#AUPresses20 Guest Post: Steps Toward a More Diverse Acquisitions

Liz Murice Alexander's picture

Liz Murice Alexander is Mellon Editorial Fellow at Northwestern University Press. She was one of the participants of the Mellon University Press Diversity Fellows conversation at the AUPresses 2020 virtual conference, which we previously covered here. The Feeding the Elephant editors invited Alexander to elaborate on her remarks during that panel, and we are very pleased to be able to share her recommendations and to continue that important conversation here. --Eds.


As a means of opening the Mellon University Press Diversity Fellowship panel discussion, our moderator underscored the fact that the scholarly press editorial workforce is currently 85% white, and that this shows a three percent decrease in diversity over the past five years. An 85% white editorial workforce means that the majority of decisions about texts representing an increasingly wide range of human experiences is routinely made from a narrow and blinded point of view. The remaining 15% of the editorial workforce then has to grossly overcompensate for those blind spots, often taking on most or all of the work of initiating and sustaining diversity themselves. This is a trying experience in a profession that already requires a great deal of personal sacrifice for career advancement and is surely a factor in low retention of black and brown editors (not to mention all the other forms of structural marginalization).

Rather than allowing this trend to continue, everyone in publishing has a responsibility to work to meaningfully diversify acquisitions. I believe a more diverse acquisitions means fundamentally rethinking the structure of resource allocation (financial resources, skills training resources, mentorship resources, and wellness resources, among others) in order to sustain more seats at the editorial table. Bringing in different opinions representing a wider range of cultural and technical perspectives is one step toward higher quality books being published in more areas that can reach more audiences—the promising future of scholarly publishing.

During the panel, I presented the following four action steps toward rethinking resource allocation. I greatly appreciate the invitation from the Feeding the Elephant editors to contribute these ideas to the forum, as I had hoped to trigger action-based dialogue about why and how to reshape acquisitions. Based on my understanding of the industry gained from training at Northwestern University Press this past year, I’d argue that these are steps that any press can take immediately, without waiting for the approval or funding of oversight bodies, to take agency in diversifying publishing:

  1. Seeking sources of funding outside of the host university, such as grants or venture capital. In conversations about industry-wide change, I have repeatedly heard a lack of funds positioned as an insurmountable barrier to change. However, there is a lot of great work happening at Northwestern University Press and throughout the industry supported by grants—this very fellowship exists as a result of a grant, and many diverse intellectual communities are sustained through grants and other external funding. If a lack of funds is a barrier to sustaining the kind of structural change needed to reshape publishing, publishers might consider how they can best take steps toward fixing that issue independently without waiting for their host universities to catch up. This could mean hiring an editorial assistant devoted largely to grant writing and funding within acquisitions, but I’d take that as another opportunity to hire and support an editorial assistant of color.

  2. Eliminating editorial pattern-matching. Pattern-matching occurs when hiring managers look for certain qualities in potential applicants, not realizing that implicit biases may lurk underneath the seemingly innocuous pattern of qualities. Assistant editor job postings require advanced degrees and prior publishing experience yet offer relatively little in terms of salary (rarely a “thriving wage,” to quote my co-panelist) and other forms of early-career support. In order to accept an editor position, one either has to be able to sustain themselves through other means (perhaps relying on partners, family, or friends to make up the difference) or be willing to make heavy economic or emotional sacrifices in the process. Highly promising candidates who do not have access to immediate financial assistance or are unwilling to sacrifice heavily for career advancement never even make it in the door, and candidates who have access to funds and other kinds of hidden professional or personal help can more easily advance to senior editorial roles. This is a well-known fact; during the panel, members of the audience commented telling their own stories of being told to anticipate great sacrifice in order to advance professionally. It should speak volumes that as of this writing, the only member of my fellowship cohort to successfully be hired as an assistant editor had prior experience in publishing. She spoke during our panel about how she would not have been able to move cross-country twice in six months, for the fellowship and then the job, without help from her parents. Even if money is found to increase hires, acquisitions will not diversify if hiring editors don’t think differently about who could be a potential acquisitions editor.

  3. More selectively publishing higher-quality texts in a wider range of fields. Steps 1 and 2 move toward creating the ideal conditions to publish higher-quality books, but as many of my co-panelists also pointed out, diversifying acquisitions necessarily means publishing higher-quality diverse texts. Publishing fewer high-quality texts in a wider range of disciplines could lead to greater audience interest and greater revenues. I definitely believe selective broad publishing can help restructure the relationship between publishers and scholars, such that scholars see publishing as the creation of a serious intellectual community and not just one more box to check in the tenure process. This could lead to scholars writing slightly differently, for a wider community of thinkers and readers rather than the small community at the annual conference every year, thus producing manuscripts that are easier to market and move off of shelves.

  4. Rethinking audiences and meeting them where they are. I have also repeatedly heard in staff and pitch meetings that the audience for scholarly titles is disappearing, leading to a decrease in revenues. I would counter that it is not audiences that are narrowing, but that the university press’ definition of a “reader” hasn’t broadened to fit the current reality of who consumes information and how. The reality is, people still read books and want new information. At the same time, not a single one of my book-loving college educated non-academic friends born and raised in Chicago knew that Northwestern University or the University of Chicago had presses until I told them about my fellowship. That is not a failure of the audience to find the book, but a failure of the book to find its audience. I believe it is the publisher’s responsibility to help authors write with their audiences in mind, and to find new ways to put books and information in the hands of those audiences.

I do not think these are the only solutions to the problem, and I wouldn’t even argue that they are the best solutions. However, at panels across the 2020 AUPresses meeting and the past few weeks in the larger world I have heard a call for more action to be taken right now to revolutionize the publishing industry rather than wait for the perfect solution to appear. I have also heard a call for more iterative action; a desire to try various solutions, and relentlessly trying those solutions until something sticks. I believe these are four steps in that direction, and I hope that others in the industry can improve on these ideas and find even better ways to take action at every level. University publishers exist to produce and spread good stories and good information, and the industry is at its best when it can sustain a multitude of different and new voices engaged in that mission.


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