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How the 1st Black head of a major publishing house wants to change the industry

In the wake of protests against systemic racism in the U.S., many industries are reexamining past practices and facing questions about their own racial biases. One new effort puts a spotlight on the world of publishing. Jeffrey Brown reports and talks to Simon & Schuster’s Dana Canedy, the first Black person to head a major publishing house, for our ongoing series about arts and culture, Canvas.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    In the wake of protests against systemic racism in America, many industries are reexamining past practices and facing questions about their own racial biases.

    One new effort puts a spotlight on the world of publishing.

    Here's Jeffrey Brown's Race Matters report.

    That's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It began as a social media call out, #PublishingPaidMe, a request for authors to reveal the advances they have been paid for their books.

    The result, based on responses from hundreds of writers, a clear disparity between black and non-black authors.

    The hashtag was started by L.L. McKinney, a writer of fantasy novels for young adults.

  • L.L. McKinney:

    This advance has a lot to do with how well the publisher thinks the story will do.

    And a lot of that has to do with this idea of a universal story. If a certain story is more universal, then more people will have access to it. And this highlights what publishing views as the default for the universal story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The call-out struck a nerve, and many prominent black authors weighed in, including novelist Jesmyn Ward, who wrote of how she fought and fought for a $100,000 advance for her third novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing," even after her second, "Salvage the Bones," for which she received about $20,000, had won the National Book Award for fiction.

    By contrast, Lydia Kiesling, who is white, wrote of receiving a $200,000 advance for her literary debut. N.K. Jemisin, a black novelist who won the Hugo Award recognizing the best science fiction and fantasy writing three years in a row, said she received just $25,000 advances for each of the books in her award-winning Broken Earth trilogy.

  • L.L. McKinney:

    You have an award-winning author who is beloved by so many, you know, right on up to presidents picking up her book, you know, vs. some people who we have never heard of, because the book doesn't earn out or it flops.

    But then that person can turn around and get that same advance and a second chance.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The outpouring on Twitter confirmed many suspicions.

  • L.L. McKinney:

    I knew that there was a disparity. I didn't realize how large the disparity was. Like, we knew it was there, and we knew it was big, but we didn't know it was that big.

  • Woman:

    A new novel by Jeanine Cummins up a debate about white privilege, racism in publishing and the unintended consequences of telling a story that is not your own.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Earlier this year, the publishing industry came under fire over issues of pay and representation for the novel "American Dirt," a story of Mexican migrants written by a non-Mexican author, Jeanine Cummins, who reportedly received a seven-figure advance.

    Some prominent Latino writers found the story inauthentic, advancing harmful stereotypes.

    For L.L. McKinney, all these issues are personal.

  • L.L. McKinney:

    I was a kid who loved science fiction and fantasy, but science fiction and fantasy did not love me back.

    If I was on the page, I was the sassy best friend, or I was the enemy, or I was the help, or I was the gangbanger. As a child, I didn't have the vocabulary to articulate what I was seeing and feeling. But now that I do, that's what I want to change for the readers of today and the readers of the future.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Also now thinking of those readers, Dana Canedy, newly appointed publisher of Simon & Schuster. A former New York Times journalist and more recently administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, she becomes the first black person to head a major publishing house.

    Dana Canedy joins me now from New York.

    Dana Canedy, welcome to you.

    So, let's start with that hashtag #PublishingPaidMe. It put a spotlight on black writers being paid less and, therefore, a sense of being valued less.

    Now, I know you're new to this industry, but what do you see? How do you respond to something like that?

  • Dana Canedy:

    Well, I think it's going to be my job to make sure that doesn't happen at Simon & Schuster and hopefully to be able to influence the larger publishing community as well.

    There's no excuse for that. And I wouldn't have stood for it when I was writing my book. Thankfully, that didn't happen to me. But, as a leader in this industry now, I want to hear from folks who have had those experiences and figure out how we can solve it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Many cultural institutions, of course, are now reexamining themselves in light of the Black Lives Matter protest.

    In what specific ways — publishing has long been seen as an insular and largely white in its makeup as an industry. In what specific ways do you think it should look at itself and change?

  • Dana Canedy:

    It's very funny to me when people say that publishing fits that sort of M.O., because you could be talking about law, or really sort of any other industry.

    I think industries in general need to look at themselves, publishing included. And I, for many years, headed up diversity and inclusion initiatives at The New York Times as part of my portfolio as a senior manager there, a senior newsroom leader.

    And so I have a lot of tools in my tool chest that I can call upon. But I think, for Simon & Schuster specifically, I don't have the answers yet. I need to get — start the job, get in there, roll up my sleeves, and see what they're doing and where there are opportunities for growth.

    So, one thing anybody who works with me knows is, I'm very honest. I'm not going to pretend to have answers that I don't. So I will get in there, talk to the staff, talk to the leadership, and figure out where we go.

    We will have — and they may already, but we will have a comprehensive approach to diversity of all kinds. I just need to get into the company and figure out where we need to go. And then I don't think it's enough, as a leader in this industry who happens to be a person of color, to just look at Simon & Schuster.

    I want to influence the entire publishing community. It's a little early to answer how, but I will. And you can check back with me in a year and hold me accountable.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    OK, we — I hope we will get a chance to do that.

    But I mentioned the case, the debate around the novel "American Dirt." And I wonder. You're a reader. You're a writer yourself. Do you — when you look at this world of publishing, do you see a lack of opportunities for writers of color? Do you see a lack of voices being heard?

  • Dana Canedy:

    So, I think that's changed in recent years, and there's more opportunity than ever before, historically. And not even in the very distant past, that's been the case.

    I do think it's changing. And I think it will continue to because of the movement that's taken hold in this country. I also think that's where I'm going to have tremendous influence to bring in different voices, both established authors, but emerging voices that could be very important.

    We have a lot of work to do. We have to do it collectively. I'm one person in one company. But I think that there are some opportunities for leaders across publishing houses to put our heads together and figure out how we can influence this issue, how we can improve things related to both subject matter, pay equity for advances, the voices and the authors that get highlighted.

    All of that provides, in my view, an exciting opportunity to improve things. And I will do that. I will as best I can.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I know — we just have 30 seconds, but I read that your son calls you, what, word nerd.

    I know you love books. But why take this job? I mean (AUDIO GAP) what is it you hope to do, and why did you want it?

  • Dana Canedy:

    Well, I think it's a tremendous opportunity to work with somebody I admire greatly, Jonathan Karp, who's one of the best minds in the business. I wanted to work with him.

    I also think I can have influence in the ways you and I just discussed. And I will, and I intend to. But, also, I'm a word nerd. I love words. So, this is like a dream job.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Dana Canedy is the new publisher of Simon & Schuster.

    Thank you, and good luck.

  • Dana Canedy:

    Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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