Episode 55! The PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey, 2018: Conversation with Kheryn Callender, PART 2
Welcome to episode 55 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
This week’s episode is different. In this 2-part interview Grace Lin talks with author Kheryn Callender about the PW’s 2018 Industry Salary Survey and their experiences working as an editor in children’s publishing. This is Part 2 of the interview, please listen to Part 1 HERE.
On today's podcast you will hear:
Born and raised in St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands, Kheryn Callender is the author of Hurricane Child and This is Kind of an Epic Love Story. Kheryn was previously as Associate Editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Her most recent novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour (here & here), as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf. Grace's new picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star is now available.
In this episode:
Grace and Kheryn mention a quote by Shirley Chisholm: "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."
Kheryn talks about Danielle Steele’s desk. It looks like this:
Grace: Yeah because in your Tweet threat, you talk about the idea of paying your dues, and you say, "How many other people of color are putting in the time and work while others are not putting in as much work because they know they will get that promotion if they wait long enough." Could you talk more about that?
Kheryn: Yeah, basically, for what I was saying with the location and who is able to afford to stay in New York, there's also the question of who's able to afford to wait for the promotion that's going to take about five years in some cases. Three or two if you're lucky, to get to a place where you can finally afford to live off your salary in New York. That can take maybe even like 10 years sometimes, but there is, unfortunately, this culture of expecting to be promoted after a certain amount of time, so it's easy to find and hear about people who kind of just go through the motions and aren't necessarily as passionate about the job and are just going to wait for that promotion because they can wait whether they do the extra work or not.
Kheryn: And I think that in my experience and a lot of people of color's experience in publishing, they can't afford to wait to pay their dues, so they work overtime and do everything that they can to be promoted as quickly as possible, but they're still battling against the stigma of, "Well, you've been in publishing for only five years or so. You need to kind of wait and let the people who've been here before you get that promotion first."
Kheryn: I've heard of this happening, so I know it's not necessarily just on one experience.
Grace: No, I think it's interesting, and I completely believe it's kind of like the paying your dues. Paying your dues is a kind of a thing I think a lot of companies, and it's kind of a dangerous thing especially for ... I don't know if dangerous is the right word, but it's kind of a poisonous method of having a business because it's true. The people who get ahead are the ones who can wait it out, not so much the ones who are the most talented or even the most hard-working.
Grace: So, how do you think we can get more people of color or marginalized people into the door of publishing?
Kheryn: You know, I actually ... We definitely still need a lot to work. We still have a lot of work to do in terms of getting people of color into the door and into entry level positions, but I actually feel like that has been such the focus that a lot ... That that number has risen in some ways. Of course not as high as it should be, but in comparison to ten plus years ago, I feel like there definitely have been a lot more entry level people of color. My question is what we're doing to keep them there because I think that that is where the difficulty really lies. There needs to be higher salaries across the board. I think that the starting salary for entry level positions to get more people of color in the door needs to be skyrocketed, but even then, what are we doing for retention and to make sure that the people who finally are able to get in the door are able to stay for the long haul and to stay for that, as we were saying earlier, to stay for the 20 years. I don't think that that is something that we're seeing enough.
Grace: Besides the sides the salary, what steps do you think publishing can do to keep people of color or marginalized people in the industry?
Kheryn: As we were saying earlier, there definitely needs to be faster promotions. There needs to be ... I can only speak from the editorial side, but I do think that there could be more opportunity to allow growing editors to acquire more quickly rather than to focus only on the idea that they are only an assistant.
Kheryn: Let me see. I feel like I had a couple more in my mind. I'm sorry.
Grace: Do you think something like a ... I just feel like ... I think about that one person in the room, that one person. I feel like there almost should be some kind of support group or something like that to figure out how to navigate being that one person in the room.
Kheryn: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Yeah. There is a group that is called People of Color in Publishing, and I do know that there is a subcommittee that is strictly for retention, and I'm excited to see what they're going to do, what their plans are because I do think that mentorship also is a big factor. I was lucky to have Alvena. Really, I'm not sure how long I would've lasted if I didn't have a manager who is also marginalized, and to be able to go to her and to be able to say, "I think that this project, for example, might be problematic." Or, "I'm having issues, and I'm sure if I'm just kind of making this up in my head, but I feel like there might..." You know, to be able to go to someone to talk to I think is also a huge boost to be able to want to stay in the industry.
Grace: So, I have to admit that I completely empathized as well as cringed when I read this line in your Tweet thread. You said, "I felt more than once the feeling of there can only be one from other black/brown folks in the industry." I guess I really related to that 'cause it's something I felt my entire career as an Asian author, that feeling that there can only be one, and I actually think that's probably one of the main reasons why I began this podcast as kind of like a penance of being a part of that mindset and not supporting other authors of colors the way I should.
Grace: Do you have any advice for people of color in the industry who might be poisoned by that only one mindset.
Kheryn: It's definitely difficult. I can't even fault you for thinking that because unfortunately, it can often seem like there can only be one because that literally is publishing's mindset. We hired our one black person or one Asian person or one Latinex person, we're good. Or even for the books, we have our one black book for the list. We have our one Asian book for the list. We're good. And that's still something that happens to this day, I think.
Kheryn: The only advice I can give is that we all do need to come together to fight the stigma in whatever way that we can and to, on the book side, prove that, for example, it's great to have multiple ... There's definitely more than the single story for any one group, and it's great to publish as many of these books as possible and to show that through the sales that there's still a continuing craving for all books of all groups. There can't just be one.
Kheryn: And for working within publishing, I think these conversations are a good start, and I think that allowing the people at the top of publishing to see that it's good to have multiple voices even with the same group so that there can be more diversity within each marginalization is also a good place to start.
Grace: So, did you find in your time in publishing that all these myths ... Because we're talking about the only one ... Do you find the myths of like diverse books like sell and all those we need to just have this one Asian book because that's what we'll market it as is the Asian book for this season. Did you find that those were true?
Kheryn: I found that they were true, not under Alvina Ling's watch. I can say that that's another reason why it definitely does help to have someone at that higher level where they can say, "That is wrong." I have heard of that happening at other houses, however, very regularly, and I think I started around the time of this ... I had been around a couple of years, but around the time of The Hate You Give, where that really just broke down the doors and the flood gates for specifically black stories, but before that came out, before there was the auction, you definitely did hear people say, "Oh black people don't necessarily read." "Are black people going to be interested in this?"
Kheryn: So, unfortunately, some of those myths are true.
Grace: This is something that I talked with with Rodger Sutten in one of the interviews, and I'd love to hear your take on it because we were talking about The Hate You Give, and I think it's wonderful that Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas are like at the top of the best sellers, and I think it's great, but I was talking to ... And I talk about this with Rodger, so those who already heard this story, I apologize, but I was talking to a black author who said she was also very happy for these authors, but she was also a little bit disturbed because she felt like it was the white narrative of how they see black people because all the best selling books with black people were black people with a gun.
Grace: So, what do you think of that?
Kheryn: That's interesting. It's true. I can see why she would be disturbed by that. This reminds me actually of a conversation that I had with my editor for a [inaudible 00:26:59] that I'm working on now that is about a black boy who's coming to terms with his sexuality, and there had been a sensitivity reader for that. I'm also black and queer, but it's also good to have other eyes on it, and the person mentioned that it kind of felt a little like it was going through the motions of this is what it feels like to come out, and this is what it feels like to ... And I had the conversation with my editor, and I realized that it's because there aren't any books about black queer people in the middle grade age range. If there are, we don't really know as much about them, and it feels like there has to be a story that's told first. There has to kind of be like a groundwork for conversations so the books that do push it and aren't necessarily just about coming out and aren't necessarily about being "black" can come out, but first there needs to be that discussion.
Kheryn: I know that there are so many more stories than just The Hate You Give, and just books that are similar to Jason Reynolds, but I feel Angie Thomas and Jason Reynolds have laid the groundwork down for us. I'm not going to say that those books are unimportant.
Kheryn: There's also the part of discussion where these are stories that are still happening on a daily basis, so they just still need to be discussed, but I do feel like they have laid down the ground work, and we're seeing now books that are branching out that aren't necessarily ... That do have black and brown main characters, and they're not necessarily about gun violence. Those books kind of had to come first, unfortunately I guess, not necessarily just for the white viewers, but that's what they did. They're on the best seller list, and I'm not going to say that it shouldn't have happened.
Grace: Yeah. No, I completely understand. That's kind of how I feel about Crazy Rich Asians. There's still problems with that movie, but I'm so glad that it's there to lay down the groundwork for Asian representation. I completely understand what you're saying.
Grace: So, in your Tweet thread, you also say, "Let's also undo the idea that all of publishing is evil." And I think that this is a really powerful statement. I think it's really easy for people to paint publishers as like the big bad, the enemy of diversity and change, and that people of color in the industry might actually be traders to the cause.
Grace: When you said, "There are people who are working hard and making sacrifices to make change." And I thought that was something really important to talk about.
Kheryn: Yeah. I mean, we've mentioned Alvina. Alvina's been in the industry for ... I hope she doesn't mind us saying this, but maybe like 18 years, almost 20. Andrea Pinkny has been in the industry for, I'm actually embarrassed to say I'm not exactly, but just as long perhaps, if not longer, and I feel like there are people who really are trying to get that to that place and are trying to make that change, and we've been talking about, from my perspective, having been in New York, I feel like I did sacrifice a lot, like I very easily could have been in a place that was much more affordable. I could have had a job that was paying a lot more. I could have been focusing on my writing and maybe been further along in my career, but I really wanted to create as much diversity as possible publishing.
Kheryn: I know that there are other people in that position now who are also struggling to be able to stay in the industry and stay in New York, and it can be really disheartening to go through everything that we've been through, and then on the other end, people kind of saying this blanket statement of all of publishing is evil, and you're a trader if you are at this publisher that published this one problematic book without really understanding the gray areas of everything we've been discussing how much of the people of color and marginalized people are necessarily able to step up and say to the publisher directly, "This is a problematic book and needs to stop."
Kheryn: I think that there needs to be more of a gray area that's kept in mind when talking about publishing and looking at who is in publishing, doing the hard work that others aren't necessarily able or willing to do to create that change.
Grace: So what do you think about there's been some talk about the only way to get people of color equitable footing in books is for them to self publish. A lot of people of color have just turned to self publishing because they feel like they can't get a fair shake at a traditional publishing house. What do you think about that?
Kheryn: I don't know if I know enough about the self publishing industry to be able to say a lot, but I would say that right now, I do know that there are people in the industry, in traditional publishing, who are specifically looking for those diverse books, and I think that they would want a chance to be able to publish the books that are being self published now. However, I can't blame those authors for going the self publishing route because it was only until very recently, I think, that there was more of an expansion of people of color and is in the industry look for those stories.
Kheryn: So, I'm not sure if I can say much more than that.
Grace: Would you say that you still believe in traditional publishing then? I guess I read all these things, and it makes me feel like, "Oh, they're right." But then, in the end, I feel like, "Oh I still believe in traditional publishing." And I can't figure out if I just believe in it because I've ... They talk about the patriarchy and all the privileges you get. Maybe it's because I benefit from traditional publishing that I still believe in it.
Kheryn: I believe in traditional publishing for sure. I think maybe it's just my hope and just knowing that there are people in traditional publishing fighting the good fight. Yes, there is the patriarchy, and yes there is a lot of white privilege that people are kind of struggling and fighting against, but to say that, again this goes back into demonizing all of publishing. To say that we can't trust them and we're not going to benefit from them, just dismisses the people who are trying to make the changes to help make traditional publishing more accessible to everyone.
Grace: So, what is the one thing you would change in publishing if you could. Like, if I gave you a magic wand, and you could change one thing. What would it be?
Kheryn: Definitely the location. I think if location could change to a more affordable place and not just in one city, and perhaps all across the nation ... If there were different specific cities throughout the United States where publishing was located, then that would give a wider berth of applicants and people who are able to get into publishing and people who could afford. I honestly do think New York City is one of the greatest road blocks, especially when I speak to people who are trying to get into publishing and are looking for advice, that the one thing they always say, "I can't afford New York. What do I do?" And I'm not able to give a good response because publishing ... The Big Five, most of publishing is in New York.
Grace: For those who don't know that much about publishing, and even for me, why do you think all publishing is in New York City?
Kheryn: I wish I could say. Historically, that's where most of the houses are. I just really don't know why most of them are there. There are so many more cities that are so much more affordable, and even just I know that there are a lot of editors ... Not a lot, but there are some editors who are also just starting to work remotely, and that is another option as well. It's just something that traditional publishing has not looked into as much.
Grace: Yeah, but the problem is it also goes back to what you were saying. For an editor to work remotely, they have to be ... I assume they have to be up the ladder a certain amount before they're allowed to work remotely, so that is not easy for a person of color to break into, and like, "I need to work remotely."
Kheryn: Yeah. That's true.
Grace: So, what do you think people in publishing can do to facilitate change?
Kheryn: I think some of the changes that could be would be hiring more people at the mid level and senior level positions. As we were saying before, yes there is still a lot of work to be done for the entry level positions also, but given everything that we've said, I think that mid level positions could be filled, not necessarily just by people who have been working their ladder up in publishing, but if there's a parallel industry ... I'm not going to say a name, but I think my favorite example is one of my favorite designers of [inaudible 00:36:24] who was in a parallel industry and hadn't necessarily been in book publishing was brought over for a mid level position in design and is just one of the best book designers and has designed some of my favorite books.
Kheryn: I think that if there was more opportunity ... If we were looking for more people of color in similar fields and bringing them over and using their experience, then that would be a way to diversify a little bit more quickly.
Grace: That's actually what you said in the reverse for others. Like, if you're not passionate about the field, make room.
Kheryn: Yeah. Yeah.
Grace: So, I thought that was a really blunt, but honest thing to say.
Kheryn: You know, I can't remember where I heard this quote, but it is something I wonder about if we do need to say it a little bit more. The quote was: It's time to stop bringing our folding chairs to the table and for some people to get up and make some room.
Grace: Yeah. I think that was ... It's a famous quote. Something like if there's no room for you at the table, bring your folding chair. But now, I think we need to go beyond that.
Grace: I think that's really important.
Grace: So, what do you think educators and book sellers, all the gatekeepers, what do you think they can do to facilitate change?
Kheryn: Continue to support diverse book that have been edited by people of color. You can check out the acknowledgements to see who the editors are and who the teams are to begin to follow their work. I think that that is one way to show that their books can continue to sell so that they can continue to be promoted so that they can continue to bring more diverse books into the industry.
Grace: Yeah, I read somewhere somebody said, "Buying a book is actually a political act." So I think that's something that anyone, not just booksellers and educators can do, but anybody who reads can do.
Grace: Lastly what do you think book creators, like authors and illustrators like myself, what do you think we can do to help the publishing industry change?
Kheryn: I thought that this was a bold move, but I was heartened by it. There was a person of color author that I was speaking to who was specifically requesting a black publicist because they wanted to make sure that that publicist could get the work that they wanted as well. Yeah, I haven't really thought of that, but I think it's interesting to also just know who is on your team and how to help support them as well.
Grace: Yeah. I think it's been a new awakening for me, and I'm realizing more and more I have to be more proactive. I've been starting to write a couple of stories where maybe I'm not the illustrator, and realizing maybe instead of me not being the illustrator, I can request or demand, try to demand, that it's another Asian illustrator or a person of color and therefore, hopefully give somebody else some room or leg up or something like that.
Kheryn: Yeah. I love that. Yeah.
Grace: So, it's all those kind of things that I'm starting to think about that I hope other book creators think about too.
Grace: So now it's time for the last two questions that I ask everybody, and the first question is: So what are you working on now?
Kheryn: I am working on a middle grade [inaudible 00:39:51] and my first adult fantasy. All of them seem to be coming out maybe in 2020.
Grace: Do you have titles for any of them that you want to share?
Kheryn: The first one ... Actually no. They haven't been announced just yet, so I'm going to wait to make sure that the titles are final.
Grace: All right. How about you just tell us about your most recent book so people can go look it up and buy it.
Kheryn: Sure. The most recent is This is Kind of an Epic Love Story, which is a YA. Do you want me to give you the quick elevator pitch also?
Grace: Yes. Definitely.
Kheryn: 16-year old Nathan Bird doesn't believe in happy endings because his father had passed away when he was younger, leaving his mother [inaudible 00:40:32] and his ex girlfriend, currently best friend, Florence, had broken up with him, so he doesn't really believe that the happy endings that you see in movies and books are real because in his experience, relationships can't end happily.
Kheryn: So then, of course, his former childhood best friend and crush, Oliver James [inaudible 00:40:51] returns to town, and Nathan really has to explore whether he's really to risk hurt or a non happily ever after as he decides to pursue a relationship with Ollie.
Grace: Sounds great. And that's out now, right?
Grace: And what's the title again?
Kheryn: This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story.
Grace: Okay great.
Grace: All right. Now, here's the last question. This is a question I ask everybody, and I'll put the caveat that we ask this question with the idea that we don't want to feel like we have to be ashamed of our ambitions. So, what is your biggest publishing dream? Like dream really big, like crazy, almost like a dream that you're ashamed to say out loud.
Kheryn: I want a desk that's like Danielle Steele's.
Grace: You want a what? I'm sorry.
Kheryn: I want a desk like Danielle Steele's. Like, those books. Have you seen Danielle Steele's-
Grace: No, I haven't seen her desk. You have to describe it for us.
Kheryn: It's a desk of her books, and it's like these giant replicas of some of her books, and it's basically an amazing office, so I guess I would like a really amazing office space, but I would like a really fantastic desk like that also.
Grace: So, is her ... Is it like ... Is it because she's written so many novels that they can make a desk out of it, or is it just-
Kheryn: No, it's like three giant books.
Grace: Oh. Okay. I'll have to look it up and put it in-
Kheryn: Yeah, you should.
Grace: I will look it up. I will put the picture on the website so everybody will come and see what this desk is. Now I'm dying to see it.
Grace: All right, well thank you so much, Kheryn.
Kheryn: Thank you so much, Grace.