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Comparing Notes on Publishing Equity and Inclusion Efforts

In 2015, Lee & Low released its first Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS), which collected concrete data on the diversity of the publishing workforce. DBS was inspired by surveys being conducted within the technology industry, specifically by the work of a software engineer named Tracy Chou, who wondered why her industry, one so closely tied to analytics, had no data whatsoever on the demographic makeup of its workforce. The latest iteration of our survey, DBS 2.0, which was made public at the beginning of 2020, continues in its effort to hold the publishing industry accountable in the areas of equity and inclusion.

The Ripped Bodice, the first romance-only bookstore in North America. Owners Leah and Bea Koch with Fitzwilliam Waffles, DDS., EsQ., by Jenn LeBlanc

Once the DBS 2.0 was released, the work continued. “How Sheltering in Place Shows Us a More Accessible World” is an article that takes a closer look at the disability numbers in the survey. One question that readers often asked us was: why were there no numbers about diversity in the adult side of publishing? While we were not able to answer this question, we did want to shine a light on another data set called the Diversity Report, created by Leah and Bea Koch, sisters and owners of the Ripped Bodice Bookstore, which focuses on the romance genre.

I interviewed Leah about the Diversity Report and how it came to be. What is so refreshing about Leah’s answers is that they drive home the fact that anyone can do this work. I am delighted that there are people like Leah and Bea to show us through their actions that we do not have to accept the status quoand that curiosity can lead us to the reasons why some things in the world are broken and what we can do fix them.

JASON LOW: What prompted you to create the Diversity Report?

LEAH KOCH: We decided to start the Diversity Report when we went from being fans of the genre to being professional booksellers. We had a much better sense of the scope of the problem once we were seeing so many titles from so many different publishers, and it was only about six months after we had opened that we felt the problem was so bad that we couldn’t stand idly by and not do anything to help the people who had been fighting for decades for an end to institutional racism in publishing.

Being that you and your sister are two white women, is there something in your background that infused in you a personal connection to equity and inclusion work? It is no secret that the main reason that racism and inequality continue to persist today has everything to do with apathy toward issues that do not directly affect people’s lives. This does not have to be your fight.

When we opened the store and started spending so much time talking about romance, it only reinforced what we already knew, which is that many people have very misogynistic attitudes towards romance as a genre. It became apparent that it’s pretty hard to convince people romance is great if you talk about how it’s so feminist and inclusive . . . but only for white women. We were raised as radical feminists and we’re also Jewish, which certainly contributes towards our desire for more inclusivity.

Were there any existing initiatives, individuals, or surveys that influenced the Diversity Report?

Only insofar as there’s a lack of one, really. It is actually a pretty easy thing to record data on so I couldn’t believe no one was doing it. And I’m not just saying this, but the Lee & Low survey was incredibly inspirational to us in terms of knowing other people were out there putting in the work, just in a different area of publishing.

How did you go about administrating the Diversity Report? Please describe your methodology.

Each January we reach out to 20 of the largest romance publishers to see if they will participate by providing us with their title data for the year. We have just over a 50-percent participation rate. For the publishers that don’t participate, we collect their title data from their catalogs and distributors’ websites to create a list of every single romance title they published the previous year. We then move on to the research phase, where we identify authors of color. Finally we crunch the numbers and put together that year’s report.

What was the reaction from publishers when you reached out to them?

It varies from publisher to publisher and has evolved over the years. About half are very happy to participate and feel that the work we are doing is important. Several publishers refuse to answer our emails about the report at all, not even to decline to participate, so we are forced to extrapolate what they think about the report and it’s not great! Publishers Weekly did a great piece about this year’s report and I thought it was pretty interesting to see an editor from Kensington, who is ranked #1, acknowledge all the work they still have to do, while publishers with truly abysmal numbers are completely silent.

What has been the reception to the numbers since you released them?

Again, it varies, but from readers and authors it’s been overwhelmingly positive. I think many authors who have been strong voices in this fight for years are just happy to have another tool in their arsenal, and to perhaps finally be able to move beyond having to prove this is even an issue in the first place. I think for many readers the reaction is one of frustration because they feel that there isn’t all that much they can do to affect change. Editors who acquire manuscripts are really the only people who can actually move the needle.

What do the numbers tell you about the romance genre? What changes do you realistically see taking place in the next five to 10 years? What changes do you wish to see take place in general?

Well, the numbers tell us that racism is a current and extreme problem in romance publishing. Realistically, I would think the industry as a whole could maybe improve . . . two to three percentage points over the next five to 10 years. I wish it was higher, obviously. I personally believe that every single publisher should be over 25 percent at minimum. One of the ways to accomplish this would be to immediately remove any editor who has not signed an author of color in the last two years and replace them with editors who are committed to inclusion.

Our own work on the Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS) aligns with yours to confirm that the workforce is majority white/cis woman/straight/nondisabled. From attending conferences and running your own bookstore, is your impression that the demographic makeup of the romance readership is diverse—or about the same as the people working behind the scenes?

Incredibly different! We see a hugely racially diverse customer base. Now, obviously, we are in L.A., which is a racially diverse city, but from interacting with the community on Twitter as well, I feel strongly that the workforce does not reflect the readership.

While statistics, like the number of diverse children’s books published each year, have been tallied each year since 1985 by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), there does not appear to be any statistics like this on the adult side of publishing other than your Diversity Report. Are you aware of any discussions about someone taking up this cause and would you welcome such an endeavor?

Heck yeah, we would welcome it! It would be fantastic. I’m not aware of anyone trying to do it; it would obviously take a tremendous amount of time and energy.

Will the Diversity Report continue to live on? If so, when is the next time you will release your report?

We have no plans to stop any time soon. I believe this is the most important work we do all year. Each year’s report releases on the first Tuesday in March the following year, so the report for 2020 will be release on March 2, 2021.

What is your elevator pitch for encouraging publishers to participate in the next Diversity Report? Might as well shout it from the rooftops!

If your company believes in racial equity and inclusion, and in particular states that publicly, this is an incredibly easy way to back up those claims.

Would you like to leave contact information here for any publisher who has not participated in the Diversity Report and would like to get in touch with you right away?

Absolutely! you can email us at [email protected].

Bea and Leah Koch are sisters and the owners of The Ripped Bodice Bookstore.They grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Bea went on to attend Yale and NYU, where she wrote a graduate thesis titled “Mending the Ripped Bodice.” Leah moved to Los Angeles to attend USC, graduating cum laude with a degree in visual and performing arts. Both sisters are lifelong romance readers and feel lucky to spend their days surrounded by books.

Jason Low is the publisher and co-owner of Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States. Lee & Low is proud to publish books about everyone and for everyone.

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