The Issue Of Whiteness In Publishing With Heather Jackson

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TAC Heather | Whiteness In Publishing

For some time now, the literary industry has been struggling to break away from its dominantly white image and allow diverse voices to share the stage. Following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, staying silent about the racial injustices, no matter what field you are in, is not anymore an excuse. In this episode, Robin Colucci converses with literary agent, Heather Jackson, on the racial inequalities that exist in publishing, especially those affecting Black authors. They explore this pervasive issue from different angles and discuss possible solutions for the future of diversity in publishing.

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The Issue Of Whiteness In Publishing With Heather Jackson

My guest is an amazing literary agent, Heather Jackson. Heather was a Trade Editor for many years. She last was working with Crown Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House as an Editor. She acted as the creative midwife to multiple dozens of New York Times bestselling authors and titles, including Tim Ferriss, Jillian Michaels, Suzanne Somers, Dr. Steven Gundry, and a host of others. She moved to become a literary agent in 2016 and has represented several great authors and represents one of my clients, Christine Hronec, whose book on eating for your macro type is set to be released in the spring of 2022. Welcome, Heather. 

It’s nice to be here! 

It’s great to have you. I’m super excited to have you here to talk about our topic and to give a little background to our readers. This came about as a result of a conversation that we were having during the weeks of protests immediately following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer. We were talking about a lot of the issues that are being raised by Black Lives Matter and also this Twitter storm that occurred as a result of the, “What my publisher paid me,” where the author started to report what they had earned in their book advances. There was a June 10th New York Times article about this as well. Those of us who’ve been in publishing for a while have already been aware of some of the disparities between white and black authors. In particular, what people of color in general, specifically black authors, is even more egregious disparities. I want to report a little bit that 81% of the authors are white. This is not in all time. This is between 2014 and 2018 and only 4% are black. 

This is from the website Data USA. We also know that the bookstore industry is 72% white-owned bookstores and 14% blacks. The book publishing industry overall, like who works for the book publishing industry or inside of the book publishing industry, is 84% white with only 5.3% being black as of 2019. We have plenty of examples of proven award-winning black authors who have struggled to even get a six-figure advance while first-time debut authors who are white are getting 6 and 7-figure advances and are not even proven in the marketplace. Here’s one. An editorial. This is in our world, Heather. 82% to 85% identify as white. It’s across the board. It was #PublishingPaidMe is where Jesmyn Ward tweeted that even after Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award, her publishing company didn’t even want to give her $100,000 for her next book. 

This is a massive disparity in an industry that likes to think of itself as more liberal and progressive overall. There are some general statistics and some data from the world. The reason why you graciously agreed to appear on the show is that you have some things you can share with us about what’s going on from the inside of being in the publishing world. What comes to mind when you’re hearing me rattle off some of these disparities? 

It almost feels too big as to how to figure out and solve the inequities. It’s such an amazingly huge task. As you were talking through the pieces of data, that is what was going through my mind. Where do you get started? I have been saying for quite some time and in discussions with authors and friends of mine within the publishing business that part of the issue is that we need different “feeder” systems, not just different feeder systems to the publishing houses when it comes to the talent working within its halls. But also, the books that as an industry we get excited about, on any given day. If you look at the marketplace through Publishers Lunch and look at the deals that are made, you will see that the same places and the same people are covered over and over. 

Iowa Writers’ Workshop is a fine institution, do not get me wrong. I was reading recently where maybe there were 2 or 3 students who were people of color in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Not to get too off-topic, but when a publishing industry is leaning on Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Iowa, and again, the same institutions where BIPOC don’t have the representation, then you’re not going to see change. I’m thinking of fiction in particular. You’re not going to see new voices if you’re relying on the same places. Until those places change and until we start looking at different places to get talent, that’s not going to shift. When it comes to hiring too, there’s so much to address. 

Getting started, a living wage. That would be one way of getting more talent. I’m a girl from the projects who went to a state college. The joke around publishing since I first walked into its hallways was that you needed to have a trust fund or parents who were willing to support you to do this job. That has to change. You have to be able to love books and make a living from them at the start of your career for there to be a more diverse population making the decisions about what is acquired; and being part of the conversation about what is interesting for people to read. That’s another layer of it. It was reflected in a Times piece recently where they were interviewing black agents, editors and publishing professionals, in which I saw the refrain that I had heard throughout my early years in publishing: that black people don’t buy books. 

This is a thread that is tangled throughout the system of publishing. And what has been happening in the last weeks and months in unknotting that thread and pulling it out, and that now is not going to go lightly when that is a belief system. That needs to shift and change. I could keep going, I don’t know if I’ve answered your first question properly, but there are lots of problems and there are lots of good humans trying to do good work. Part of the problem is commercial publishing is a business, and it’s a business that leans on tradition. 

This tradition is to presume we know more than we do about who reads what and how to get to them. The fact is we know little about and readers in general, which is why it’s more and more frequent that publishers are leaning on authors to be Swiss Army knives. They’re supposed to bring it all, the readers, the platform, and everything. I love books and most anyone who works in the business of publishing will say that it’s a bit backward and upside down, but it’s a business that has good intentions. Is that good enough? No. Are we smart enough to fix it? I think so, but it’s a big task, and it starts with open eyes. 

Whiteness In Publishing: You’re not going to see new voices if you’re relying on the same places. Until those places change and until we start looking at different places to get talent, that’s not going to shift.

Let’s talk a little bit about publishing baby because you are a literary agent. I help people get agents and sell books and it has been opaque in terms of people reporting their advances. Sometimes I’ve even had publishers say not to tell anyone what their advance was. They don’t necessarily want their other authors coming back and saying, “Why did you give that person this?” At the same time though, I find it interesting that when this one person tweeted this, that many people were willing to step forward and come clean. What do you think about this idea of being more transparent around advances and how that might that help? 

I don’t know that a publisher is making an offer predicated on the color of anybody’s skin. It goes back to what I was saying where there’s a presumption about the size of the audience. The process of how a book is acquired, it’s a little bit like the seventh circle of hell for an editor. Embedded in that process is a work of fiction and I’m not talking about buying a work of fiction, but there are these embedded assumptions. You have to create a profit and loss statement predicated on a book that doesn’t exist. You have to try and imagine what that book’s path will be. That work of fiction becomes your P&L. If you’re imagining it’s going to be a huge hit, you’re going to put in big numbers. If you’re imagining that it’s going to be a modest one, you’re going to put in small numbers. That beginning process point, determines a lot of what will happen with that book. It determines what’s going to be paid for the book. The question is: what changes the narrative being told about any individual title? 

A lot of times, what changes that narrative is not about an individual editor’s love of a book. It’s about there being a pack of editors and publishers interested in that particular title, which then bids that book up. It’s not as cut and dry and clear. Why would a publisher value a work of fiction at $5,000 versus seven figures? That’s based on a presumption that they have comparable titles that show how this book will perform. I have wanted for years, and I’ve said this to anybody who would love to listen, that I would love to see how frequently the P&L that is done for a book matches, what happens to the book in the marketplace. When you have a failure rate like we do when eight out of ten books don’t work or don’t perform to expectations. When you have that high of a hit rate, clearly something is not working. The problem is complicated, complex. Publishing is not a traditional product. 

We can’t say, “I’m going to put out 10,000 SKUs,” and we know that it will sell-through. You send out books and they can come back three years later. They can come back five years later. There is this thing where they’re always returnable. There’s another layer of everything that’s been going on online bookselling. There’s the additional layer of trying to break through all of the noise that is social media. There are many factors that affect the sale of a book, but one of the first is, what does the editor believe and the editor doesn’t work in a vacuum. What do the editor and the team together presume this book is going to do? That starts the whole narrative of what they think will happen with a book. It still doesn’t dictate whether or not readers will respond that way. You can build a best seller for a little bit, but word of mouth is everything. 

I’ve often described it the way that publishers bid on books as educated gambling. They’re taking the little that they do know and they’re rolling the dice on what they think it will do. It astounds me that publishing continues to thrive, which I’m delighted for, in an environment where they don’t understand exactly how to sell books methodically. 

What makes you choose a book? What is that impulse? When you’re faced with twenty different titles on the same topic, if you’re talking nonfiction, what is it about the one that you decide to buy or the two that you decide to buy? Is it that you saw more media about it? Maybe. Is it that you love the jacket? Possibly. The one thing we know for sure is what sells books. Good word of mouth. 

Go back a little bit to the assumptions because the idea of the assumptions that editors are making could easily be connected to the other thing that we talked about, which is the feeder system. There is a thing I believe, whether it’s weirdly stated or not, there’s definitely an idea of pedigree. When an author is new with an education from an Ivy League school or its equivalent like Stanford or you talked about these top MFA programs like Iowa or Brown, or some of these well thought of programs and schools, it’s an elite community. That does weigh a great deal in a publisher’s mind when they’re selecting which books are what I mean. 

A lot of times, they’re looking at pedigree. Pedigree and platform are the two places that we can go wrong where we presume that if an author has a sizable platform, that means that platform is going to come and read their book. Maybe we forget that the most important platform is the book itself and it delivering, it being a great book. The pedigree is another part of it. It’s all embedded in the same systemic “isms” that we bring to the conversations, sometimes not intentional, but clearly there. Why do we value who is coming out of Iowa or Yale more than out of Rutgers or the University of Virginia? Why is their talent presumed to be less? That’s a longer conversation about our belief about these pedigreed places, but is there a real truth to it? 

Can we consider places like Howard and Spelman? 

The thing is, to my knowledge, most of the historically black colleges and universities, their MFA programs don’t often offer creative writing at the center and we need them to do so. One of my author friends, Sophfronia Scott, we’ve been friends since we worked together when I was her editor on her first book. We have been having this conversation for some time about the feeder systems. She did something about it. She’s going to be the creative director of a program where the focus is going to be to bring more people of color to the table so that we can get more voices in this space and on the shelves. 

That’s also part of it. The publishing industry, in a lot of ways, is a small town. There are these big five publishing houses. There’s a lot of cross-pollinating. There’s a lot of people who stay in the industry and maybe move around inside of it. That also could be part of why it can be difficult to bring in new voices. I don’t want to go as far as to say incestuous, but it has. 

It’s a business that is supposed to be steeped in creativity, but it is equally if not more, steeped in traditions. It’s going back to that work of fiction. I think Jonathan Karp was the first person who I heard write about how we launch a book within publishing as being like Kabuki theater. You’re talking about a book that doesn’t exist yet you’re making a jacket, you’re creating a story about it to the sales team and the publishing team and all the rest. There’s nothing there to share with them yet. There’s a lot of Kabuki theater in publishing, but there’s also this leaning on traditions and mores and ways to do things. 

All book nerds should be welcome in publishing.

We’re not the most progressive. We’re not the early adopters. We’re not the let’s jump on and explore and forge new ground. There is such a traditionalist thing going on with publishing. Frankly, that’s part of the problem too. The systems that are in place stay in place and you don’t shake them up and you don’t necessarily listen to your young people in publishing either. They don’t get a voice at the table. This isn’t imprint specific and isn’t house-specific, but it’s very hard to get a voice at the table without first being indoctrinated into the system of publishing. 

I don’t know if that answers, but I do think part of it is that we’re not breaking new ground. We talk a great deal about, wanting things that are novel and things that are counterintuitive. Those are the two words you’ll hear over and over again when it comes to acquisitions. The fact of the matter is that the things that are truly novel are hard to sell because there aren’t the marketplace comparisons. I remember when I was working with Tim Ferriss on his first book. I remember how hard it was to get the buyers at the major booksellers to come on board. The lifestyle buyers thought it was too business and the business buyers thought it was too lifestyle-y. He had created this hybrid that now has spawned a whole shelf of books and a whole genre of books, but when it was new, it was hard to sell in. 

Whiteness In Publishing: Commercial publishing is a business that leans on tradition—the tradition to presume that we know more than we do about who reads what and how to get to them.

That’s interesting because that’s something you’ll see over and over in the publishing industry. They want the new idea, the new solution, but not too new or not too novel. There’s that tension. 

There’s a lot of fear that runs through publishing. It’s a complicated nut, but part of it is that you’re only as good as your last bestseller. Or, depending on the house that you work at the chime of “buy big books” is a constant. It makes it hard to take risks and what’s paradoxical about that is it then makes publishers take bigger risks than perhaps they should. There’s a little bit of this magical thinking that if you spend an enormous amount of money on the book, it failure proofs it, but I believe it does the opposite. If you buy a book from someone who has millions of followers, it means that’s going to be a successful book. That’s not true. If you look at the data, it’s not the case. 

Because there’s been a contraction in the industry over the last decade-plus, there are fewer people doing more. I don’t blame the people within the trenches. They are doing the best they can. Editors are overworked. They are hardworking. I’m not saying they’re the only people in publishing, but they are where authors start. They’re the gatekeeper. They’re the advocate in-house and are working their buns off, but they have to work within a system that makes it hard to take risks. Even if they want to take a risk, it’s hard to get the approval to do so because you’ve got to go up the chain of command to get there. It’s complicated. 

An editor’s job could be at stake if the book fails to too strongly. 

They get the blame. It’s an interesting thing. It’s a team decision. No editor is allowed to buy a book without getting approval, but it’s not infrequent that if they have highly invested in certain books, and if they don’t work, they’re the ones that end up on the cutting board. 

Speaking of publishing houses, one of the things that the New York Times article reported is that Penguin Random House seems to have taken some action as a result of the Publishing Paid Me Twitter post. They put out an email to employees saying that they will share their statistics and demographics on its workforce and commit to increasing the number of books published by people of color. They’re mandating antiracist training among its staff. They assigned the How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi as a reading assignment. What are your thoughts on that? 

Those are all good steps, but as someone who worked within the hallways of Penguin Random House for a decade, there’s a lot that needs shifting to make it happen. I’m going to go out on a limb and say something that is true of my experience. This is all publishing, so I’m not trying to attack PRH at all. It’s white. Unfortunately, the faces of color that you see within the building tend to work in service roles. That is more than shameful. The mailroom, the cleaning staff. And that shouldn’t be. Period, the end. Hiring personnel is a place where there certainly could be some shifts and changes immediately. HR needs to get into this in a deeper way. There needs to be recruitment from different places, different feeder systems. I know I keep on referring to feeder systems. 

The feeder system is a factor here. Who are they choosing to hire into these jobs? They’re also looking at pedigree. 

The kids that get through for the editorial assistant position, generally they have every advantage known to a person. They look good on paper. I remember when I was looking for my last assistant when I was there, and I did not want that. I wanted to give a kid like myself a foot in the door because there are people who don’t have the ability, no one has it now, to do their junior year abroad and to spend years traveling around the world and to do these fancy things, they don’t have access to build their resumes. That shouldn’t mean they don’t have access to a job within a field that they love. We have to check our assumptions on many different levels is what it boils down to. That’s true in publishing, that’s true all across the land. In checking those assumptions, we also have to not lose our humanity and our belief in each other. 

Put books in every child’s hands that are representative of who they are and what they’re experiencing.

I believe in conversation and that we can make great things happen together in the world if we stay open to each other. Another part of everything that has been happening and swirling around us in the last couple of months, and this is not part of our conversation per se, but it’s something that I find troubling, is a certain intolerance on the left that matches the intolerance that I see on the right. That intolerance though, it stands as another obstacle in the road to getting to where we want to get to. We need to see what is true of the present, what was true of the past, and see it clearly. But not be cancel culture-y, ready to hate each other if we don’t completely get it right and don’t understand something immediately. 

That it is an issue that there’s such a small percentage of people of color and specifically black people working inside of the publishing industry. That has to be impacting the selection because you’re going to want to pick books that feel the most relevant to you in your own experience. It’s a natural human thing to assume that if it’s interesting to you, it would be interesting to other people. 

A lot of lists get crafted that way. You ask any editor who has a baby. I’m talking about people who work in the practical nonfiction space and their list is going to look parenting heavy for a while. The editors choose books, as do agents that are reflective of some life experiences that they connect to. Yes, you need diversity, much like a forest needs seedlings and trees and redwoods. You want a diversity of the flora and the fauna when it comes to the size of the books you buy. The same thing when it comes to every part and every player within the process of publishing. That’s where interesting things will get done. That’s where new work will come. 

When we’re talking about the polarity between the left and right and how everyone’s operating from these assumptions, one of the greatest missed opportunities of not having as much diversity among authors is that we’re missing out on what is probably the most powerful thing that books can do. I’ve written about creating empathy for another person’s experience. This reminds me of something you shared with me. It was a book about migrant workers. 

Are you talking about the American Dirt controversy? 

Another woman who was closer to the experience had pitched the same book. It didn’t sell, then a white woman wrote it and became a New York Times bestseller. 

I think that’s part of the American Dirt controversy and that’s complicated. They’re two different books and two different writers and two different reading experiences and reactions. The piece about own voices that is important, as you were talking about, is we need to have connection and empathy, and that’s what books do best. They make us feel seen. They make the reader feel that they are not alone in whatever it is they’re experiencing. 

They will 100 years later still sink into your heart and your soul and grab you. It doesn’t matter who wrote it. It matters that they wrote it. If we’re not bringing voices that are diverse to the table, which we’re not we’re not bringing diverse voices to the table. It’s not all a result of the racial issues that we have in publishing. It goes again to what we believe is going to sell, predicated on all sorts of other structural things that are built in our heads. There’s a sameness to a lot of what is being published. That’s another layer of the problem with books, but that’s not on point with our conversation.  

One aspect is for the reader to feel seen. For the reader to feel like, “I’m not alone,” which I know I’ve experienced many times reading a book. I’m sure you have and I’m sure many of our readers, at least with one book, if not several. I also think there’s that piece of getting a peek into another person’s experience. Being able to imagine what it might feel like to be in their experience, especially when we’re talking about race. I don’t know that a lot of people have forayed and a lot of white people necessarily forayed into imagining what it would feel like. For us to be able to see the author’s humanity and to realize, “I could imagine feeling that way. I can see how this person suffered.” In my opinion, it’s potentially the most important thing that books can do. 

I agree because what that feeling and experience do is the thing that I believe is to help solve for perhaps one of the most important failings of our common age, which is this disconnection with each other. It’s the reliance on all things social media instead of, “How are you doing in real life?” This has helped with the intolerance. It’s helped with the polarization and the disconnection. The fix to all of it can be solved by seeing the humanity in somebody else. How do we see that without hearing from them directly? That is everything. That feeling that I am you and you are me, that recognition that the experience of this other person is something that I can cry about, I can laugh about, I can connect… 

If we can see each other clearly, I feel that knits us together as a society. It knits us together as people, and Lord knows we need it more than ever. Maybe I’m overemphasizing the value of books to do this, but I don’t think so. They can be life-changing. They can be mind-shifting. They can be these deep connectors. We, as a business, as an industry, as a profession, we owe it to readers. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our country, to sound a little ultra-patriotic, to do better, to bring a whole panoply of voices to the table that haven’t been heard before. To make it a table that is open to everyone, to let us all sit down together and break bread and find each other in each other. 

Whiteness In Publishing: You want a diversity of the flora and the fauna when it comes to the size of the books you want. The same thing when it comes to every part and every player within the process of publishing.

I believe that books are our only hope for world peace. I’ll go even further because it’s through books that we can see one another’s humanity and we can understand that borders and the idea of color and race are constructs. 

These are social constructs that have no scientific basis for it! It’s all made up. There’s a brilliant article and there’s a book that I want to get this book as soon as possible. Isabel Wilkerson, it’s on caste and race. It was in The Times. I wish I could remember the name of the article, but do look it up (the book is Caste—and I did read it after this podcast and it should be required reading for everyone!) because it was good at looking at how we got here certainly, but that underpinning structural piece that needs to be understood to shift and change. You were talking and I got excited. 

The publishing industry has a huge opportunity to help lead the way by inviting in diverse voices in the author’s side, as well as the editorial acquisitions and marketing side. If you look at the US publishers because the hub of publishing in the world is the United States. If your book is successful in the US, then we can sell it in all the other countries. 

Sometimes that works in the opposite direction, but we are the biggest market for sure. 

There’s a huge opportunity for us to lead the way and invite more voices. My hope is that this won’t be a conversation du jour. 

Little virtue signaling in the morning, and then it’s over at night. That’s been my worry about much of what I see on social media: how long and that support will it go? How much of it is indeed real change or I need to signal that I am part of this particular party? I hope it’s real. It feels like a pivotal moment. It finally feels like people are waking up in a deeper way. The madness that has been happening in our political universe for the last number of years because of the vile racism that is part of the landscape may be the prod to that awakeness. I say part of the landscape because I don’t think it was acceptable to come out and do the things that are being done now. Now, done without any penalty sometimes. Although, there are lots of penalties sometimes too. There is that good side of the Twitter takedown. Abhorrent things are being seen. 

I do feel that there is this moment. It’s like when you talk about climate change. I don’t know that I can make this connection work. A friend of mine and I were talking about this. We were saying, “Why is it that we’re always told about our individual choices and what we can do where you don’t use plastic bottles and you don’t have single-use this, that, or the other? Why instead aren’t they talking to the big corporations that are producing these things? That’s where you can make the most change most quickly.” Our big corporations, our big industries, that’s where we need some real action being taken. Yes, on an individual level. It’s the system and the structure that needs to be shifted seismically 

It’s wonderful that Random House put out the message. They did put out a similar message as well that was quoted in the Times. There probably were others. The real question is, what happens next? What happens after everyone at Penguin Random House has a copy of How to Be an Antiracist? What are we going to do? 

It was one of my favorite places to work in all of my time in publishing. They generally tend to be the leader in the more forward-thinking pieces and processes. Yet, again, we’re a traditionalist business. I think they’re going to try. I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know what every major house is going to do or not do. The fact that Simon & Schuster has hired Dana Canedy, coming in from the Pulitzer Board to run Simon & Schuster. It’s the first moment, in my publishing lifetime to see a black woman at the head of a major house. I also think it’s not only a strong signal that things are shifting, but the fact that that conversation was going on for years, it was something that was underway before it became popular to do it. 

We owe it to our country to sound a little ultra-patriotic, do better, and bring a whole panoply of voices that hadn’t been heard before.

I know I keep on going back to the same thing. The intentions are there. The desire to make the changes are there. That’s clear. I believe that the feeder systems have to change. You need to start bringing new voices in and you need to start listening to those voices too where they exist. It means real conversations and that can be tricky in a corporate culture anywhere. If you’re afraid that you’re going to get in trouble if you talk about this thing with your boss or supervisors, it’s going to take some delicate handling and a real desire for real change. Publishing is now aware that it can’t lean on “we’re a liberal business and industry of liberal-minded people.” It’s now aware that it has some serious issues that need solving. I think as a business there are talented and lovely people who will want to do the right thing. 

The first step in any change is awareness and that there has been a wake-up call. Not that there’s never been a wake-up call before, but this does feel different. 

It will be interesting to see if you and I were to touch base in six months or in a year about what has shifted more and what has not. What’s working or what’s not working? I don’t think it’s something where it happens overnight. I don’t think it happens overnight because I also think that bookish people, they’re a smaller group of people in the general population. People have been talking about book publishing as a dying industry for so long. I don’t believe that that’s true. The sky has been falling in publishing since I got in and it’s never fallen. I do think that we’re who are are and who we are is a busines where all book nerds should be welcome. 

Publishing has never been known for being early adapters. 

We’re a little more of a lumbering beast. 

Despite all these claims that it’s going extinct. I too believe that, as Mark Twain would have said, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” 

The sky is not falling. I keep on hoping that between this cultural awakening about the issues of racism and the pandemic and the combined painful power of both that we see this is an opportunity to do things differently. Even the marketing of books has had to shift fairly seismically. Maybe there are new openings and new opportunities and new possibilities that we can now see that we couldn’t see before. We had to sit with ourselves a little bit more and stay home and maybe think a little bit more rather than be stuck in never-ending meetings, which happens all over publishing all the time. I’m sure those meetings are still going on. That’s my musing. If I were queen of the world, this would be fixed immediately, and then we wouldn’t need to have this conversation. 

If you were queen of the world and you could wave a wand, but you could do one thing to bring more diversity to publishing, what would you do? 

I could wave a wand and do one thing? For whatever reason, maybe it’s starting with children. For me, the thing that saved me and got me from the projects to here was reading books. I discovered that love independently and through my parents. But if I could wave a wand over a young kid who doesn’t have access to it, I would. I keep on thinking let’s get to the children and I don’t know fully what that means. Wave a wand and put books in every child’s hands? Books that are representative of who they are and what they’re experiencing. I don’t know what to do with that magic wand. I don’t know how one shifts it. If I had a magic wand, I would want us all to see each other literally. It sounds maybe a little Pollyanna-ish but to love each other, to get rid of these ridiculous constructs that we’ve created, dig out the root. At the root of it is the most painful. I heard Condi Rice, I think, refer to racism as America’s birth defect. If I had a magic wand, I would erase racism from our world, but that would be one hell of a magic wand. I’d like to get rid of all the isms, but that’s the biggest ism for me. 

I would love for people of color to see opportunities for themselves in publishing and be encouraged to see opportunities for themselves in publishing both on the author’s side, as well as the publisher’s side. I’d like to see some proactive movement towards that. Starting with the children is a valid thing. 

Maybe publishing has programs going into schools and career fairs at junior high schools and high schools and start that young. 

Nowadays, anyone can publish. It’s interesting to give children the experience of being able to publish something at a younger age. 

Maybe you could make part of Scholastic book fair some publishing experience for the children. I’m thinking as we are talking about this, if we already know how to get to schools through Scholastic book fairs, maybe we have career fairs that are going to those same schools that talk about a career in books. Maybe have them publish a book, maybe have them edit a book, have them differently design the jacket for the book, market it, whatever it might be. 

If you haven’t been shown an opportunity, you don’t necessarily intuit yourself into it. 

I didn’t even know that there was a career in books until I was working at a big entertainment company after college. We were doing a study for them, where they were thinking of starting up an adult publishing arm. I was like, “Read all day and get paid for it? Yes.” As a lifelong bookworm, I had no idea that there was something that one could do in books as a “thing”. And that again is about the point of entry. We’re talking about the feeder systems. I’m going back for a second. People shouldn’t have to think that they need to go to an NYU publishing program or the Columbia publishing program or any of these publishing programs in order to get a job in publishing. That’s a barrier to entry that should be removed. They should love books. They should love writing. And they shouldn’t have to have the monies to attend another form of education on top of college in order to do it. 

Heather, thank you for coming on and sharing your experience, insight and ideas. It’s been great to have you. 

It’s my pleasure. I sometimes think I talk a little bit too much a little too long, but it was great fun to sit and chat with you. 

Thanks for coming. 

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About Heather Jackson

The Heather Jackson Literary Agency is a NY-based, full-service firm specializing in book-based author representation with an expertise in commercial and nonfiction and fiction properties. 

Its founder is a member of the AALA, Author’s Guild, PEN America, and Women’s Media Group and is a bookworm with 25+ years of publishing experience.

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