Representing the Real World: Diversity in Publishing Imprints

As the publishing industry makes greater concerted efforts to represent the rich diversity of the world in which we live, small presses and imprints under larger houses are taking the lead.

As the publishing industry makes greater concerted efforts to represent the rich diversity of the world in which we live, small presses and imprints under larger houses are taking the lead.

Building well-rounded library collections by acquiring books and other materials that represent the realities of the communities library workers serve is both a duty and a privilege. Owing to a status quo in publishing that has for many years defaulted to works primarily by members of privileged and dominant groups, librarians have had to look harder to find a range of titles by writers who are Black, Indigenous, People of Color, disabled, nonbinary, neurodivergent, queer and/or transgender, or practice a religion other than Christianity. The same goes for books in translation, or by authors from outside the United States and Western Europe. In response to not only a growing demand from readers, but also significant demographic shifts domestically and abroad, the publishing industry is having a reckoning when it comes to questions of representation, whose stories make it to print, who curates and edits those stories, and who gets the marketing and public relations support to make it to the bestseller lists. Despite some outstanding mainstream successes from writers of color, it’s becoming increasingly clear that diversity—often used as a shorthand to refer to non-white groups—can, should, and must go much further in the publishing world if it is to reflect the breadth of experiences of readers and our world.

While publishers such as Amistad Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, have focused on stories by and about Black people for decades, in recent years some new publishers are establishing their own presses and releasing works that attempt to course correct chronic disparities. Several large publishers are defining imprints that prioritize underrepresented authors and their works, like Hachette Book Group’s Legacy Lit, which highlights writing by creators who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Others are securing the legacies of small, pioneering presses whose longtime goal was to showcase the work of authors who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, long before it became a more common practice to do so. These multi-tiered approaches guarantee change for the publishing landscape, but they are not without challenges, and require a variety of resources—among them time, attention, money, vision, human capital, and determination. It’s important for collection development, readers’ advisory, and even programming librarians to familiarize ourselves with the titles and authors coming from all these channels so that we can collect, engage, and recommend as great an array of books and library materials as possible.



One of the first releases of Iskanchi Press & Magazine, based in Utah and founded by Nigerian writer Kenechi Uzor, was the Best of Isele. Isele is a magazine that has published African writers since 2020. Uzor understands that the image many North Americans have about Africa and Africans is painfully narrow and lopsided, when Africa is a continent of 54 countries, within each an abundant diversity of people, languages, and cultures. “It’s not all about Maasai warriors,” he says. He felt particularly motivated to launch the press and magazine upon his daughter’s birth, asking himself, “What kind of book is she going to be reading?” Many best-selling works of the past marketed to young girls, such as late 20th-century works like the “Babysitters Club” and “Sweet Valley High” series, did little to affirm the experiences of Black children from immigrant families. Iskanchi has the potential to create a pipeline of works, or at least a model, that could.

However, Uzor admits that “Nobody starts a publishing company because they want to make money.” While some new presses secure grant funding to push their visions forward, thus far every Iskanchi release has been an out-of-pocket expense. Uzor has financed the publication of five works and expects seven to 10 titles to be released in 2023. Reviews from Publishers Weekly have been favorable, which brings welcome attention to the venture as Iskanchi’s team of eight editors pursues sustainability. To continue getting the word out, Iskanchi has hired a publicist to promote its ambitious undertakings. Ultimately, Uzor wants to be able to pay writers and staff not simply what he can, but what they are worth.



Kensington Books’ Dafina imprint and Lee & Low’s recent acquisition, Cinco Puntos, both headquartered in New York, are seen as veterans in bringing othered voices to the public. While Kensington Books was founded in the 1970s, its imprint, Dafina, meaning “treasure” in Swahili, has been around since 2000. Dafina’s initial mission was to bring African American authors forward, and it has since broadened its scope to include more people of color. Editorial director Leticia Gomez says that while others are now jumping on the bandwagon in pursuit of diverse voices, “Kensington built the bandwagon” and “has stood the test of time.”

Lee & Low, founded in 1991, has sought out “the acquisition of small presses that share a…focus on diversity but have ceased operation,” says publisher and co-owner Jason Low. Cinco Puntos, acquired by Lee & Low in 2021, has been known since 1985 for publishing bilingual children’s books featuring the relationship between Mexico and the United States. Upon approaching retirement, the original founders trusted the company to “safeguard their legacy.” Low adds that not only is it important for books to reflect a broad spectrum of people, but the people selecting those books that reach the public must be diverse as well. Lee & Low originated the Diversity Baseline Survey, which has given the industry concrete data to talk about the overrepresentation of white, cis, heterosexual and not visibly disabled people in publishing. Challenging the “white gatekeepers” is key to achieving the mission, acknowledged Layla Mohamed, assistant editor at Cassava Republic, a press for African writers. Inclusivity in publishing works best when represented at all points in the process: writers, readers, agents, editors and other publishing professionals, booksellers, and librarians.



Daniel Slager, CEO of Milkweed Editions, made progress in hiring candidates from underrepresented backgrounds to staff its Minneapolis-based publishing house with the Milkweed Fellowship ( Knowing that too few paid opportunities are available for people trying to learn the industry, Milkweed has created a remunerated entry-level experience of up to two years and has a strong record of hiring people of color. Slager shared that Milkweed is “motivated by a desire to diversify [its] shop…and to seed change in [the] industry, which has been widely criticized for being pretty homogenous.” Milkweed has two series—Multiverse, created in 2019, and Seedbank, created in 2018—that provide a breadth of perspectives.

According to its website, Multiverse, curated by poet Chris Martin, seeks out “neurodivergent, autistic, neuroqueer, mad, nonspeaking, and disabled cultures” for the creation of literature “that lovingly exceeds what is normal and normative in our society.” As invisible differences can prove elusive to the public, Martin works to make the invisible seen. The second series, Seedbank, collects “ancient, historical, and contemporary works from cultures from around the world,” and largely relies on manuscript submissions from translators.

Slager acknowledges that “there is a crisis around the extinction of languages and cultures” and hopes his press will help address the problem. Given the success of some of Milkweed’s authors, the team seems to have an intuitive vision for winning works. Slager cites sales, critical attention, and awards and honors as metrics of success, and if the last of these is any indication, Milkweed is on the right path: Not one, but two of its authors, Robin Wall Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass) and J. Drew Lanham (The Home Place), were both named 2022 MacArthur Genius Fellows.



Other award-winning authors have stepped up to take a hands-on role in publishing, too. In 2018, John Jennings and Damian Duffy won an Eisner Award for their graphic adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Author, publisher, and vegan chef Bryant Terry stated that his highly collaborative compilation, Black Food, “went on to be the most critically acclaimed cookbook to be published in North America in 2021.” Both Jennings and Terry have launched their own imprints, Megascope from Abrams Books and 4 Color Books from Ten Speed Press respectively, with the goal of making space for, as Terry put it, more “budding talent[s]” to have their work published and known. For Jennings, “[a] major motivator was the amazing uptick in interest in Black speculative culture…over the last few years…for instance, Afrofuturism. It’s become a mainstream interest in pretty much every medium,” as evidenced by the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Black Panther and Wakanda Forever and N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo award–winning “Broken Earth” series.

Terry’s goal is to foster an environment that helps acclimate new voices to the industry, “walking with them and holding their hand throughout the process,” knowing that publishing can be “complicated and grueling and protractive.” 4 Color Books’ next release will be teenage chef Rahanna Bisseret Martínez’s Flavor + Us: Cooking for Everyone in May 2023. Terry’s collaborations with libraries and other cultural institutions date back to the cooking demos, read-alongs, and lectures he has led; he recently hosted a Black Food Summit with the Museum of the African Diaspora.

With the broad acclaim they have received as authors and curators, Jennings and Terry prove again that talent and excellence are found in many communities. Jennings’s desire to “seek out the creative voices…who speak from the shadows, the margins, the unseen spaces” will help to showcase “creators who wouldn’t normally get a chance to be seen.”



Dr. Belo Miguel Cipriani, founder of Oleb Books, Minneapolis, not only publishes the stories of people with disabilities but also foregrounds questions of accessibility. Having become blind at the age of 26 following a violent assault, Cipriani was obligated to learn how to navigate the world anew. This intellectual, advocate, former journalist, and author of Blind: A Memoir calls himself the “Swiss Army knife of minorities, [being] Jewish…gay…blind…a person of color…[and a non–native] English speaker.” While acknowledging that he has received a tremendous amount of support from writing communities based on several of these identities, he has found that a developed network for disabled writers has been wanting—so he’s creating it. Since its founding in 2018, Oleb Books’ vision has grown from primarily publishing to preparing to launch Oleb Academy, a community of learning that will allow disabled writers to workshop writing projects and seek mentorship to help them find their footing in publishing.

Cipriani recognizes that the publication of great work doesn’t happen overnight, but rather through attentive collaboration and intentional editing, neither of which happen in a vacuum. To find some of the best writing, Oleb Books establishes contests that allow writers, agented or not, to submit and compete for publication. The current contest, open from February 10 through April 10, welcomes travel essays by disabled authors for an upcoming anthology. Cipriani acknowledges that “publishing hasn’t been kind to any minority historically,” and Oleb Books is eliminating as many barriers as possible to help pave the path. He hopes that collections teams at libraries will seek out independent presses like his own.



While these new presses have yet to become household names, some big-name movers and shakers are putting muscle into this effort, too. Amazon Publishing collaborates with Hollywood creators as curators, including writer and actor Mindy Kaling (The Office) and executive producer and director Joey Soloway (Transparent) to build more inclusive publishing spaces. Kaling’s Book Studio and Soloway’s Topple provide opportunities to authors who are women of color, queer, and nonbinary. Carmen Johnson, associate publisher at Amazon Publishing and editorial director of both, asserts that “readers should not feel othered” and there should be “a diverse range of experience in our books.”

The first release from Mindy’s Book Studio is a multigenerational story of fortune and romance by Sonali Dev titled The Vibrant Years. Topple’s upcoming No One Needs to Know by Pidgeon Pagonis, out this summer, is a memoir about intersex identity. Backing Dev and Pagonis may be groundbreaking for Amazon, but it is minimally risky; Dev has published at least eight works prior to landing with Amazon Publishing, and Pagonis’s advocacy is well known enough to have received accolades from the Obama White House. It is no coincidence that Amazon Studios gets a first look at Mindy's Book Studio's works for potential screen adaptation.



On the opposite end of the size spectrum, Kaya is a smaller nonprofit press that is “looking explicitly at Asian Pacific American and Asian diasporic work [and] can take risks that makes [it] ahead of the curve,” says managing editor Neelanjana Banerjee. Kaya “published Mimi Lok’s collection, even though she could not get representation and was told her diasporic collection of short stories [Last of Her Name] was not ‘easily marketable’ but…went on to win [the 2020 PEN America Literary Award for Debut Short Story Collection] and sell through print runs quickly.” The chance Kaya took proved worthwhile and rewarding. “We are small enough where, if we are interested and the manuscript has that glimmer of being a Kaya book, meaning it is exciting and doing something we believe in, we will work on developing the manuscript,” adds Banerjee. “We know that as a small press we are competing with Big Five publishers [Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster] who are putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into promoting their books, so it is a fun challenge to do the same on a small budget.”

Whether publishers are starting from the ground up with grassroots ventures or pairing up with famous, familiar faces, many are moving in a direction that better represents the nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population that is comprised of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color (2020 U.S. Census); the 26 percent of the United States that is disabled (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention); and the 7.1 percent of U.S. adults that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and/or asexual (Gallup Poll, 2021). Add linguistic diversity, religious diversity, and authors from countries considered part of the Global South to those figures and we get a better representation of the real world.

As libraries prioritize conscientious and overdue inclusion in collections, displays, and programming with the expertise of library workers, subject specialists, feedback from library users, and the help of collection diversity audits and other tools, these imprints and their missions will be an important area to keep up with. Thanks to high-visibility efforts that range from Grove Atlantic’s Roxane Gay Books, which publishes three selections a year from both agented and non-agented writers, to the work being done by Lisa Lucas, senior vice president and publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books at Penguin Random House, to diversify both the publisher’s offerings and staff, there are more choices than ever to help librarians discover sources for what they—and their users—want and need. 


Additional publishers and imprints focused on broadening representation include:

Agora Books (Polis)

Akashic Books

Amble Press (Bywater)

American University of Cairo Press

Black Privilege Publishing (S&S)

Bold Strokes Books

Bold Type Books (Type Media Center/Hachette)

Carina Adores (Harlequin) 

Ebony (Sourcebooks) 

Feminist Press

Lethe Press

Neon Hemlock

Olive Branch Press (Interlink)

One Boat

One Signal (S&S)

One World (PRH)

Surely Books (Abrams)

Tiny Reparations (PRH)

Unbound Edition

Katrina Spencer is the Librarian for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

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