Before “diversity and inclusion” were buzzwords and hashtags, Monique Patterson had been actualizing them in the publishing industry for 20 years at St. Martin’s Press, one of the country’s largest publishing companies. She wants people who’ve been underrepresented; who desire to be authors; who have a story in mind to have access to their dream; and people who want to work on the side she’s on—the make-it-happen side—to live out their book-loving passions, too.
In September, Patterson marked her own diversity milestone and a place in publishing history as the first African-American woman to be named vice president, editorial director, and executive editor at St. Martin’s Press. In every role and title she’s ascended to, she’s invited Black and Brown people into a space that historically hasn’t been enthusiastic about them. She’s the magic behind bestsellers and award-winners by Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors, journalists asha bandele and Denene Millner, and historian Jeff Chang.
Speaking with The Root, the publishing exec—who will continue to acquire titles in commercial fiction, young adult, fantasy, and narrative nonfiction—talked about her new gig, political over-correctness, and what diversity and inclusion in the industry should look like.
The Root: First and most important, how are you doing? How have you been processing the pandemic for the past eight months?
Monique Patterson: You know, I’ve been working hard to establish what “new normal” looks like for me and learning to ask myself the question, what do I need? What do I need to do my work? What do I need to feel creative? What do I need to feel peaceful? Sometimes it changes from one day to the next, especially in this situation. But I’m allowing myself to answer honestly so I can live this life successfully, happily, with some measure of peace and continue to pursue the things I want and feel excited about. It feels like you shouldn’t be able to do that in the midst of all of this, but I think it’s actually more important than ever.
TR: That’s wisdom right there. So when you got into publishing, what did you expect to do with your career? What was your original 10-year plan?
MP: I got my first job before I graduated from college and I started a week after I graduated, so I didn’t know anything about publishing. The only thing that I knew was that I loved and wanted to work with books.
Six months after I started, I acquired my first book. At some point, I remember saying to my boss, “You know, we don’t have a lot of Black authors in our list.” She’s like, “All right, well go find them.” And I was like, “Okay.” That was my first entry into publishing: hit the ground running, go after what you want. There was never a cap put on me and I just operated the way I usually operate, which is, “Okay, I want a thing. Let’s go after the thing.”
So what I wanted to do was something I developed once I got in the business and saw the opportunities. I developed my own personal tastes and loves. Then I became obsessed with learning the business itself. What works for readers? Why do they respond not just to the story, but to the packaging, the title and the copy? I was one of very few Black people in the business, so the opportunities to bring in more Black voices grew. You also learn all the challenges that come along with that. Navigating that, even now, is still interesting.
TR: You’ve been working in diversity and inclusion for years, and 2020 in particular has thrown a spotlight on those issues. How have you been helping people in the publishing industry figure it out?
MP: Five years ago, Macmillan [St. Martin Press’ parent company] started their Diversity and Inclusion Council. I was definitely going to be involved, but I hadn’t anticipated being asked to be a co-chair. But one of the things that I can see is the shift in not talking about race to talking about it. Before, if I was talking about it, the conversation was happening almost exclusively outside of my office with friends, usually other women of color. And now I’m talking about it in the office with my colleagues damn near almost as much as I do with friends and family.
It’s absolutely the thing that should be happening, but it’s not the thing that fixes the problem. It’s like a necessary difficulty. I know a lot of white people are feeling incredibly nervous about having these conversations like, “What do I do? What do I say?” But I also think a lot of people of color are like, “Oh gosh, how is this going to go?” It’s nervewracking on both sides for very different reasons.
There’s a way you learn to operate, especially as a person of color. There’s a certain amount of armor that you put on to ensure your safety—“safety” can mean a lot of things—and success. When you’re used to operating that way and then all of a sudden people are like, “Alright, let’s talk about it openly,” you’re like, “Huh?” I mean, yes, this is what we should be doing, but how much talking do I need to do and still also protect myself? For a person of color, there’s also this pressure and a little bit of trepidation when you’re still one of the very few in the company and one of the few in the room. There are things that people still don’t want to hear and that all depends on who you’re talking to. It’s like navigating new territory.
TR: Can you give me an example?
MP: You’re coming face to face with what they know and what they don’t know, and sometimes they lean on you as the person to teach them, and you have to be like, “I’m not here to do that, though.” You have to explain that and help them understand that just because you know me and I’m a person of color does not mean that I should take on the burden of educating you.
TR: You’ve navigated more than 50 books to the New York Times bestsellers list, which is amazing. Were most of them from people representative of what you call “underrepresented groups?”
MP: The majority of them were not, actually. I would say somewhere between 3 to 5 percent of them were. Which is—I mean, God, how do you even begin to unpack that? I do a lot of commercial fiction, and it’s not exclusively authors of color or authors from underrepresented communities. I want it to be 50/50, at the very least. That’s the goal. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before that starts happening with some frequency. I don’t think I’m being cynical. I think I’m being realistic.
TR: Can you tell me about a time when you thought you knew something about yourself, but your work taught you something different?
MP: Oh, man. That’s a great question. When I have a goal in mind, I go for it. I can try something and be like, “Alright, let’s see where this goes.” That’s how I became a powerlifter. I wasn’t intending to become a powerlifter, but that’s what happened. Somebody was like, “Hey, let’s try this.” I have doubts just like everybody else but I’m very used to carving out a path of success for myself, looking at things realistically and saying, “All right, this is how we get there.”
A few years ago, the market was starting to change. Things that were working were no longer working. The whole industry, including all editors, had to figure out how they were shifting what they were doing and that was the same for me when we lost all the Black bookstores. There was just a lot of upheaval when that happened. When you know the path, it’s not so much that the path is always predictable, but you’re like, “I know exactly what I’m doing, no matter what’s going on.” Then when things start changing enough, that calls that into question. It requires something different from you. You have to believe in yourself even more when the evidence is not in front of you. Enough was changing that I had to kind of sit still in a way that I hadn’t had to do for my entire career.
The thing I learned from that was, first of all, being able to keep your feet underneath you in uncertainty is huge. I did not enjoy it. I mean, nobody does, but what it ended up giving me was this confidence on the other side of it. I had to wrestle with that for a little bit, but it led me to where I am now. I think it was my biggest, most valuable lesson, even more than like the number of bestsellers. Because the thing is, you can get used to racking up successes, but when you are in this moment where shit is just not working the way it used to and you have to figure it out, and you do? Nobody can teach you that. You can take that with you and just know when things get rocky again, you’re like, “Done that. I can figure it out.”