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‘American Dirt’ publisher vows to increase Latinx staff, published authors

Macmillan
Macmillan has vowed to increase its number of Latinx staff and published authors.
(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

Less than a week after canceling Jeanine Cummins’ entire “American Dirt” book tour and acknowledging “deep inadequacies” in the rollout of its bestseller, the publishing company appears to be making changes, or at least promising them.

A group of Latinx activists met on Monday with officials at Macmillan, the international parent company of Flatiron Books, which published “American Dirt,” to deliberate over steps the publisher could take to increase Latino representation in the industry.

After the meeting, #DignidadLiteraria and Presente.org, an online Latinx organizing group, released a statement detailing the “unprecedented commitments” Macmillan made after the two-hour meeting.

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According to the release, the publisher made commitments to “substantially increasing Latinx representation across Macmillan, including authors, titles, staff and its overall literary ecosystem” as well as “developing an action plan to address these objectives within 90 days.” Macmillan also said it would “regroup within 30 days with #DignidadLiteraria and other Latinx groups to assess progress.”

This week, #DignidadLiteraria and its allies will also be organizing action forums in several cities across the country, including a Thursday discussion at Antioch University in Culver City featuring Roxane Gay, Myriam Gurba, Wendy C. Ortiz and Romeo Guzman. The purpose of these panels is “to continue the conversation on Latinos and the publishing industry,” said Roberto Lovato, a writer and co-founder of the hashtag and group that arose in the wake of the outcry.

In a statement to The Times on Tuesday, Flatiron Books confirmed the wording of the agreement, adding that publishers “felt the meeting was quite productive.”

Cummins’ migrant tale “American Dirt” sparked a raging storm of controversy over the past few weeks. Published on Jan. 21, the book has been accused by critics of being a harmful act of cultural appropriation, riddled with cultural inaccuracies and stereotypes about Mexico and the struggles of migrants. It inspired snarky parodies on Twitter and sparked discussions about how far the publishing industry still had to go to represent the diversity of the Latino experience.

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Still, the novel was warmly received by prominent writers, including Stephen King, John Grisham and Sandra Cisneros, who reaffirmed her support of the book in an exclusive interview last week.

Celebrities endorsed ‘American Dirt’ — then the reactions on Twitter turned negative. Cries of appropriation — and barb-wire dinner pieces — spark scorn for book

Among the meeting attendees were Bob Miller and Don Weisberg, presidents of Flatiron Books and Macmillan, respectively; Amy Einhorn, the editor of “American Dirt”; representatives of Oprah Winfrey; and authors and #DignidadLiteraria founders David Bowles and Gurba. Gurba’s negative review of the book was the catalyst of the controversy.

#DignidadLiteraria is “a network of committed Latinx authors formed to combat the invisibility of Latinx authors, editors, and executives in the U.S. publishing industry and the dearth of Latinx literature on the shelves of America’s bookstores and libraries,” according to its founders.

It’s also a movement fueled by the publishing world’s lack of representation. Latinos are the largest minority voting group in the U.S. and the largest nonwhite demographic, but in 2018 they made up only 3% of the publishing workforce, according to a Publishers Weekly study from last year.

Though Bowles called the commitments “a clear victory” in a video posted on Twitter, #DignidadLiteraria emphasized that the publishing world had a long way to go, urged government officials to investigate the “homogeneity” of the industry and encouraged the public to demand more Latinx voices in books.

Monday’s announcement “is just the first step in what must ultimately be a sea change in publishing,” the group said in the statement. “This campaign is not simply about Flatiron Books, or Macmillan USA. It’s about seeking change that reverberates through the entire industry so the shelves of U.S. bookstores and libraries reflect its people.”

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According to Bowles, Macmillan officials conceded during the meeting that Cummins had not received death threats. When Flatiron Books President Bob Miller announced in a statement that they were canceling the book tour, they cited “safety” concerns over “threats of physical violence.”

When asked about the threats, a spokesperson for Macmillan responded: "[O]ur original statement is accurate. We never characterized the threats both booksellers and Jeanine received as ‘death threats.’”

Now that Latinos have the publishing world’s attention, Lovato believes that the public is “watching the beginning of the end of the folkloric industrial complex in Latino literature.”


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