [College], I got really into political science, and at the same time English and creative writing on the narrative nonfiction side. My dad was also a community organizer, so I grew up watching him do that, which obviously became a very important part of my story."

Caldwell knows firsthand that one moment can change everything, and she's bringing that spirit to both her online and offline work in the industry. The People of Color in Publishing Facebook is set up so that anyone who identifies as a POC and works or wants to work in the book industry (from journalists covering books stories to editors, publicists, and more) can join. The page is used to post information about open jobs, as well as post about meetups and other industry events — any one of which could change the course of a career forever.

And just a cursory glance at the industry's inclusivity stats — or lack thereof — proves just how crucial Caldwell's work is. According to a 2016 Lee & Low study, the publishing industry is still overwhelmingly white, with 79 percent of the overall industry identifying as white/Caucasian. And at the executive level, those numbers are even more damning, with a whopping 86 percent of executive employees identifying as white/Causcasian.

Below Caldwell discusses what first prompted her to launch People of Color in Publishing in the first place, what's up next for the group, and where she hopes to see publishing as whole in the next five years. If you're at all interested in the diverse books movement and the outsize impact that it is already having on publishing, Patrice Caldwell is a name you're definitely going to want to remember.

She Started People Of Color In Publishing To Give People The Same Opportunities She Was Given At The Start Of Her Career

Courtesy of Patrice Caldwell

"I had been thinking for a while about what it took for me to enter publishing, and the many mentors and former bosses I had who advocated for me," Caldwell says. "I think a lot of people of color struggle to find mentorship and I certainly don't want to erase the hard work I did — I once sent out tailored emails with resumes to every literary agent I knew asking for remote internship opportunities — but I've always been especially grateful for that early mentorship.

"When I struggled as an editorial assistant as one of the few black people at Scholastic, I could always go right around the corner to Andrea [Davis Pinkney's] office who always made time for me to chat and vent. In short, People of Color in Publishing came from wanting to create for others the opportunities, mentorship, and peer support that I had. I think mentorship is important but so is knowing people who are at your level and just above your level. People at my level became my friends, people just above my level allowed me to keep on pushing when it was hard. Mentorship and support and camaraderie are important at all stages of your career."

Caldwell Wants People Of Color In Publishing To Be A Go-To Resource For POC In The Industry For A Long Time To Come

Courtesy of Patrice Caldwell

"A few of the things People of Color in Publishing has done or is working on include organizing a massive writers and illustrators survey last year, with the end goal to create programming that addresses the specific needs of writers and illustrators of color," Caldwell says. "We do Publishing 101 webinars with colleges, via a presentation we developed that gives an in-depth overview of the various roles within publishing industry. We do more programming like this as a way to also help those not in NYC learn more about the industry.

"My ultimate goal is for it to be a well-known organization that's there to support people of color in the book publishing industry, just as We Need Diverse Books champions diversity within the books we read. Visibility to the public is key to me, but I don't ever want us to be so focused on recognition by white people that we forget to support people of color. We were founded to support POC by POC and that distinction is really important to us. I want people of color within the publishing industry to know that if you are a person of color within this industry, we are here for you and we've got your back."

She Has Already Seen People Of Color In The Industry Reaping The Rewards Of Community

Courtesy of Patrice Caldwell

"It's been super rewarding to meet people who were thinking of quitting publishing because they felt stuck or were struggling who got new opportunities and systems of support — whether full time jobs, freelance opportunities, friends or mentors — from the group," Caldwell says. "I think that's been especially rewarding for me because when I was an assistant at Scholastic, I was overworked, certainly underpaid and I really was going to quit. My mentors and peers kept me in this industry even when I was crying myself to sleep weekly because I was supposedly living the dream but was really just poor and unhappy.

"People of Color in Publishing has allowed people to better make the decision [to stay or go] and to have that support network should they want it. I have been at book launches and had people come up to me and say that the group helped them to get their first job or tell me stories about how they were about to leave NYC when someone added them to the closed FB group. I'm that person who cries at commercials, so I have been known to become very emotional in public when this happens, but it's worth it."

Caldwell Wants To Encourage People Of Color To Get Ahead At Work By Being True To Themselves

Courtesy of Patrice Caldwell

"I've actually never been able to keep them separate. I've always had everything merged. I think if you want to keep your spheres separate that's fine, but for me that's just not who I am," Caldwell says. "Yes, I know when it's time to be a professional, but also being an editor/writer/founder of People of Color in Publishing/online activist is who I am. It's a tricky balance, but I want people to see me as I am. I think people appreciate that honesty.

"Because of being one of a handful of people of color in school growing up, I got used to being hyper-visible. That hyper-visibility only increased as I entered publishing. I have never had the luxury to separate out the pieces of myself. When I was younger, my dad was a community activist, but he also was someone who had a 'seat at the table' in his very white workplace. I think I got who I am from him. He's an excellent code-switcher and, in many ways, I am, too. I leverage that to have real-talk conversations with people about, for example, the importance of diversifying our lists. I realized I could be more effective if I didn't hide parts of myself."

She Thinks It's Time For The Conversation About Diversity In Publishing To Change For The Better

Courtesy of Patrice Caldwell

"Honestly, what I want to see [is for] all of this to be more normalized. I want to see more stories focused on mental illness, disability, and queer characters in which there are intersectional characters who are getting to tell their stories," Caldwell says. "I also want authors who hold these intersectionalities to be able to write those stories and to be able to write whatever they want. I want to not be the only black editor at my publishing house. We've made some amazing leaps — I don't want to under-emphasize those — but we have so far to go.

"We say there aren't enough POC to hire when a job opens up, but then when a POC interviews for that job, [they're told] that they don't have enough on paper experience even though they are the best candidate. That is why People of Color in Publishing exists. We're that bridge. We're here to support POC, who are trying to enter the publishing industry but also trying to thrive within it. I think for too long people haven't truly listened to people of color. We're aiming to build our own networks so that we don't need to convince those who don't care to listen."