A Letter From a Black Woman in Publishing on the Industry’s Cruel, Hypocritical Insistence That Words Matter

Mariah Stovall

Dear White people in publishing,


In the publishing industry, we deal in words. We know, perhaps more than anyone, that words matter and the pen is mightier than the sword. But ask yourselves this: Has your love of words become an excuse for complacency?

Right now, many businesses in the industry are rushing to make vague statements in solidarity with Black Americans. They are declaring that Black lives matter. They are promising to do better as gatekeepers and arbiters of culture. I believe there is plenty of sincerity behind these statements. I believe there is opportunism and a fear of being seen as complicit behind them as well.  

Why should Black people like me believe these are more than empty words, when many of these statements assume an entirely White audience and are focused on propping up businesses’ past work with Black people?

Publishing is no different from the other predominantly White liberal institutions in which I’ve spent my entire life. I am all too familiar with White liberal racism, with its unconscious bias and reluctance or refusal to admit fault and be self-critical. This too is racism. It is deeply entrenched in coded language and packaged in a message of self-proclaimed allyship and false empathy. Sticks and stones and state-sanctioned harassment, systemic discrimination, and murder may break Black bones and words also hurt us.

The publishing industry can do better in the future, but nothing can negate its past failures. Think of all the stories that have already been silenced because of passive negligence and willful discrimination. Think of all people who were already pushed to their breaking points and left the industry. Think of all the people who were so alienated that they never even tried to get into publishing in the first place. By all means, keep promoting the Black people you work with and have worked with in the past, but stop congratulating yourselves for it.

This is a call to hire more Black people in every department across every part of the industry, but editorial and acquisitional roles are particularly important to me. A Black marketer, a Black publicist, a Black designer, a Black salesperson, a Black reviewer or a Black bookseller will never have the opportunity to work on a wide array of Black books if White agents, editors, editorial directors, and editors in chief refuse to treat Black submissions with the same open-mindedness as White submissions.

Why are Black stories riskier bets than White stories? Why is there a tacit assumption that there can only be so many Black stories in the marketplace at one time? Look to your peers in other fields. No one is limiting the number of Black artists at the top of the Billboard charts.

I know that you know Black people are extraordinary artists across all disciplines, and that our work resonates with you, because you’ve been selectively borrowing, stealing, and appropriating our culture for years, and when you do acknowledge us, you often fail to adequately compensate us. 

We’ve had the Lee & Low reports for years. We’ve had diversity panels for years. Since my first internship in 2013, I’ve been told that change needs time to trickle from the ranks of exploited and underpaid interns and assistants to the senior and executive levels. Asking individuals with very little power, job security, and in-company support to lead the charge is crazy-making. The reason it feels so impossible for us is because it is. But I’ve kept my head down and accepted this absurd premise because it was effectively my only option.

I am tired of keeping my mouth shut when I encounter racism in publishing, in the hope that someday I will be promoted to a position in which I can do something about it without fear of retaliation, or being told I’m overreacting, imagining things, misunderstanding, or not giving a racist the benefit of the doubt. I am tired of thanking White people for doing the bare minimum. I do not want to be able to name every Black editor and every Black agent. I don’t want to be condescendingly deemed exceptional just because I exist.

I often wonder if I would be where I am today if I had darker skin and curlier hair, if I were naturally loud and outgoing rather than soft-spoken and reserved, if I took up more physical space instead of being petite. I don’t, for a second, doubt my own abilities; I never forget that American meritocracy is a myth and American racism is alive and well, thanks to the masterful ways in which our leaders have woven it, often invisibly, into every aspect of this country—from our legislation to our art—for hundreds of years.

To all the self-proclaimed allies reading this, especially those of you with hiring power, or the power to acquire, or the power to allocate marketing dollars, here’s another cliché for you: Actions speak louder than words.

I demand that those who hold the most power and benefit from the most privilege make changes that are in direct proportion to that power and those privileges. Stop leaning on your Black employees and writers to fix this for you. If you can’t bear the brunt of the responsibility, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your ability to effectively lead a company. Don’t make empty gestures. Don’t make promises you can’t keep because you aren’t willing to do the work.

Right now, Black people have your attention. That is not an excuse to forget about the Latinx, Asian, Native/Indigenous, queer, disabled, rural/non-coastal, and working- and middle-class people of the world (and do not forget that these identities are not mutually exclusive, and can also coexist with Whiteness).

I have no faith that meaningful, measurable, permanent change is on the horizon. Prove me wrong. And if you do, don’t expect me to thank you.


Mariah Stovall is a literary assistant at Writers House and previously worked at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and at Gallery Books. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in Vol 1. Brooklyn, Literary Hub, HelloGiggles, Joyland, Hobart, and elsewhere. She is working on her first novel.