As the controversial novel American Dirt raises questions about representation for US publishing, a survey has found that – despite efforts to diversify – the industry “is just as white today as it was four years ago”.

Multicultural children’s publisher Lee & Low Books last surveyed the sector in 2015, when it found that 79% of respondents identified as white. Four years on, after raising the number of responses to 7,893, it found that 76% were white.

“Given the sample size difference, this 3% change in white employees does not meet the bar for statistically significant change,” said the survey’s authors. “In other words, the field is just as white today as it was four years ago.”

Seven per cent of respondents described themselves as “Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander”, with 6% “Hispanic/Latino/Mexican”, 5% “black/African American” and “biracial/multiracial” at 3%. Native Americans and Middle Easterners each comprise less than 1% of publishing staff.

“At a time when readers of all backgrounds were demanding to see themselves in books, the publishing industry came nowhere near to reflecting the rich diversity of the US,” concludes the report. “The people behind the books serve as gatekeepers, who can make a huge difference in determining which stories are amplified and which are shut out. If the people who work in publishing are not a diverse group, how can diverse voices truly be represented in its books?”

The authors welcomed a drop in the proportion of white executives from 86% in 2015 to 78%, “since true change in company culture almost always requires buy-in from the very top”. But the numbers of white people in editorial roles increased from 82% to 85%, “so, even though more diverse books are being published now, it’s fair to assume that the majority of them are still being acquired and edited by white people”.

The most diverse group in publishing was found to be interns, with 49% identifying as black, indigenous or people of colour. “The encouraging numbers in the intern section indicate that publishing is trying to reach out to diverse populations,” the report continues. “But keeping diverse employees engaged and believing they have a home in this industry is another matter. Without a clear career path and the promise of opportunities for a bright future, retention will continue to be a serious problem, and the needle will not move.”

“I think maybe some white people will be surprised by the numbers,” said Lee & Low’s publicity director Hannah Ehrlich, “but I don’t think many people of colour in the industry will.”

“For these numbers to change in a meaningful way would require top-down cultural shifts across our industry,” she added, “something that I don’t think we’ve really seen yet, as well as the removal of many socioeconomic barriers to entry into the field.”

The Lee & Low report appeared the same day that the publisher of Jeanine Cummins’ controversial novel American Dirt cancelled the rest of her book tour citing concerns about safety. Cummins is of Irish and Puerto Rican background, and received a seven-figure advance for her story, which has also been selected for Oprah’s book club. The book has been accused by Mexican-American writers of stereotypical portrayals of Mexico and Mexicans, with more than 100 writers from diverse backgrounds now writing an open letter to Oprah asking that she reconsider her choice.

“I don’t want to comment on any one book or publisher,” Ehrlich said, “but I think that the extremely homogeneous nature of our industry’s workforce leaves publishers vulnerable to all sorts of mistakes, missteps, and failures … Without a diverse workforce behind the scenes, publishers cannot really have the awareness or cultural competency to do justice to diverse stories.”

American Dirt happened because the veneer of progressivism remains valued far higher than the action of it

For the Eisner & Ignatz award-winning cartoonist Shivana Sookdeo, who called for publishers to prioritise marginalised creators in a series of tweets that went viral, the link was all too clear.

“To me, American Dirt didn’t just happen because there’s not enough, say, Latinx representation in the publishing workforce,” she said. “American Dirt happened because the veneer of progressivism remains valued far higher than the action of it. Without support for the marginalised already within publishing, from living wages to protection from backlash, you can’t attract more. Without that growth of the workforce, you can’t effectively safeguard against exploitative works. Without those safeguards, you make it even more inhospitable for diverse talent. Then you’re back at square one publishing establishment, safe, whiter voices because the entire chain has been neglected.”

She felt that while there will “always be American Dirts”, what she is waiting to see “is an industry that prioritises stories about brown people from those people, far above that of white authors telling it for them”.

The report urges the publishing industry to examine how companies can be more welcoming to diverse staff, and to ensure all staff receive proper training. “Until we all start to care about equity, we will not make progress, and any gains the industry makes will continue to be not statistically significant,” the report declares. “A lot has happened in four years, and not all of it for the better. Four years from now, what will the next baseline survey show us? And what will those numbers tell us about ourselves?”

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