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Creating Meaningful DEI Partnerships

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by Deb Vanasse, Reporter, IBPA Independent magazine —

Deb Vanasse

Book Publishers can enhance their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts by taking time to form meaningful DEI partnerships and collaborations.


  • Publishers should create a plan that articulates short-term and long-term DEI goals, and a means for tracking progress.
  • Hiring a DEI consultant might be the right step for your company, but choose wisely.
  • Consider strategic partnerships with partners whose DEI specialty intersects with your core demographic.

Recognizing the power and influence of books, publishers want to enhance their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Important as these efforts are, progress may not come easily. Acknowledging hurtful practices can be uncomfortable, and pitfalls abound. Fortunately, publishers committed to the process will find help at hand, especially when they take the time to form meaningful DEI partnerships and collaborations.

First Steps

Incorporating DEI into all aspects of an enterprise involves much more than simply declaring intent. As a first step, IBPA board member and Mynd Matters Publishing Founder and CEO Renita Bryant advises publishers to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

“Recognize where you have the opportunity to grow, build, learn, and change,” she says. “That includes conscious and unconscious bias.” Those who are not part of an underrepresented group can begin by acknowledging the benefits and privileges of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, language, and ability.

“Even for those within [underrepresented] groups, there may be room within your operations to ensure an inclusive and diverse culture is created,” Bryant says. “Look across your teams, readers, vendors, and strategic partners to identify any DEI shortcomings. Consider your entire supply chain. Where are your biggest gaps and opportunities?”

Based on this assessment, publishers can create a plan that articulates short-term and long-term DEI goals, as well as a means of tracking progress. “Listen to experts and others with different lived experiences when trying to identify ways to integrate DEI,” Bryant says.

Without consequences and accountability, DEI plans will be merely performative. “If you develop the perfect plan and establish goals with regular tracking but fail to incorporate any accountability for yourself or your teams, you’ve already missed the mark,” Bryant says. She cites IBPA’s recently developed strategic plan, accessible online at IBPA’s DEI Resource Center, as an
example of an authentic commitment to change.

Stephanie Carter, founder and publisher of Teleion Books, co-chairs IBPA’s DEI Task Force, which developed the plan. She joined the effort because she recognizes the industry’s need for more diverse voices.

“The board and DEI Task Force started the hard work of getting the association’s house in order before considering the next step of seeking to influence the industry,” she says. “IBPA also took steps to ensure that its DEI focus is not a trend, but an organizational priority integrated into its culture and practices.”

Drafted in August 2019, IBPA’s plan identifies eliminating bias and enhancing diversity as one of the association’s four high-level goals. “IBPA recognizes that the words, stories, and images presented in books have the power to shape culture and history in big and small ways,” notes IBPA CEO Angela Bole and Chairperson Karla Olsen in the plan’s introduction. “It also acknowledges that the legacy of the book publishing industry is undeniably one of privilege, bias, and exclusion, which significantly affects the books that are published.”

Help at Hand

As publishers consider their DEI efforts, they may realize they need assistance, says Dr. James Pogue, president and CEO of JP Enterprises and IBPA’s DEI consultant. “It is unlikely that most publishers have deep experience with DEI,” Pogue says. “And in today’s environment, experience is necessary. A consultant’s acumen, demonstrated success with organizations, and ability to communicate around sensitive issues can increase the confidence and comfort of publishers around sticky decisions as they work to create a community where difference is expected, respected, and celebrated.”

Because DEI consultants have a range of qualifications and standards, Pogue advises publishers to choose wisely. “Be sure to vet candidates carefully for their ability to connect with the organization and execute at the highest level,” he says. Sherry Nigam, publisher at SAE International, suggests publishers get help with their DEI efforts by aligning with individuals and organizations who were active in DEI well before it became a corporate buzzword.

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion can be volatile topics,” she says. “Whether you plan to publish a book on DEI or you’re looking to incorporate DEI into your fiction, it is critical to have an experienced advisor.”

One of Nigam’s current projects is a forthcoming SAE title featuring DEI successes. Scheduled for release in early 2022, Creating DEI Champions in the Mobility Industry examines inclusive leadership benefits of well-executed DEI plans.

Potential Pitfalls

As with any complex undertaking, publishers committing to DEI will encounter pitfalls. Among these pitfalls, Pogue says, is waiting too long to take the first steps—no matter how clumsy—out of fear of getting it wrong. “Having the courage to get things wrong is necessary if you ever want to get it right,” he says.

Bryant also cautions publishers to avoid leaning into stereotypes. “Expand your network so you don’t find yourself in an echo chamber,” she says. “Connect with people who don’t look, think, and live like you do, and you’ll gain a deeper understanding instead of relying on outdated stereotypes.”

She also urges publishers to recognize that DEI is a longterm project. “Inequity and inequality have existed for hundreds of years in this country,” she says. “So don’t expect overnight change. We all have unconscious biases, and they will fight back and try to limit our progress. Keep pushing yourself and your organization to be better and do better.”

Nigam warns against publishers thinking their companies are too small to concern themselves with DEI. “Even if the publishing company itself is made up of only a few people, every product takes contributions from a wide variety of professionals, from editors to printers,” she says. “Every interaction is an opportunity for growth and effective engagement.” She recommends IBPA’s DEI Resource Center, which includes tools for selecting diverse contractors and vendors.

Power in Partnerships

Partnerships can help publishers implement their DEI plans. When exploring potential partnerships, Pogue reminds publishers to be strategic. “Be courageous in your ask and honest about where you are on your journey,” he says. “Ask for the grace to make mistakes and guidance to avoid them when possible.”

Nigam suggests publishers seek partners whose DEI specialty intersects with their core demographic—for instance, a YA publisher partnering with a group that elevates diverse adolescent voices.

“Before you approach anyone, outline your own goals,”she says. “Do you want someone to review your products and flag DEI issues? Are you looking for DEI education for your own team? Do you want to sign someone to write a book on the topic?” She reminds publishers to also listen to their potential partner’s goals.

Bryant urges publishers to avoid one-sided relationships by considering the insight, access, and
opportunities they’ll bring to the table. “Let’s not appear opportunistic and find ourselves extracting even more value from underrepresented communities without offering any value or benefit in return,” she says. “That’s the antithesis of the goal.”

Kirk Whisler

Earlier this year, IBPA entered into a partnership with Empowering Latino Futures (ELF), with the goal of expanding the services each organization provides. President of Western Publication Research Inc. and WPR Books, ELF co-founder Kirk Whisler initiated the discussion.

Since its inception in 1997, ELF has held 68 Latino Book & Family Festivals, honored over 3,000 books with the International Latino Book Awards, and distributed over 150,000 books to underserved youth. Over the years, Whisler says his group has partnered with dozens of business, community, education, and publishing organizations around the US. “With any partnership, we are always looking for win-win solutions,” he says.

As part of the new ELF-IBPA partnership, Latino Book Award winners will receive a complimentary one-year IBPA membership. As Whisler explains, ELF will be able to steer Latino publishers to IBPA for many areas of publishing expertise. At the same time, IBPA will increase its interface with a fast-growing US market while addressing its DEI goals.

“The bottom line is that both IBPA and ELF will be stronger because of this partnership, and diversity will be a little more evident within the publishing industry,”Whisler says. “Perhaps the biggest winner of all in the long run will be reading audiences across the US that will be exposed to more Latino-centric books in both English and Spanish.”

Whisler urges publishers not to worry about rejection from potential partners. “The worst that can happen is they’ll say no. On the other hand, if they say yes, many doors can open for you and your organization,” he says.

The World Is Watching

As publishers focus on DEI, Whisler hopes readers will gain access to a wide variety of books by and about underrepresented communities the industry has traditionally ignored. “These books and stories are needed in our schools, libraries, and by readers who want and need to see far more accurate views of history, the present, and the future,” he says.

For this goal to be realized, Bryant points out that DEI efforts need to go beyond the knee-jerk response of publishers who put forward a celebrity or influencer as the face of change without doing substantive internal work. “Our future has to go beyond these [so-called] short-term solutions of the past,” she says. “The world is watching. Readers are becoming savvy to businesses employing these bait-and-switch tactics.”

Bryant sees representation across all groups as evidence of change. “I hope that includes paid internships for diverse candidates, increased visibility and awareness for diverse works, equal pay for diverse writers and creatives, and accountability and consequences for leaders that stand in the way of change,” she says. “We cannot consider our industry to be one where everyone has a story and a voice yet continue to overshadow, underrepresent, and mute segments of the population.”

Change Worth Fighting for

Doing DEI right isn’t easy. Publishers can expect “a great deal of discomfort and difficult conversations,” Pogue says. They’ll need to allocate resources, and leaders will need to be courageous and vulnerable. Still, he hopes publishers will see DEI as a worthy challenge that allows them to elevate voices from people who have lacked platforms to speak.

For Nigam, the effort is personal. “I have a 7-year-old daughter who dresses like a boy and sports a short boy cut but prefers the pronouns she/her,” she says. “My hope is books featuring people like her will no longer fall into a niche category a few years from now. As an industry, we have the tools to impact change with every single reader, and it is my sincere hope that we are all motivated to do so.”

Awareness, effort, and commitment are key. Help is at hand, and partnership opportunities abound for publishers who pursue them with respect and intentionality. Together, we can advance positive, meaningful change in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Case Study: DEI Partnership

Three years ago, Strive Publishing forged a partnership with Free Spirit Publishing to address DEI concerns. We asked Mary Taris, Strive’s founder and CEO, to explain how the partnership developed and how it’s working.

Mary Taris of Strive Publishing (left) and Judy Galbraith of Free Spirit Publishing.

“It all started with a MIPA (Minnesota Independent Publishers Association) meeting in 2018,” Taris says. “I was new to the publishing industry and a new MIPA member. Each independent publisher shared a bit about themselves and their work. I was impressed with what Karen Pavlicin (now an IBPA board member) was doing with her publishing business, so I introduced myself to her. Karen was interested in what I was doing with Strive Publishing, so I worked up the nerve to ask if she would consider being my mentor. She said yes!

“That spring, Karen invited me to an event that was focused on diversity in publishing. It so happened that the event was sponsored by Free Spirit Publishing. As a teacher, I was familiar with Free Spirit Publishing because their children’s books on social and emotional development were popular in schools. I knew that Judy Galbraith, the publisher, was a former classroom teacher who saw a need when it comes to children’s books and did something about it, which is something we have in common. Karen offered to introduce me to Judy.

“We all discussed the lack of diversity in children’s books, as evidenced by the CCBC and Lee & Low studies from the presentation we had just seen. I told them about how I’d known and felt those stats in my gut for a long time, which is why I founded Strive Publishing—out of my frustration as a classroom teacher with the lack of culturally relevant books for
my students.

“I wanted to get more contemporary and relatable books by and about African Americans into the hands of all children. I thought we could make a greater impact by working together, especially since Judy had been in the industry for 35 years and I was just starting out. I suggested to Judy that we should find a way to partner, and she was open to that. Judy invited Karen and me to a lunch meeting at Free Spirit Publishing where we discussed our shared values of education, diversity, and community-building.

“We discussed possible ways to build bridges across communities to reach more Black authors and publish books that portray the rich diversity within the Black community. As educational publishers, we knew we had a unique opportunity to reach kids in schools by creating culturally relevant books. We wanted Black children to see affirming images of themselves and for all children to see beyond stereotypes of Black people.

“We agreed that collaborating would be beneficial for both Strive Publishing and Free Spirit Publishing, as well as for the publishing industry—we could be a blueprint for other indie publishers. Although we are in some ways competitors, [we saw]
a lot we could do to help each other. The discussion led to the idea to co-sponsor a writing contest, and we agreed to commit to making it an annual event.”

Now in its third year, the Black Voices in Children’s Literature Writing Contest accepts submissions from Midwestern Black authors. Every entry is considered for publication, and winners receive cash prizes. The contest’s goals, Taris says, are to “elevate Black writers and voices,
find contemporary stories that move beyond the Civil Rights Movement and the history of slavery, create more access to the publishing industry for Black authors, and raise awareness of the lack of diversity in children’s book publishing.”

Buoyed by the contest’s success, Taris has formed a new partnership with Cow Tipping Press to elevate the voices of Black adults with developmental disabilities in her region.
“My advice to other publishers is to be open to building a meaningful relationship, which will require coming out of your comfort zone,” she says. “Although it can be challenging, take a chance and ask for support because this is critical work.”

Deb Vanasse is the author of several books, including two forthcoming titles with West Margin Press. She also works as a freelance editor.

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