Diversity in Publishing

Walking through the halls of a big publishing firm, the first thing that will strike you is the books. Books everywhere: stacked on shelves, counter-tops, desks, spilling out of drawers and jammed into untold boxes leaning precariously against the walls. Once you’ve realised that no, you haven’t walked into an alternate universe where the streets are paved with countless copies of last years’ The Girl on the Train clone, you’ll notice the people. The sea of white, middle class people who have the power to decide which voices get heard and which will molder away in obscurity.

Last week Hachette UK hosted the last ever diversity panel (because why are we still even having this conversation??) all about diversity in publishing — or the lack thereof. You know when an industry doesn’t reflect society at large that there’s a problem, and it was really encouraging to see a major publisher stand up and say yes, we have a systemic diversity problem in our field and within our company. What are we going to do about it?

The panel was chaired by Nikesh Shukla (author of The Good Immigrant) and was made up of Tom Bonnick (commissioning editor at Nosy Crow), Emma Paterson (literary agent), Siana Bangura (poet, writer and intersectional publisher), and Sarah Shaffi (editor for The Bookseller  and co-founder of BAME in Publishing). So yes, a very inspiring group of people.

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Their words were empowering, heartbreaking, at times funny, and very often challenging. And although they could give all the anecdotes and suggestions in the world, at the end of the day the onus lies squarely on the shoulders of us, the readers and publishers, to find the solutions and make a difference.

In a broader context there are many things publishers can do:

  • Offer paid internships at a livable wage so that people from every sector of society can get their foot in the door.
  • Create mentoring programs for under-represented people to work their way up in an industry where the same people seem to be getting every non entry-level job.
  • Foster an environment where every voice is heard, and where the more marginalized voices are actively sought out (and then listened to!).
  • Look for writers and talent on the fringes, and bring them into the centre instead of expecting them to come to us.

And so much more.

But, I hear us all say, that’s all well and good, but what can I do? A lowly admin in the publishing world? A blip on the book-blogging scene? What power do I have?

We can read. Read widely. Read from small publishers. Read little known authors. Seek out new voices and champion them. Review the books no-one else is. Use our platforms –no matter how small– to call attention to the incredible talent that gets overlooked by the publishing/ reviewing machine.

Why do we read the same authors and same stories over and over again? Why is my news feed — and my own feeds — clogged with the same titles? What are we adding? What are our voices contributing?

I’m not saying don’t read that swashbuckling princess novel, or that one with the missing girl (ahem, should I say woman??). But read other things as well. Add in some translated fiction. Find writers from different backgrounds. I challenge you (and myself!), let’s be more conscious, pro-active readers!

Imagine what the world of books could look like if even half of us changed just 20% of our reading and buying habits.

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2 thoughts on “Diversity in Publishing”

  1. I’ve been watching a growing trend of conversations on Twitter about the low salaries in publishing (in the US, though I imagine it’s similar everywhere). Unpaid internships. Lack of remote unpaid internships. Low entry level salary that means you can barely afford to live in NYC, even with roommates. These are people IN the industry, and they’re frustrated with the low pay and the barrier to entry this creates. I wouldn’t even necessarily say being middle class cuts it for many people; you (or your family) needs to be rich enough you can take multiple unpaid internships (possibly actually losing money in the process if you have to move to a different city to complete them), maybe pay for a publishing certificate or MA in publishing, and then take an entry level job that barely pays the bills. Many of the people on Twitter talked about how lucky they were that their parents funded their education, that they had no college loans to worry about being paid off, that their parents supported them while they were just getting started with entry level wages, etc. And a lot of people talked about how they quit publishing or quit trying to get their foot in the door in the first place because they just couldn’t live on the salaries on offer.

    I really like the suggestions to read more widely and support smaller publishers and authors, but it does seem as if a large part of it is going to have to come down to companies finding a way to pay both interns and employees a living wage, but I’m not sure how much incentive they have to do that. At least from a financial perspective. (I think there’s a good *ethical* reason you don’t want to just hire rich people, but I’m not convinced a lot of companies are willing to spend more money to be more ethical.) It’s basically the same problem going on in academia with more colleges choosing to hire cheaper adjuncts rather than creating tenure-track positions. People keep calling for more tenure-track jobs, but colleges have no reason to spend the extra money to do this because there are tons of people willing to adjunct for cheap. Demand for the jobs is way greater than the supply.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! I have to say I agree with everything you’re saying. I got into publishing by shifting over from a different industry, the reality is that if I tried to go straight in as a uni grad there would be no way I could afford to do the necessary unpaid internships and probably would have just given up.
      I can’t speak for the US, but here in England there’s beginning to be a real shift in the industry (although, very much not fast enough!). Paid internships are becoming more readily available, and the wages are increasing for entry level jobs — with the high cost of living in London being taken into account. It’s still not perfect, but if we voice our concerns and champion the companies that listen, bit by bit we’ll continue to see the improvements that are already under way. And maybe the industry over where you are will see that it’s viable to be both ethical and profitable. And in fact, can drive a business to achieve greater success and innovation in the marketplace.

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