Though increased diversity among published writers has been a rallying cry for some time now, what is less often heard is the call for a more diverse constitution among the industry professionals who make acquisitions and publishing decisions. At least one small-press publisher is taking tangible steps to address this in practice.
Paul Vermeersch, publisher of Buckrider Books, an imprint of Hamilton, Ontario, literary press Wolsak & Wynn, has announced the formation of an editorial advisory board to assist in finding new titles and provide hands-on editorial work once books are signed. The board will comprise poets Canisia Lubrin and Jordan Abel, and novelist and essayist Jen Sookfong Lee.
“The idea of this editorial board isn’t new,” says Vermeersch. “I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years now.”
What prompted him to move on the project was a Facebook post by Lubrin, who was heading to Banff to workshop her novel-in-progress with writer David Chariandy. Lubrin asked her Facebook contacts – who include publishing industry insiders and other writers – for recommendations of black Canadian female novelists under 40 published by established houses. No one could come up with any. (The closest contender, Esi Edugyan, turns 40 this year.)
“I’m thinking of black women authors around the world who are under 40, and I can name a ton from the U.S., from the U.K., from the Caribbean,” says Lubrin. “But it really did surprise me that there were none on the tips of people’s tongues when it came to Canada and traditional publishing houses.”
The problem, Vermeersch contends, is not that those writers aren’t out there, but that the Canadian publishing industry, as it is currently constituted, does not have the necessary resources to find, edit, and promote them. “People talk about the lack of diversity among authors,” says Vermeersch. “Another problem is the lack of diversity in the publishing business. And the higher up you go, the less diverse it gets.”
Lubrin, who was unable to find a job in the Canadian publishing industry despite holding a BA in creative writing and publishing from York University, is highly attuned to the need for greater visibility among professionals who are in the position to choose what does and does not get published. “It’s hugely important that we have people who are in editorial decision-making positions, who can then provide for people of various representations,” she says.
Lee agrees, saying that the goal of a more diverse literary landscape is not achievable unless the commitment to diversity is incorporated into every stage and every aspect of the publishing process. “It has to be built into every level. You cannot just have a publishing company full of straight, cis, white people and think that they’re going to be able to navigate what real inclusivity looks like.”
“Part of my goal in assembling an editorial board,” says Vermeersch, “was to not only assemble a team of super-smart literary people whose work and whose tastes complement my own and would be a great addition to the imprint, but who can offer those varieties of perspectives.” It is also noteworthy that the board is made up of writers who represent different regions in the country – Lubrin is based in Whitby, Ontario, while Abel and Lee both reside in B.C. “Variety of perspective comes in a lot of different forms,” says Vermeersch. “It’s not just cultural or racial, it’s also geographic.”
The board will scout for authors and projects as well as work with authors in an editorial capacity, and will be paid an honorarium for their services.
As for where the writers will be found, Lubrin points to networks developed online, through social media and other digital platforms, as well as using traditional media to get the word out. There are also personal networks that the board members can tap to discover new and upcoming talent. “I know various writers having done work in the literary community in Toronto,” says Lubrin. “I know writers who have been working on books, so I can also solicit works from them.”
But equally important, Lubrin suggests, is simply being visible in the community as a means of providing the kind of beacon that she was unable to find for herself when starting out. To that end, she hopes to connect with writers in MFA programs and universities, or those with a manuscript who, like Lubrin herself when she started shopping around her own writing, have been unable to locate any visible outlet to place their work. “Maybe something could be done to change that.”