Editorial Distinctions

Amber Husain

Last summer’s social media campaign #PublishingPaidMe was a display of solidarity of sorts, in which writers revealed careers’ worth of book advances in a bid to spotlight racial disparities in author pay. The collective effort from which the campaign emerged ranged in its concerns from the proportional commissioning of Black writers to the proportional hiring and retaining of editors of colour.

By the end of 2020, most analyses of the year’s reckoning with racial injustice in the publishing industry were sensitive to the importance of ‘structural change’ as the only means of redressing its evident whiteness. None that I read, however, focused on the ways in which racial, gender or other forms of injustice are connected with publishing’s structural organisation of labour, in particular the distinctions drawn between different kinds of editor. The work of the copy editor, for instance, is today not only restricted to the task of ‘cleaning up’ texts that may or may not have been ‘substantively’ edited beforehand, but also largely outsourced to underpaid freelance workers who miss out on the employment rights and benefits enjoyed by their in-house counterparts.

In December, a New York Times report on the historic racial biases of US publishing noted a significant drop in books by Black writers after Toni Morrison left her position as an editor at Random House in 1983. Pondering this, the report’s authors entertain the notion that such patterns of variance might be cyclical, rolling in the shape of the news cycle with ‘Black life and Black culture’ being ‘rediscovered every 10 to 15 years’. Yet Morrison’s departure from Random House didn’t have the effect that it did in a social or political vacuum, or through any kind of natural cycle.

In her sixteen years as an editor at Random House, Morrison both ‘acquired’ the works of a number of enduringly influential Black authors and turned her attention to their copy – vocabulary, grammar, syntax and style being integral to ‘substance’. Oppressive language, she once said, whether ‘language designed for the estrangement of minorities’ or the ‘proud but calcified language of the academy’, must be ‘rejected, altered and exposed’.

In the course of the 1980s, a certain atomisation of society was accompanied by a commensurate atomisation of the publishing house’s structure. Publishers could emphasise the triumphs of a few Black authors while ignoring the overall whiteness of their programmes, as the systematic degradation of labour meanwhile facilitated the exploitation not only of writers of colour but also of those who did much of the editorial work on their books. I suspect this is the way, at least in part, that the distinction between substance and style, implied in the barrier now firmly established between ‘development’ and ‘copy’ editors, was consolidated. In the wake of these shifts, even the best efforts of editors of colour, queer editors and female or trans-identifying editors to shape an emancipatory discourse can be dismissed by colleagues or writers with a greater share of power.

Among my experiences as a ‘copy’, ‘associate’, ‘contributing’, ‘development’ and ‘managing’ editor, working on both books and journals, a couple of distinctive low points come to mind. One is a moment of self-recognition after noticing the imposition of my own (predominant) whiteness on the prose of a writer of colour. The other is the time my editorial suggestions were rejected by an author over-committed to the predominant language of whiteness. I had tried to encourage him to reconsider his casual erasures, accidents of violence and flourishes of minimisation. He responded not to me but to an (older, male) co-editor: ‘As for the edits, I thought these were more hers [than yours]. They were less academic and more technical, more for a popular reader. She is very good at what she does and I can see why it was hard for her to take on such an unorthodox text.’ The decision was taken to let the original stand in its entirety.

‘Was last summer a vision of equality to come for the publishing industry?’ the New York Times asked, ‘Or a flash in the pan?’ To ask such a question with reference to author demographics, or the demographics of the editors who commission them, is a bit like asking whether today’s most radical authors and editors are likely to live for ever. If they hope to enact any lasting change, publishers will have to knock down their organisational ladders.


  • 9 February 2021 at 1:55am
    D. Sean Li says:
    "Publishers could emphasise the triumphs of a few Black authors while ignoring the overall whiteness of their programmes"

    1. Whose programs are referred to here, the Black authors' programs or the publishers'?
    2. How can a program be coherently described as White? This is reminiscent of historical attacks on relativity as a "Jewish" physics. Presumably the proportional inclusion of Black authors would make a publisher's slate of authors (if that is what is meant by a "publisher's program") no longer all-White.