For generations, America’s major publishers focused almost entirely on white readers. Now a new cadre of executives like Lisa Lucas is trying to open up the industry.
Lisa Lucas, the publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books, at home in Brooklyn.Credit…Wayne Lawrence for The New York Times
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At the end of one of her first days on the job at Pantheon books in January 2021, Lisa Lucas picked up her iPad, settled into a couch and began swiping through the manuscript of an unpublished novel called “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm.” Written by Laura Warrell, the story follows a jazz musician and his entanglements with a dozen or so women. As Lucas devoured its pages, she slipped into a kind of trance. Hours ticked by. The sun set outside her windows, and still she could not stop reading.
Lucas was captivated by the novel’s inventive form, the way it reveals the plot through a kaleidoscope of female voices, but her response to the manuscript went deeper than just aesthetic appreciation. The musician at the center of the novel is racially mixed, and the world he inhabits is rich with every kind of diversity: social, economic, racial, ethnic. To Lucas, it felt like the real world. “I’m an unmarried Black woman,” she told me during one of the many conversations we had over the past nine months. “Over 40. Who does not live in a convent. These stories matter to me.” She got only halfway through the manuscript before she started emailing it to colleagues. Did they agree that Pantheon needed to try to buy the book?
This is pretty much how book publishing has worked for generations. The stronger the emotional connection an editor has to a manuscript, the more likely she is to publish the book. The more editors who want a book, the more likely that its publication rights will be sold at auction, which drives up their price. These decisions are influenced by practical business considerations. Does the book have an audience? Does the author have a reputation? Can the publisher afford the rights? But they are also swayed by more romantic factors. Editors often justify their purchases by talking about how much they “love” a manuscript. In this way, book publishing is like the real estate market but with offer prices conditioned on the approval of a book publisher, not a bank.
Until recently, almost all the people who wielded the stamp of approval in book publishing were white. Lucas is the first Black publisher in Pantheon’s 80-year history and one of the few to ever hold such a post at Penguin Random House U.S., the umbrella company that contains Pantheon as well as dozens of other imprints. When “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm” went to auction, Lucas offered a winning bid in the mid-six figures. The price reflected her hopes for the book’s commercial appeal.
“I did not get up today to share this book with 20 people,” she said. “I got up today to share this book with as many people as I could convince to read it, because I think it’s beautiful. It moved me, and I believe that people are looking for those kinds of experiences.”
Though Lucas began her job last year, she was hired in July 2020, near the start of a period in which the number of nonwhite employees in the book-publishing industry surged. This was not a coincidence. During the national protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, book publishing came under scrutiny for its history of undervaluing and ignoring Black editors. That June more than 1,000 publishing professionals signed up to participate in a “day of action” to protest, among other things, the industry’s “failure to hire and retain a significant number of Black employees.”
Lucas had witnessed these failures firsthand since she began working as the publisher of the nonprofit magazine Guernica in 2014. “I started in film and in theater,” she told Brooklyn Magazine in 2016. “I was used to being one of very few people of color in the room, but I had rarely had the experience of being the only one in certain rooms until I worked in publishing.”
All that changed in the summer of 2020. The same month that Lucas was hired, Dana Canedy, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes who had been a reporter and editor at The New York Times for 20 years, became the publisher of Simon & Schuster. Elsewhere, nonwhite editors have been hired or promoted into senior positions at imprints like Doubleday (Thomas Gebremedhin), Flatiron (Nadxieli Nieto) and Random House (Jamia Wilson). Books by Black authors have filled best-seller lists, and editors have scrambled to buy manuscripts by nonwhite authors. (“Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm” sold in a six-way auction.) Publishing houses also have doubled down on their efforts to recruit and support nonwhite employees and to examine their procedures through diversity, equity and inclusion councils. Veteran nonwhite publishing professionals regarded these changes with hope — and skepticism. Many of them know that two waves of previous efforts to diversify the industry created little lasting change.
For decades publishing insiders have wrung their hands over the ways in which television, video games and the internet have eaten into their profits, while ignoring the ways in which their own business practices have limited the audience for their products. Survey after survey shows that the two groups of Americans most likely to read books are those who have a bachelor’s degree and those who earn more than $75,000 a year. For publishers, this should be Champagne-popping news. After all, the percentage of Americans over 25 who have earned bachelor’s degrees has more than doubled since 1970. But demographically these graduates look different than they did in the 1970s — they are more likely to be women and to be Black, Asian or Latino — and by neglecting to build an audience among them, publishers may have lost millions of customers. Publishers, Lucas pointed out, have nurtured audiences for items as strange as adult coloring books and young-adult vampire mysteries. “We built these audiences,” she said. “We invested. We worked. We took things that did work and we built something out of them.”
Some editors, like Lucas, are trying to figure out how to do the same for the vast swaths of America that big publishers have mostly ignored. It’s an effort that is complicated by a long history of neglect, which itself is bound up with publishers’ failure to take diversity in their own professional ranks seriously until recently. In interviews with more than 50 current and former book professionals and authors, I heard about the previous unsuccessful attempts to cultivate Black audiences and about an industry culture that still struggles to overcome the clubby, white elitism it was born in. As Lucas sees it, the future of book publishing will be determined not only by its recent hires but also by how it answers this question: Instead of fighting over slices of a shrinking pie, can publishers work to make the readership bigger for everyone?
When I entered the world of book publishing — where I spent two years as an assistant and another 16 as a book-review editor, critic and reporter — Barbara Epler, now the publisher of New Directions, warned me that the entry-level pay was abysmal, in large part because publishers assumed that few of their entry-level hires would actually have to survive on it: Historically, salaries were considered “dress money.” She said it with an outraged laugh, and I thought it was a joke, but I soon learned that she was right. When I was hired at Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1997, I made $25,000 a year for a job that required a college degree, industry experience and often more than 60 hours a week. I could have earned more money temping. Over the years, publishers remained reluctant to raise wages. In 2018, according to a Publishers Weekly industry survey, the median salary for an editorial assistant was $38,000.
For much of its history, book publishing, especially literary book publishing, was an industry built and run by rich, white men. One of the founders of Farrar, Straus & Giroux was Roger Straus Jr., whose mother was an heir to the Guggenheim fortune and whose father’s family ran Macy’s department store. Grove Press was owned by Barney Rosset, whose father owned banks in Chicago. When Bennett Cerf, the son of a tobacco-distribution heiress, bought the Modern Library, which would be renamed Random House in 1927, he and his partner, Donald Klopfer, each ponied up $100,000 — roughly the equivalent of $1.7 million today.
Until the 1960s, American literature was shaped by the fact that Black authors needed white publishers to achieve national recognition. In her recent article for Publishers Weekly, “Black Publishing in High Cotton,” Tracy Sherrod, an executive editor at Little, Brown — who was the editorial director of the Black-themed imprint Amistad Press for nine years — notes that both the poet Langston Hughes and the novelist Nella Larsen got book deals in the 1920s with the help of Blanche Knopf, an editor at the prestigious publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. After that, you could always point to a few great Black authors published by New York houses. Yet white editors didn’t necessarily think of themselves as serving Black readers.
“There is a subgenre of essay in the African American literary tradition, that can loosely be called What White Publishers Won’t Print,” Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor of English at Harvard, said. Both James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston wrote essays with that title, more or less. Gates said, “There is a consciousness from almost 100 years ago among Black writers about the racial limitations and biases of the American publishing industry.” Richard Wright, whose 1940 novel “Native Son” sold 215,000 copies in three weeks, for example, still saw half of his 1945 memoir “Black Boy” expurgated to please the Book-of-the-Month Club, which catered to an audience of white middle-class readers.
Under pressure from the civil rights movement, America’s big publishing houses embarked on their first effort to serve a more diverse market in the 1960s. Teachers and school boards in cities like Chicago and New York were demanding schoolbooks that recognized the histories and experiences of nonwhite Americans. On Capitol Hill, Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Democrat of New York, investigated the portrayal of minorities in classroom writings as part of the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on De Facto Segregation in 1966. His hearings revealed that there was only a single Black editor leading any of the new schoolbook series that publishers had established: Doubleday and Company’s Charles F. Harris. In response to this revelation, many publishers began recruiting Black editors into their education divisions, and a few of these editors later moved to the companies’ general trade-book divisions as well. “Those were the glory days,” Marie Brown, who was hired by Doubleday in 1967, told me. “We were invited in.” Among the ranks of these new hires was the future Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, who worked in a scholastic division of Random House while writing her first novel, “The Bluest Eye.”
Despite that wave of hires, though, the industry remained overwhelmingly white, both in its staff and in the audiences it cultivated — creating an opportunity for a new group of small, independent Black publishers. In 1965 Dudley Randall founded Broadside Press in Detroit. In 1967 Haki R. Madhubuti became a co-founder of Third World Press in Chicago, and in 1978 Paul Coates started Black Classic Press in Baltimore. “There was a need for the people who were struggling to have control of their voices so that they would accurately project what we saw,” Coates told me. These Black-owned houses published authors who are now recognized as essential to the American canon: Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and Pearl Cleage. But none of these companies had the funds to underwrite splashy marketing campaigns and national tours — the kinds of investments that help catapult books onto best-seller lists. All three started in their publishers’ homes. Yet they continued to publish nonwhite writers even when the civil rights movement faded and New York publishers’ interest in producing books for a broader audience waned.
Marie Brown told me that during the 1970s, a colleague at Doubleday advised her that “the Black thing is over.” If she wanted to make it as a trade-book editor, she needed to buy manuscripts of “universal” interest. “I was stunned,” Brown recalled. “I knew there was a thriving market; there were readers.” Brown left Doubleday in 1981, eventually becoming a literary agent and a mentor to younger generations of Black publishing professionals. But her instincts were right. After Morrison moved to Random House’s trade imprint, she assembled “The Black Book,” a landmark anthology of Black historical documents. Random House balked at publishing it. “It just looked to them like a disaster,” Morrison told Hilton Als in a 2003 New Yorker profile. “They didn’t know how to sell it.” But the anthology became a national best seller in 1974. And in 1976, when Doubleday published Alex Haley’s “Roots,” a historical novel that it bought in embryonic form during the 1960s, it spent 22 weeks at the top of the New York Times best-seller list.
Even after witnessing these blockbusters, book publishers still seemed to struggle to see Black Americans as a significant consumer market. Gates told me that Random House’s hire of Morrison was “probably the single most important moment in the transformation of the relationship of Black writers to white publishers.” Yet even Morrison felt she could effectively publish only one African American book each season, shepherding books by writers like Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara and Angela Davis. They never turned into national best sellers but did become classic backlist titles. When Morrison left Random House in 1983, the company’s publication of Black authors plummeted.
During the 1970s, Harris left trade publishing for Howard University, where he started the nation’s first Black university press and a six-week training program for would-be publishing professionals. Malaika Adero graduated in its first class. During her interview to become an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster in 1985, she said she would like to eventually become an acquiring editor. Her interviewer offhandedly told her that it would never happen. Her break came when a lawyer she once worked for in Atlanta offered her an opportunity to do a book with the jazz musician Miles Davis.
“Miles: The Autobiography,” written with Quincy Troupe, became a hit that sold more than 100,000 copies. But after its publication, Adero still had a hard time persuading her colleagues to let her buy the books that she wanted. Weekly editorial meetings felt like walking the gantlet, she says. Often when she brought up a book by a Black author, someone would say some version of, “Oh, these Black books just don’t sell.” When Adero pointed to Davis’s sales or to those of the filmmaker Spike Lee, another one of her celebrity authors, she was informed that those were “not Black books.” When she tried to buy a manuscript written by Susan Taylor, the editor in chief of Essence, she was told that Taylor’s book was too focused on religion. (Simon & Schuster neither confirmed nor denied Adero’s account of her time at the house but noted in a statement that “experiences such as she describes should not have been considered acceptable in any era of publishing.”)
“We’re hired for our special knowledge and experience, but our special knowledge and experience isn’t valued in the same way,” Adero told me. “It’s taxing. You still need a white ally.” After she quit Simon & Schuster in the 1990s and joined Amistad Press — then an independent house started by Harris — Adero published Taylor’s book, “In the Spirit,” and watched it become a major best seller.
In the 1990s the myth that Black books wouldn’t sell began to look increasingly unsustainable. According to Calvin Reid, a reporter at Publishers Weekly who has been covering the industry since the late 1980s, the turning point came in 1992, when three Black women — Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Terry McMillan — appeared on the New York Times best-seller list at the same time. In their wake, many other Black writers — among them, Walter Mosley, E. Lynn Harris, Zane and Edward P. Jones — had huge sales.
Many of these writers had to begin by building a reliable fan base for their books on their own, either by self-publishing or by orchestrating their own publicity campaigns. McMillan, who topped the Times best-seller list with her third novel, “Waiting to Exhale,” told me that Houghton Mifflin, the publisher of her first book, “Mama” (1987), made no plans to send her on a book tour. Instead, she herself sent hundreds of letters to bookstores and Black organizations across the country, offering to do readings and including pages from “Mama.” The response was overwhelming: She received so many invitations that she could not accept them all. Once, she walked into a bookstore in Atlanta and wept when she saw that the crowd waiting for her was standing-room-only. “Black people have always read,” she said. “They were waiting for something to read that they might be able to identify with, that’s all.”
Eyeing these successes, some publishing houses established themed imprints with nonwhite editors who reported to white publishers. At Random House, Cheryl Woodruff became the founding editor of One World in 1991, Melody Guy inaugurated Strivers Row in 2000 and Janet Hill formed Harlem Moon in 2002. Disney’s Hyperion Books for Children, meanwhile, created the Black children’s imprint Jump at the Sun with the editor Andrea Davis Pinkney in 1998, and HarperCollins bought Amistad in 1999.
But by 2012 all these editors were gone, and most of the imprints were abandoned. Many people told me that they believed the adult imprints were doomed when executives developed a single-minded appetite for knockoffs of Sister Souljah’s smash hit “The Coldest Winter Ever” (1999). Souljah’s novel, which was published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster, sold more than a million copies and revived a genre known as “street lit,” which often features characters connected to drug dealing and prostitution. The genre’s first hit was Iceberg Slim’s 1967 novel “Pimp,” published by Holloway House, a specialist in pulp fiction that began catering to Black readers after the success of Slim’s book.
Though street lit sold well in some chain stores located in metropolitan areas, its authors usually wooed readers through more grass-roots efforts: selling self-published books through street vendors or Black book clubs or at independent bookstores located in Black neighborhoods. These were not the kinds of outlets that big publishers valued, and these lines of distribution dried up when local retailers lost customers to chain stores like Borders and to a rising giant named Amazon.
“So it failed,” said one veteran, who asked for anonymity for fear of professional repercussions. “It was practically engineered to fail.” And when street-lit sales faded, the trend dragged down a generation of Black editors and publicists with it. Some professionals told me that when they witnessed this collapse, they felt as if publishing executives had showed their true colors. The demise of One World — one of big publishing’s first multiethnic literary imprints — felt especially painful. Worldwide, Random House sold 70 million copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey” in 2012, yet its publisher, Vintage Books, was never pressured to become an erotica imprint. “An editor can say, ‘I love this or that kind of book,’” the veteran said. “But the only thing that you see in Black literature is street lit.”
Narrow-minded ideas about what Black readers want have also affected white authors whose work touched on Black history. Rebecca Skloot told me that when she tried to sell her science history, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” in the late 1990s, editors suggested to her that there was not a large audience for a book about the ways a Black family was exploited by medical researchers. After she sold the book, an editor at a large publishing house wanted her to minimize the history of the Lacks family and focus on the scientific research that was conducted on the cells taken without consent from their matriarch. (Skloot did not want to publicly identify the editor or the publisher. The editor said that Skloot was asked to emphasize the medical research to fit with their other popular science books.) Skloot wrestled back her rights and resold the manuscript with the Lacks’ story intact. After Random House’s imprint Crown published the book in 2010, it spent nine years on the Times hardcover and paperback best-seller lists.
The experience for Black authors could be eviscerating. The best-selling author Kiese Laymon told me that when he was trying to publish his first novel, “Long Division,” with a major house in the early 2000s, he felt pressured to remove the novel’s references to Katrina, to move its setting out of the American South and to mute its handling of racial politics. (Laymon did not want to publicly identify the editor or the publisher. The editor contested Laymon’s account and said, “I would not tell an author to remove race from a book.”) Unable to stomach these kinds of revisions, Laymon, then a professor at Vassar College, returned the advance from a major house, resold the novel for $4,000 to an independent publisher in Illinois and shouldered the work of promoting it himself. “I’m just out here, putting them in my Ikea bags and putting them in my trunk and trying to sell them,” he told me. In 2013, Laymon published a lightly fictionalized essay in Guernica about this experience. He never would have published his memoir, “Heavy,” with a Big Five publishing house if he had not met Lisa Lucas while she worked at the magazine: “She was the only person in New York who said, I think there’s a value in what you’re doing.”
When she began her job at Pantheon, Lucas had no previous experience working inside a book-publishing house. She had to learn to be a publisher while performing the job at an imprint that was already publishing about 40 new books a year and owned a catalog of backlist titles that dates to at least 1942. (The backlist includes a book by my husband, published in 2014.) She understood that the first year would be brutally hard, in part because she would also be trying to change the way Pantheon thought about its audience.
“I’m not here to make Black Pantheon,” she told me. “I’m here for all the gods, the whole pantheon.” This was also her approach at the National Book Foundation, which she directed for almost five years. “Books are for everyone,” she declared many times while she was there. Under her leadership, the foundation started a program that got more than a million books to children in public housing, and it also distributed books in prisons. To promote reading, it set up panels for National Book Award winners and finalists at libraries, colleges, theaters and book festivals in both rural and urban areas across the country.
“The books were actually pretty diverse in the years that came right before me,” Lucas said. “But then you point them at everyone. There’s no reason why somebody of Polish descent wouldn’t like Jackie Woodson’s book. There’s no reason why a Dominican reader wouldn’t enjoy Masha Gessen. So point these books toward everyone, and that’s equity to me.”
For Lucas, this attitude has deep roots. Her mother worked at the pioneering Black-owned advertising agency Uniworld, which persuaded corporations like AT&T, Ford and Texaco to take Black consumers seriously. “I grew up hearing these conversations,” Lucas said. Her father was a record producer, songwriter and guitarist who produced most of Madonna’s first album. Lucas earned a degree in literature at the University of Chicago. Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” was the first novel she encountered with a cast of characters that reflected the kind of diversity that she experienced growing up in New Jersey.
It’s still too early to tell exactly how Lucas’s leadership will change the way that Pantheon builds a readership for its books. The pandemic made it difficult to organize the sort of in-person events that Lucas pushed at the National Book Foundation, and Lucas herself spent most of 2021 on a hiring spree. Her top priority was hiring people she trusted, whose taste she liked and who had the experience to make Pantheon succeed while also mentoring new, nonwhite junior staff members. Her first three senior additions were veteran white women: Denise Oswald as editorial director, Maria Goldverg as senior editor and Naomi Gibbs as executive editor. “I need somebody who knows more than I do, because I’m coming from nonprofits; I’m also being trained,” Lucas said. Late last year she recruited two other publishing outsiders: David Treuer, an Ojibwe writer whose history “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee” was a National Book Award finalist in 2019, joined to focus on works by Indigenous authors; and the Dominican reporter and editor Concepción de León left The Times to acquire nonfiction. (Warrell’s novel was edited by Pantheon’s longtime editor, Deborah Garrison.) Now seven of Pantheon’s 13 staff members are nonwhite, making it one of the most diverse imprints in the company.
The scale of Lucas’s hiring spree was impressive, in keeping with Penguin Random House’s promise to invest in Lucas, financially and otherwise, after she came aboard. Maya Mavjee, the president and publisher of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, which houses Pantheon within Penguin Random House, decided to turn Pantheon into “an equal and fourth pillar” of the group last year. This means that the imprint has a publisher devoted exclusively to its editorial and business success. “It’s extraordinary how much she’s managed to achieve in such a short time, because not only is she reading, editing, building a list, hiring, but also understanding the business,” Mavjee told me in a video call with Lucas.
But persuading authors and agents to pick Pantheon hasn’t always been straightforward. “I’m new, so I can’t say, ‘Look what I did in 1997 and this book I published in 2015 that did so well,’” Lucas says. The book industry is full of editors, agents, designers and salespeople who have worked together for decades. For them, Lucas is still a newcomer. Over a year into the job, one agent asked her, “Do you think you’re going to stay?”
Lucas’s racial identity has also brought her more visibility than other new publishers would normally have. “You’re not just proving yourself to the five or 20 people that you work with, you’re proving yourself in plain day to everyone who’s paying any attention for whatever reason,” she says.
The pressure was intense. One afternoon when I peppered her with questions about her hires, Lucas lost patience. “There’s so much energy directed toward editorial,” she said. “What about the critics? What about media coverage? What about book clubs? What about agents? What about marketing? What about sales? What about production? What about design? What about everything? You have to know how to sell things.” She had gestured at a restaurant across the street. “I can rent that out and make the best, most equitable production,” she said. “But I won’t be able to ever do it again if I don’t find an audience.”
Lucas has only two more positions — a graphics editor and a publishing assistant — to fill before her team is complete. She’s also thinking about how to use the tactics of an indie publisher or even an upstart politician to capture the attention of a diffuse group of potential readers. There was no tidy list of action items, she said. What mattered was the welcoming attitude with which a publisher did everything. “Many people are snobs and think that some people will read books and some people never will,” she said. “If you publish against that instinct, your spirit is one of invitation.”
During the uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic, many Americans turned to old-fashioned book reading in much the same way that some started baking bread. For the first time in 18 years, the number of print books sold in the United States rose for two consecutive years. In 2020, NPD BookScan recorded an 8 percent increase in the unit sales of print books, and in 2021 it registered another 9 percent increase. Worldwide, these bumps pushed Penguin Random House’s revenues up by $190 million in 2020 and by another $270 million in 2021, with more than half of those revenues coming from the United States. Sales were led by Barack Obama’s second memoir, “A Promised Land,” which sold more than three million copies in the United States in print, electronic and audio formats in its first month.
But nobody expects these boom times to last. During the 1980s and 1990s, America’s varied national landscape of independent bookstores was razed by chain stores, like Borders and Barnes & Noble. These have been ravaged in turn by online stores, especially Amazon. Each change has left publishers negotiating with ever larger, more powerful retailers. As a result, profit margins have slimmed, and the larger houses have sought leverage in size. Doubleday, for example, was acquired by Bertelsmann in 1986, as was Random House in 1998. In 2013, Pearson and Bertelsmann merged their respective publishing companies to form Penguin Random House, which Bertelsmann has wholly owned since 2020. Today there are five giant publishing houses in America — Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins — and Penguin Random House’s best hope for negotiating with Amazon is to buy Simon & Schuster, a deal that the Justice Department is trying to block.
Publishers are also staring down a more existential threat: Fewer people are reading. In 1982 the National Endowment of the Arts found that more than 60 percent of Americans read at least one book during the previous 12 months. By 2017, that number had dropped by more than eight percentage points, or more than 26 million potential readers. Data from the Pew Research Center makes even the increase in readership during the pandemic look gloomy. Yes, 75 percent of Americans read or listened to at least part of a book in 2021, but that’s no better than the number who did a decade earlier, when American readership was already slipping.
The usual explanation for this plunge is that books have lost market share to other media. There’s most likely some truth to this line of reasoning. But it’s also true that the “total addressable market” for books has changed. In the United States, the biggest consumers of books have always been college graduates and those with significant disposable income. And between 1990 and 2020, the percentage of Black adults and Hispanic adults with bachelor’s degrees more than doubled, while the percentage of Asian Americans with college degrees reached 62 percent.
Even as late as 2016, a whopping 87 percent of publishing professionals identified as white or Caucasian in a survey conducted by Publishers Weekly, and only 11 percent identified as Black, Hispanic, Asian or mixed. That imbalance can feed an unhealthy culture. “The submission process, it was incredibly challenging,” one agent, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid hurting her authors, said of the pre-George Floyd years. “It’s basically white people looking for books about white people for white people.” Occasionally, subgroups would get a brief turn in a narrow spotlight: three or four writers from India, say. Or an undeniably brilliant writer would become a critical darling, then a commercial success. Colson Whitehead. Junot Díaz. Chang-rae Lee. Oprah’s Book Club helped some authors break through: Ernest J. Gaines, Edwidge Danticat, Ayana Mathis. But a recent project by the McGill University professor Richard Jean So and the New York Times graphics editor Gus Wezerek found that 89 percent of the fiction books published in 2018 by Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Macmillan and HarperCollins were written by white, non-Hispanic authors — a nearly exact reflection of the industry’s staff demographics the previous year.
Yet as publishing turned its back on nonwhite readers, the audience they dismissed grew bigger and richer. Recently, McKinsey projected that by 2030 the collective economic power of Black consumers alone will be $1.7 trillion. Over the past few years, publishers have made greater efforts to supply books for this market. Rachel Deahl, who has tracked notable acquisitions for Publishers Weekly for more than a decade, says that she has seen a huge shift in her column over the past year and a half. “I tend to cover six to seven books a week,” she explained over email. “It’s not unusual now for half of the books I cover to be written by people of color.”
For Penguin Random House, Lucas’s reinvention of Pantheon is just one part of a larger effort to transform the company. In 2016, it revived One World, with the editor Chris Jackson as publisher. (The imprint published “The 1619 Project,” created by Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine, last year.) In 2017, Penguin Random House’s global chief executive, Markus Dohle, announced that diversity was now an “urgent and important goal for our publishing programs”; soon after that, it formed its first companywide employee council on diversity and inclusion. In 2020, a few months after it announced that Lucas would become the vice president and publisher of Pantheon and Schocken, Penguin Random House increased its baseline pay for entry-level positions to $45,000. Later that fall, Penguin Random House became the first publishing company to publicly release demographic information about its employees. In 2016, its reports revealed, only 21 percent of its new hires were nonwhite. Last year, its number of nonwhite new hires crossed 50 percent for the first time.
In a video meeting, Penguin Random House U.S.’s executive vice president of strategy for diversity, equity and inclusion, Kimberly Ayers Shariff, who was hired last year, and its director of corporate communications and social responsibility, Claire von Schilling, assured me that the company had made a long-term commitment to change at the highest levels. “I sit on the U.S. board with the rest of my colleagues in top management of this company,” Ayers Shariff said. “When the board comes together, we are talking about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.” She and von Schilling described in-house training efforts, changes in recruitment and the development of a two-year strategic plan that will include specific diversity, equity and inclusion goals that they plan to release later this month. Similar transformations are also underway at companies like Hachette, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan.
These efforts reminded me of the programs that Bertelsmann put in place after Thomas Rabe became chief executive and announced in 2011 that the conglomerate needed to promote more women. Achieving this agenda took more than a decade, but by the end of last year, women held 30 percent of the senior management positions across all of Bertelsmann’s divisions. “More diverse publishing is not just a moral imperative,” Shariff emphasized when we spoke last month. “We have to establish these more inclusive business practices as a necessity. That’s the way that we’re going to strive to fulfill our mission — to create books for everyone.”
In January, a year after she first read “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm,” Lucas received a draft version of its cover. Over the previous 12 months, the manuscript had been edited and revised. Lucas pushed it at Penguin Random House sales conferences. The publicity team made plans for a Zoom media launch with Pantheon stalwarts, like Alexander McCall Smith and Julia Glass.
It was just one book, but for Lucas it could have significant effects. If “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm” hits big, agents might steer more of their best manuscripts to the imprint. And if it tanks, everything could get a little harder for Lucas, at least until some other Pantheon book succeeds. In a scenario like this, all the marketing decisions matter.
Over dinner in Los Angeles, Lucas pulled out her phone and showed the latest version of the cover to Warrell. The two women huddled over the image, swiping back and forth between iterations to examine the details.
The design used a minimalist illustration of a woman embracing a man. Two bold lines defined her back. Two more indicated wavy hair. There was a hint of breast, a delicate ear, the suggestion of thick black eyelashes. The man was faceless, and the coloring — sandy caramel splattered with fuchsia — revealed nothing about the couple’s race.
In her 2020 essay “Writing While Black,” Warrell recounts many occasions in which white teachers and colleagues pressured her to handle race in ways that made them feel more comfortable. If she identifies a character as Black, the leader of a writing workshop told her, “then race must be integral to the plot. Otherwise, it’s a distraction.” One writer said he found it “jarring” to find out a character was Black on Page 3. In another workshop, Warrell’s classmates insisted on interpreting one of her stories as a gloss on race in America because 63 of the story’s 9,075 words described a microaggression against a Black character.
In “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm,” Warrell decided to address diversity by not addressing it, focusing on romantic conflicts rather than racial tensions. “I want to have the freedom to write whatever the hell I want to write, like white male writers do,” Warrell said at the dinner. “And if I want to write a book about race, I want to be able to do that. But if I want to write a book about people struggling to form intimate connections that’s what I want to write.” She may have paid a price for this approach — her novel was ignored or rejected by 49 agents over two years before she connected with Chad Luibl at Janklow & Nesbit during the summer of 2020 — but as a result, her novel feels like a political act, even though there’s almost nothing political in it.
One of Warrell’s most compelling characters is Koko, a teenager struggling to love herself and to understand her sexual impulses. Her white, blond mother seems to Koko like the epitome of American beauty, and her sexy, mixed-race father is mostly absent. “She’s dealing with that very authentic universal experience that girls have,” Warrell said. “And she’s also got to deal with the fact that there’s this racial component, but it’s not the driving force by any means. And I think that she’s aware of it, but I think that she also recognizes the other things.”
Across the table, Lucas nodded. “Do you wake up every morning thinking, How am I going to do today while Black?” she said with exasperation. “Nobody ever thought that. I mean, it’s like something happens and you’re like, I am now reminded.”
Warrell laughed in agreement. “Yeah, it’s not like you go: ‘Oh, my God, I don’t believe I am ever going to fall in love! I’m Black!’” Warrell sighed. “These people are just living their lives and they happen to be people of color.”
When I mentioned Warrell’s workshop experiences to the writer Danzy Senna, she said, “That’s just another Wednesday for a Black writer.” After the success of Senna’s first novel “Caucasia” (1998), people suggested that she didn’t need to keep writing mixed-race characters. “Like, it’s too weird and specific to be more than a one-off,” she said. (Roughly nine million Americans self-identified as multiracial in 2013.) What interests Senna most about Lucas’s post at Pantheon is the way it might open new possibilities for literature, allowing nonwhite writers to express themselves more completely as artists. “She’s speaking to the global majority,” Senna said. “She’s talking about the future of literature. Even framing her as Black person in publishing feels a little small in terms of her vision and what she wants to do.”
One of the last times I met Lucas in Manhattan, she arrived talking on the phone, going over deal points for a manuscript that Pantheon was trying to buy before it could go to auction. She had just finished meeting with several A-list agents who had interrogated her about her vision for Pantheon. She’d been to a lot of these kinds of meetings over the past year. Agents were balancing their fear of change with their sense of opportunity, and all of them wanted to know: What is Pantheon going to be?
At first, when I pressed Lucas to answer the question, she had trouble — in part because she seemed reluctant to close off any possibilities, but also because her phone buzzed with emails the whole time we talked. Art Spiegelman’s visual retelling of the Holocaust, “Maus,” had recently been banned by a school board in Tennessee. In response, its national sales spiked. Lucas needed to coordinate printing and shipping schedules with colleagues to meet the increased demand. Then her phone rang. The pre-empt had worked: The Pantheon editor Maria Goldverg had scooped up a series of three history books by Marcia Chatelain, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of “Franchise.”
For Lucas, signing the rising historian felt like nabbing a young Robert Caro. She did a smooth little dance in her seat, tilting her head and swishing her hands. The triumph cleared her vision: “I want it to be modern,” she said of Pantheon. “Cool. Inviting even when they’re challenging books.” She brought up the experimental origins of “Maus,” which was rejected by several publishers before finding a home with Pantheon in the 1980s. “It was radical publishing,” she said. “It was comix with an x. I want to be the kind of place where those kinds of books hatch.”
Publishing is a slow business. The truth is that permanently growing a loyal audience of readers among nonwhite Americans may take a decade. Books can take years to develop from nascent proposal to full-grown manuscripts. Authors can take a decade of nurturing to hit their artistic stride. In an interview with the podcast “Longform,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, the son of the founder of Black Classic Press, describes how he met his editor Chris Jackson in the early 2000s when he wanted to write a book about hip-hop. Jackson helped him see the value in writing a memoir about his childhood in Baltimore instead. More than a decade later, Coates became a celebrity with his second book, “Between the World and Me.”
“People misunderstand how long change takes,” Lucas told me. “They want change right now.” Building a foundation that lasts requires years — years of thoughtful conversations with staff members, years of losing bids, years of mentoring writers, years of books that succeed and fail. Fiona McCrae, the former publisher of Graywolf Press and one of Lucas’s mentors, told me that she offered Lucas some advice in 2020. There are two kinds of time in publishing, McCrae explained. There’s quick time: the books that you fight for in auction and that you just published or are just about to publish. Then there’s a longer arc: the book that happens because of something that you did five years earlier.
“It’s important to develop that sense of slow time,” McCrae told me. Success doesn’t always happen in the one- or three-year period in which profits and losses are measured. Publishing is littered with people who bought a book and were let go before it hit. And because the industry’s interest in nonwhite readers has waxed and waned, because books by Black authors have been regarded as trends rather than a core subject, readers have never really gotten to see what American literature or commercial fiction or narrative nonfiction might look like if more nonwhite editors were allowed slow time.
Sometimes when I spoke to Lucas, the intensity of her optimism gave me a kind of whiplash. Because she never had to climb her way up the ranks of a publishing house, she seemed less bruised than the other Black publishing professionals I interviewed. “I don’t know what it’s been like for them,” Lucas said. “I was outside. I was doing warm and crunchy work that everybody thought was so good and so helpful.” When I mentioned how disorienting I found her faith in the future, Lucas replied, “I think it’s just about not having a lot of fear.” She came to publishing because she adores books, but her first professional experiences were at the Steppenwolf Theater and the Tribeca Film Institute. She could pivot to another position as an arts administrator if publishing became untenable. When you have options, you can be outspoken. You can take risks because you know that, whatever happens, you’ll land on your feet.
Most of the authors, agents, editors, publicists and salespeople whom I interviewed for this article didn’t have those options. At some point in their 20s or 30s, they committed to learning the art of making and selling books, and they knew that if they lost their jobs, they might never find another salaried position. The nonwhite veterans I spoke with were especially wary. Although they cheered the recent wave of new hires and initiatives, none could muster much confidence about the staying power of this moment, and few would consent to speaking on the record. They had weathered too many indignities, suffered too many dashed expectations. “I’ve been having this conversation for over 50 years,” Marie Brown told me. “We have these moments, and then they fade.”
“The jury is still out for me,” said Linda A. Duggins, a former senior publicity director at Grand Central Publishing. “Some of these programs: been there, done that. When are they going to put cash in people’s pockets?”
Even those who praised their current jobs and bosses were reluctant to paint a rosy future. “The history of things means that I can’t relax,” Sherrod said. “Because we never know. We never know.”
The efforts of the 1960s were abandoned during the inflationary years of the 1970s. The nonwhite professionals promoted during the 1990s were mostly let go after the dot-com bubble burst and the great recession appeared in the 2000s. What will book publishers do when the next economic downturn inevitably arrives?
Many white professionals are also nervous about what may come next. “Insiders, especially some agents I’ve spoken to, are concerned that publishers are rushing to buy these books, but aren’t prepared to support them,” Deahl wrote me. “We’re in a very difficult environment, when it comes to finding an audience for books — the factors are myriad and longstanding, from the lack of review outlets to the movement from physical retail to online — and if a book doesn’t have the support of its publisher at publication, it’s unlikely to sell many copies. And, once you’re an author of a book with underwhelming sales, you’re going to find it very difficult to sell your next project to any publisher.”
The day before we met Warrell for dinner, Lucas and I visited Skylight Books in Los Feliz, ostensibly to study book covers. She pulled more than a dozen volumes off the shelves as we walked through the store, showing me what she liked. Many of the jackets had bold, minimalist designs, but their largest common denominator was that — clever promoter that she was — nearly all of them were for books published by Pantheon or its sister imprints Knopf and Vintage.
Then we entered Skylight’s annex, where it displays graphic novels and nonfiction. Pantheon was one of the earliest mainstream imprints to embrace the genre, and it’s one that Lucas loves. She began placing books and folios in front of me like they were rare treasures: Anders Brekhus Nilsen’s “Tongues.” Ben Passmore’s “Your Black Friend.” As I flipped through them, she chatted up a salesclerk, a burly white man with red hair and a big beard who stood behind the counter. “Do you have any more work by Jordan Crane?” she asked. “Can you recommend something offbeat that I might not have heard of before? … No, nothing from Fantagraphics, I need more obscure. … I work at Pantheon. … Yes, that book is delayed, this is why. This is the book you need to look out for this fall.”
At first it was hard to tell exactly what the clerk made of this chatty woman in a knit hat and oversize camel-colored coat. She was the only Black person in the store. But soon, he came out from behind the counter and began pulling his favorite, most esoteric books off the shelves. They entered a rapid fire swap of names and titles, identifying shared tastes. Finally, as she carried her haul of recommendations to the cashier, he threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Well, keep me posted!” he called as she paid.
Maybe Skylight would sell a few more units of Pantheon titles because she stopped by. Everywhere we went she was hard at work — disarming, learning, selling. But Lucas couldn’t be out there all the time, proving herself to people and charming them into embracing her books. There was so much work to be done, and nobody knows how long the opportunity to do it will last.
For generations, America’s major publishers focused almost entirely on white readers. Now a new cadre of executives like Lisa Lucas is trying to open up the industry.