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June 14, 2021

Dear Publishers Interview / Jess Lee Talks About Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity, and Antiracism in the Publishing Industry



Today I am welcoming Jess Lee, the founder of Dear Publishers, to Write with Fey.

I am thrilled to have Jess as a guest. I asked her if she would be interested in doing an interview here because I believe what she (and everyone at Dear Publishers) is doing is important, and I wanted to help Dear Publishers' mission to reach more people, like the lovely people who follow my blog. <3

Her answers about Dear Publishers, diversity, equity, inclusivity, and antiracism are amazing. When I read them, I became even more excited, and I hope they impact you as much as they've impacted me.



1. Hi, Jess! I am really excited that you’re here today to talk about Dear Publishers. First, can you tell us about your journey as a bookstagrammer?

I have always been a lover of books, whether it was collecting my favorite ones from used book stores or sharing recommendations with anyone. I kind of fell into this wild corner of Instagram back in April 2020 - I didn’t realize bookstagram was a thing. Last year when social justice, police brutality and anti-racism were pushed to the forefront of many people’s minds, I decided to connect my love of reading with my career as a diversity, equity, inclusion and antiracism practitioner. I started my bookstagram (@literaryintersections) and immediately realized that a book community existed online.

My page reflects my passion to share and discuss works primarily featuring authors and characters from non-dominant identities. Followers can expect diverse book recommendations, antiracism texts, and funny reels highlighting my love of romance. My content explores how intersectionality shows up in the books that we read, and I give recommendations on ways to be antiracist in our daily lives. Ultimately, though, I try to have fun. Yes, I post about antiracist texts, but I also read and review steamy romance - my account is just as fluid as my reading is!


2. How did Dear Publishers get started?

Dear Publishers was established the day after Post Hill Press, a Simon & Schuster distribution client, announced a book deal with one of Breonna Taylor’s murderers. Mel of @bookrecsbymel and I put out a signal to the book community, asking our audience to take action and demand true change from Simon & Schuster, who, less than one year earlier, had pledged to “stand against racism.” In addition to being ableist, it is clear now that these words were merely performative. Enough is enough, and we demand accountability.

The book community is large and there is power in numbers. Dear Publishers aims to bring solidarity against racism as a community of bookstagrammers, readers, authors, influencers, and educators. Together, we can demand publishers to address their racist and oppressive policies and practices. We can vote with our dollars and have real influence in the industry. I wanted to help lead the effort to organize this.


3. What is Dear Publishers’ goal/mission?

Dear Publishers’ mission is to hold the publishing industry accountable for racist and other oppressive policies and practices in order to help create an equitable publishing industry for all. The publishing industry includes publishing houses, literary agencies, and third-party marketing companies.

My team and I envision a world where equity and inclusion in publishing are standard. A world where authors of color, LGBTQIA+ authors, and authors with disabilities are uplifted and amplified. Where pay gaps and discrepancies across marketing budgets are eliminated. Where publishing houses, literary agencies, and third-party marketing companies interrogate their white supremacist practices, create clear values of inclusion and antiracism, and stand by those values in all facets of their business. We will meet this vision by advocating alongside the publishing workforce, particularly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, who are exposing racist and problematic behaviors within the industry. We will work with them to demand justice and accountability at every turn.


4. What tasks can readers and authors take right now?

Dear Publishers created a list of demands to hold publishing companies accountable to their diversity and equity statements. These are long term because significant change takes time - to quote from Hamilton, “this is not a moment, it’s a movement,” and we are in it for the long haul. Readers and authors can take action by engaging in Dear Publishers calls to action - monthly opportunities to sign petitions, send emails to publishing houses, and engage in dialogues around antiracist and equitable practices. Taking one action isn’t enough - repeatedly amplifying the calls to action, supporting smaller publishers who are antiracist, and continuing to diversify reading habits are daily steps that can be taken. All current calls to action can be found on our website!

We are also always looking for volunteers to join the cause. If readers, educators, publishing industry professionals, and/or authors are interested in participating and being part of this momentous change, you can sign up here.


5. What did you learn from the 2020 McKinsey & Company report about hiring diverse talent?

I learned so much from the 2020 McKinsey & Company report. First, the report solidified my belief that the concept of “belonging” in a work space is just as critical as diversity, equity and inclusion. If diversity is being in the room and inclusion is being involved in decision making, belonging is feeling seen, feeling valued and being able to bring your whole self to the room. The report furthers this truth: having multiple and diverse perspectives is critical to success because experience matters.

The McKinsey report also highlights the need for accountability and transparency, specifically at a leadership level. Ultimately, this report provides clear data on why racial and gender diversity isn’t enough - it’s about “focusing on booting inclusion by enabling equality, promoting openness and fostering belonging.”

6. On Dear Publishers, you had also highlighted a study conducted by Deloitte Insights about inclusive leaders. What did you learn from this report that you’d like others to know about?

This report specifically illuminated the importance of leaders and middle managers. This study, as well as the McKinsey report, show that any diversity, equity and inclusion work must be centered on the actions of leadership. Leaders must model equitable and inclusive leadership, must be held accountable to DEI strategies and initiatives and must work to change behavior to support “the needs of diverse talent, ideas, customers, and markets.” I also loved the study’s focus on storytelling, specifically asking middle managers and leaders to tell stories of their commitment to DEI work. Storytelling creates connections and can demonstrate dedication and vulnerability, all of which moves “people emotionally and engage(s) them on the purpose of the D&I agenda.”


7. Why is it important for publishers to be transparent on what they are doing/planning to do to increase diversity within their workforce, as well as among their authors and the books they publish?

Transparency is a key step in making change because it holds a company accountable. After George Floyd was murdered, publishers posted their antiracism messages and statements in solidarity with communities of color, yet their practices didn’t change. Their systems and structures didn’t change. If publishers are transparent about the number of books they publish by authors of color, or the percent of people of color in leadership at their organization, as well as what numbers they are working towards and by when, we readers can hold them accountable. We can ensure that they begin to dismantle embedded systems of inequity and white supremacy by investing in authors of color, LGBTQIA+ authors and authors with disabilities. Plus, with the insights from an equity audit, publishers will have raw data to decipher their areas for growth. Racism and oppression are built into these systems’ very fabric and without data and transparency, those systems will continue to be reproduced.


8. What is your message to people who say canceling deals/contracts for books or authors that promote racism/antisemitism/transphobia, etc. is censorship?

While we believe in listening to a diversity of perspectives, and we wish to engage with those who are willing to learn about radical justice, we don’t expect our audience to have all the answers, and we may make mistakes along the way. But we can hold ourselves accountable to learn and engage, and hold publishing accountable to change.  Dear Publishers does not condone racist actions, harmful behaviors, or malintent. We do not have a blanket “cancel” policy nor do we have a blanket acceptance of harmful ideas for the interest of “free speech,” “devil’s advocacy,” or “multiple perspectives.” Too often, these phrases are mere euphemisms that grant acceptance of racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism, classism, and other harmful practices.

 

9. What changes do you (and supporters of Dear Publishers) hope to see in the publishing industry?

I want to see publishers release equity audit data. I particularly want to see numbers around authors of color, BIPOC staff in leadership positions and other workplace demographic data, lists of imprints and distribution clients, and data on ARC distribution. I would love to see BIPOC authors and authors of other marginalized identities get equitable marketing funding and opportunities. A recurring issue in publishing, and other industries, is low retention and promotion of people with marginalized identities. Many end up leaving because of systemic and institutionalized oppression that leads to inequitable experience. I want to see more editors from marginalized backgrounds and career pathways for those below the managerial level. And I want to see publishers listening to readerships who want change. Sometimes it feels like we are yelling into a void: publishers post their solidarity statements and black squares but don’t back them up with systemic change. I hope to see changed behavior, mindsets, and policies so that publishers are amplifying and uplifting those from marginalized identities while breaking down systemic racism and white supremacy in their policies and practices.


10. Who makes up the Dear Publishers team?

Our team is made up of eight team leads, as well as a volunteer network we are currently building.

All of our team members can be found here: https://www.dearpublishers.com/about


Jess Lee 

Pronouns: She/Her

Instagram: @literaryintersections

Roles: Founder / Events Co-Lead

Jess mobilized Dear Publishers because as a leader of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity, she is dedicated to providing inclusive spaces for learning, challenging, and growth. An avid reader, Jess’ aim is to share and amplify works primarily featuring authors and characters from non-dominant identities, with a goal to dismantle white supremacy and racism in personal and professional spaces. She lives on Nipmuc and Narragansett land.


Dear Publishers: Website / Instagram / Twitter


Thank you so much, Jess, for your interest in doing an interview on Write with Fey and for your thought-provoking, informative, and insightful answers.

Everyone, please leave Jess a comment and show her (and the entire Dear Publishers team) some love.


And because the entire team deserves a shout out:


Mel Gill

Pronouns: She/Her

Instagram: @bookrecsbymel

Roles: Co-founder/ Events Co-lead / Email Lead

Mel joined the Dear Publishers movement because as a small business owner in the book community she works towards dismantling white supremacy. As a young immigrant from Lima, Peru, books are what kept her safe but she never saw herself in them. As an adult, it has become important to her to see herself, her culture, and those around her in books. As a small business owner she created a business to amplify the voices of her community as well as those communities that have been silenced for too long because the publishing industry doesn't do it enough or as loud as their white counterparts. Enough is enough.


Alejandro Salas

Pronouns: He/Him/El 

Instagram: @alejandro.reads

Role: Equity & Justice Research Lead

Alejandro joined Dear Publishers because the white supremacist pacticies within the publishing industry need to be unearthed and dismantled. Alejandro is passionate about community organizing and advocacy with a specific focus on rethinking school discipline and creating brave spaces for undocumented youth in schools. Alejandro is currently a 9th grade English teacher and lives on stolen Karankawa land.


Amy Truckner

Pronouns: She/Her 

Instagram: @sips.and.sequels

Role: Social Media Lead

Amy has always held a passion for learning through stories. She joined Dear Publishers to advocate for more diverse literature and to dismantle oppressive practices within the publishing industry so those stories can be told. As a Data Analyst by day and bookworm 24/7, the book community has made a major impact on the way she looks at the world. She believes that the stories of marginalized groups deserve a larger platform in order to drive larger change. Amy currently lives on Skaruhreh/Tuscarora and Lumbee land.


Victoria Wood

Pronouns: She/Her

Instagram: @bookslifehome

Role: Marketing Lead

Victoria is extremely passionate about books, authors, independent bookstores, literacy, and every literary. As the co-founder of a start-up media and marketing company in the book industry, she recognizes the changes needed to create a more equitable industry, and joining Dear Publishers was a natural extension. Currently working in Radiology, Victoria spends her free time working on BiblioLifestyle, a weekly newsletter and online community for avid and aspiring readers. She lives on Seminole land.


Fiona Bransgrove

Pronouns: She/Her

Instagram: @adastra_stories

Role: Design & Branding Lead

After spending years working at a public library, Fiona joined Dear Publishers because she wants libraries’ shelves to be anti-racist and intersectional. Fiona works remotely for a psychiatry firm, as a freelance designer, and runs ad astra with Olivia. She currently lives on Cowlitz land.


Olivia Butze

Pronouns: She/Her

Instagram: @adastra_stories

Role: Communications & PR Co-Lead

Passionate about the publishing industry, Olivia believes in a book’s ability to inspire change and the importance of advocating for critical stories that need to be read— and joining Dear Publishers was a natural extension. Currently working in academic publishing, Olivia spends her free time working with her friend Fiona on ad astra, a platform that looks at books through an intersectional feminist lens. She lives on Tongva land.


Swati Sudarsan

Pronouns: She/Her

Instagram: @booksnailmail

Role: Communications & PR Co-Lead

Swati joined Dear Publishers because she wants to see a world where publishing is so diverse that genres need not be defined by identities. Until then, she will work to amplify marginalized literature. Swati works in public health research, and she currently lives on Ohlone land.



12 comments:

  1. Very important work. And as these voices pop up, all we hear from the systems in charge are about "cancel culture" and "reverse racism". That just means that these things are starting to work, finally. The power system in place doesn't want to change, so they'll have to be dragged, kicking and screaming.

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    1. I appreciate your comment, Liz. The use of "cancel culture" and "reverse racism" is exhausting and meant to divert our attention. Those in charge who claim this or that is cancel culture are the ones actually doing harmful cancelation. Racism and white supremacy are the worst forms of cancelation. Banning books that teach what racism is and how it's harmful, as well as books with LGBTQ+ characters and more, is also cancelation. I can go on and on, but I won't. I agree that the system and those in power don't want to change, and I also believe that groups like Dear Publishers and movements like this are helping things to change. We need it. Thanks again for your comment!

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  2. What a fascinating post. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks for reading it and commenting, Sandra!

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  3. Thanks for sharing this amazing organization and movement.

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    1. You're welcome! I support their work 1000% and want to do whatever I can to further their mission.

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  4. Great interview Chrys and Jess! I'm really excited to find out about Dear Publishers.

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    1. Thank you, Deniz! I’m glad you liked this interview and getting to know Dear Publishers.

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  5. Such important work! Fantastic interview. I'm so glad you featured Jess & the entire team.

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    1. Thank you, M.J.! When they formed and I was helping to share their posts on Instagram, I knew I had to do more for their mission. This is the most important interview I’ve ever had on my blog, and I’m very proud of it.

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  6. I've noticed that some bookstores are acknowledging the need for more diversity in publishing, and they've set up displays highlighting African American authors. I think that's great I'd like to see the bookstore owners do the same for other minority authors, such as Asian Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, etc.

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    1. Many bookstore owners and some publishers are opening their eyes about Black representation, but there’s still a long way to go.

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