Macmillan US has agreed to boost Latinx [the term that means a person of Latin American origin or descent] representation both in its staff and in the authors it publishes, as the row over Jeanine Cummins’ Mexican migrant novel American Dirt (published by Flatiron/Macmillan) continues.  Statements of intent were made by the publisher earlier this month after activists from campaign groups #DignidadLiteraria and met with senior staff at Macmillan’s offices in New York.

The groups held a press conference afterwards in a local park and said that Macmillan had committed to “substantially increasing Latinx representation across Macmillan, including authors, titles, staff and its overall literary ecosystem…developing an action plan to address these objectives within 90 days…[and] regroup within 30 days with #DignidadLiteraria and other Latinx groups to assess progress”.

#DignidadLiteraria continued:  “[We] appreciate Macmillan’s stated intentions to work as a leader to address the incredible dearth of presence and opportunity when it comes to Latinx professional, editors and writers in the UK publishing industry.

“But today’s announcement is just the first step in what must ultimately be a sea change in publishing.  This campaign is not simply about Flatiron Books or Macmillan US.  It’s about seeking change that reverberates through the entire industry so the shelves of US bookstores and libraries reflect its people.  Today we urge leaders across the publishing industry at large not to wait until their hand is forced to actuate these changes.  We urge government leaders to investigate the appalling homogeneity in the publishing industry and we urge writers and readers to demand greater power, presence and visibility for Latinx voices.”

It is an unprecedented turn of events and comes after a headline-making fortnight for the novel.  Ever since the book was published it has been dogged by controversy – from the insensitive use of barbed wire (echoing the cover of the book) for the table centrepieces at the book’s launch to what some claim is its stereotypical depiction of Mexicans.

Equally, some praise the author for her compassion for the Mexican migrant experience, while others accuse the author of cultural appropriation.  It has become a defining book, a symbol of something much bigger that is happening in the US around race, representation, inclusivity and who has the right to tell which stories.

The statements from Macmillan follow the publisher’s decision to cancel the rest of Cummins’ US tour for security reasons.  Needless to say, in terms of putting books on the news pages, on the Op Ed pages, on TV and radio, the row has been perfect.  People are buying the novel to make up their own mind and the title remains – at the time of writing – an Oprah pick, despite a petition from authors asking her to reconsider.  What is truly remarkable though, is that American Dirt could become the novel that led to a significant change in US publishing.  The jury is still out on that, but the debate, and its consequences, are fascinating to watch.