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How Dawn Davis is bringing marginalized voices into book stores across America

Davis is one of the very few women of color leading her own major-publishing-house imprint in a largely white industry.
Publisher Dawn Davis.
Publisher Dawn Davis.Simon & Schuster

Dawn Davis always loved to read, but it wasn’t until a fortuitous flight that she realized she could make a career of that passion. Now she’s the founder and publisher at 37 Ink, a Simon and Schuster imprint that publishes books about people who have traditionally been marginalized.

Working in publishing wasn’t part of her plan. Davis, after all, had a lucrative job on Wall Street but was uninspired by the work. So when someone suggested she apply for a Rotary Scholarship, she did and won. And through the program, she headed to Nigeria.

“I met a publisher on the flight, and I was absolutely floored that he got paid to read,” Davis told Know Your Value in an interview.

The seed had been planted. When she returned from Nigeria in 1990, she took a job ostensibly assisting author André Schiffrin at The New Press — but with only three employees, Davis learned how to generate manuscripts, sell subsidiary rights and more. She went on to work at Random House’s Vintage imprint and later became the publisher at HarperCollins’ Amistad, which focuses on work from authors of the black diaspora.

Dawn Davis, left, with 37 Ink author Erica Armstrong Dunbar at the Inkwell Martha's Vineyard Literary Brunch.Courtesy of Dawn Davis.

At Amistad, Davis racked up editing accolades: She edited Pulitzer Prize winner “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones, Steve Harvey’s “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” and Chris Gardner’s “The Pursuit of Happyness,” which was concurrently being developed as a movie produced by and starring Will Smith.

“I was incredibly lucky, but I also used all the skills my editors and mentors had taught me,” Davis said. “The success created more opportunity.”

And then the big opportunity came: the chance to create her own imprint for Atria, a division of Simon and Schuster. But what would she call it — and what would she focus on?

“I believe in flexing, stretching yourself,” Davis said. “So because I had already directed a press dedicated to black diaspora, I didn’t want to do that again. I thought, that will always be a part of what I do, but not the only thing.”

Inspired by experiences like the “Happyness” movie tie-in, Davis decided her imprint would focus on books connected to other media: films, television, articles. And she wanted to feature “extraordinary women and other voices that have been marginalized.”

She named the imprint 37 Ink, a reference to the latitude line connecting California, Italy and Africa — three important places in her own life.

Dawn Davis, right, with author Annette Gordon-Reed at the Inkwell Martha's Vineyard Literary Brunch.Courtesy of Dawn Davis.

One of the first 37 Ink books was “The Butler,” inspired by author Wil Haygood’s Washington Postarticle about Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents in the White House. A movie was already slated for 2013 release, and 37 Ink quickly put together the book as a companion that became a bestseller.

Her 37 Ink imprint has published several books that met commercial success and critical acclaim, including National Book Award-longlisted “Heads of the Colored People” by Nafissa Thompson-Spires and National Book Award finalist “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar.

And so Davis became one of very few women of color leading her own major-publishing-house imprint in a largely white industry.

“It has been a primarily white profession and I think that’s for several reasons,” Davis said. “The salaries are so low. Many moons ago, I was making $21,000. Now it might be as high as $35,000, but that’s not much growth over 20 years. Not everyone wants to make that choice with the temptation of higher paying jobs on Wall Street, and not everyone can make that choice. So it’s a class issue in addition to race.”

Further deepening that financial challenge is that much of the publishing world is based in expensive New York, where low salaries don’t get you very far.

Just as people tend to hire people who look like them, a similar problem can arise when the gatekeepers of who gets published are a homogeneous group. But Davis sees the industry changing.

“Now, I think the publishing industry is more robust for black voices than it has been in my decades in the business,” Davis said. “The independents are getting behind black books and so are the establishments that give the awards. But it’s also because of platforms like Black Twitter: the ability for authors to create their own success and have their audiences lift them up even more. Social media has helped amplify their stories.”

Commercial success shows it also makes financial sense to employ a diverse staff and publish different viewpoints, Davis said, noting recent bestsellers from black authors like Marlon James, Michelle Obama and Elaine Welteroth.

For those interested in joining the publishing industry, including fellow women of color, Davis said the “best advice I was given is do what to love and success will follow. If you love books and can come into this without romanticizing publishing, you can do it.”

While professions like Davis’ original Wall Street career will likely always be more lucrative than books, “if you can be observant and love it for what it is, there is so much value in it,” Davis said. “I feel like I’m always in graduate school: I am always learning new things, day after day.”