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.
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.