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Will more diversity across UK publishing and bookselling really make a difference to what’s being published?

The Independent Publishers Guild and the Publishers Association are among a number of organisations that have signed up to the UK Publishing Equalities Charter.  They believe that the charter will help to promote equality and diversity across UK publishing and bookselling, helping to drive forward change and increase access to opportunities within the industry.

Some see this as the long-overdue admission that publishing is still predominantly white and middle-class.  Nearly 50% of people working in publishing feel that they’re working within a white, middle-class ghetto according to a 2004 survey by the Arts Council.  Many think it will stay that way, with non-white authors struggling to be heard unless they occupy key editing and commissioning roles.

As a notion, it sounds reasonable.  There are countless examples where increasing diversity has led to change – a kind of shared, positive outcome.  Why wouldn’t the same approach work in publishing?

The thing is, while the notion of better representation has been mooted, there is no evidence that it will lead to more non-white authors being published.  So the question is just how does representation, specifically non-white representation, affect what’s being published?

DipNet, the Diversity in Publishing Network, was launched in 2005 with the explicit brief of promoting diversity in publishing. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get through to anyone at DipNet to them ask what, if any, discernable success, they’ve had and what that means in terms of the diversity of authors being published?

Certainly there is an expectation that, in the years since its launch, there has been some change; sadly there just appears to be no evidence of it other than the pervasive opinion from every corner of the publishing industry, that whiteness remains. Along with an inherent assumption that opening up diversity will deliver change. What evidence if any is there of this and what do people working in the industry and writers across the board, really think about it?

I tried to talk to London-based publishers, writers and recruiters bearing in mind that conventional advertising is not always effective in fielding a broad range of candidates. Some were happy to speak candidly, but most would do only on condition that their name would be withheld. Employers can action their commitment to diversity by using specialist agencies and I was interested in finding out whether this was current practice.

Caroline Law, from Atwood Tate Limited, a Publishing Recruitment Agency, agreed that there should be more diversity, along with “a wider breadth of material from whoever wants to and is good enough to get published”. But trying to address diversity, by presenting a broader field of potential candidates was just something that she had never been asked to address. However, she makes the point give the fact that adverts are widely placed, in Bookseller and the Guardian, for example, it was simply a case of people applying for jobs as they became available.

Salt Publishing has managed to become one of the largest publishers of native American writing in the world. Jen Hamilton, one of it Directors, explained how. The key she believes rests to a large extent on how a publishing house is started. When Salt Publishing began, they set out with the intention of being diverse; of attracting and keeping quality writers that would expand their range of titles. To do that, they recognised that they would have to bring in a range of good quality writing from around the world. They needed people from within those communities who could search for and pick out the best writing. They did it by cultivating good connections and making use of them; “finding the right people”, she says,” isn’t something you can rush into. It takes time.

They wanted people who could judge good writing, understand their audience and understood the commercial side of things. It’s a lot to ask so it’s no surprise that such roles are often filled by someone who is already an established author. It’s a vicious circle!

Matthew Duffy has been a freelance editor in education publishing for over 15 years and has never commissioned a non-white writer. He believes that the glass ceiling remains firmly in place with only lip service being paid to the notion of equality. He sums up publishing as being a repository for white, middle-class views.

Would representation make much of a difference to what’s being published? In education, he says there’s a lot of sensitivity and a need to show a diverse range of age groups, ethnicities and classes but in a tokenistic way. There are different rules for different markets and he gave the example of a request from a Brazilian publisher which insisted that only non-dark faces appears in illustrations throughout a particular course book.

Another editor believes that the problem of the lack of diversity can be traced to education, teachers and the low expectations generally held of non-white students and pupils.

Andrea Stuart is the author of two biographies about Josephine Baker, co-edits the Black Film Bulletin and is Fiction Editor of Critical Quarterly.

She believes that it is inevitable that projects are always being mediating through the eye and areas of interests of white editors. All the people who are going to make choices about your book and your work, to commission it and put it together are going to be white. Well read and interesting maybe but nonetheless apparently lacking awareness of the complexities and nuances of black lives. She thinks that this is something that black and non-white authors are always going to have to deal with in mainstream publishing.

Toni Morrison, one of the most famous black, American authors ever, was also an editor for over 20 years and a lot of enormously significant black writers were commissioned because of her. She gave them the breakthrough that they would, more than likely, not have otherwise had. All the big houses in America now have black editors, which means they will always have someone who can potentially appreciate a black author’s work in a more sophisticated way. Inevitably, the lack of black editors in this country means that fewer black books are published.

According to another black writer, the whole scenario can be very intimidating for black authors. It doesn’t even come down to talent, according to another one, unless you’re a confident person and able to enter an industry that is so overwhelmingly white, your chances of success will be minimal.

Many talented black writers have no how idea how to negotiate this structure; it’s challenging. There’s so much to be written about the black contemporary experience yet almost all the gate keepers in our culture are white; whether you want to get a film made, a book published or a television programme commissioned, they will stand little chance of succeeding. Inevitably a lot of the ideas that do get commissioned don’t appreciate the subtleties and are destined for a mono-coloured audience.

Andrea recounted an experience that brings home her point. Once, during the course of working with a publishing house, the manuscript for The Color Purple by Alice Walker arrived. The person responsible for submissions duly said that while they considered it to be an alright book, it would nevertheless have limited popular appeal. Andrea questions why an Oxbridge educated white man from a public school could ever imagine how this book could grasp the reader and have wide appeal? “If all the gatekeepers are white”, she says, “then you’re in trouble.”

Most of the black authors I spoke to echoed Andrea’s views. Some white authors too. Many talked about wanting a more nuanced representation of black and non-white lives believing that the breadth and complexity is lost by the narrow margins within which those lives are viewed. It can be a very frustrating scenario for those who are working for change especially for those authors who are trying to get their first publishing deal.

Many writers also talked of their frustration at hearing publishers speak of striving for more diversity while seemingly doing very little to achieve it. It’s as though publishers feel that it’s enough to assert the statement, rather than to be conspicuous and honest in their efforts to do something about it. This problem is not at all unique to the world of publishing.

The conclusion for black and other non-white authors does not bode well. The decks are most certainly stacked against them, but there’s reason to hope. DipNet and its work continue, and the likes of Salt Publishers are still out there and they’re not the only one.

When I asked John Skelton, director and founder of Salt Publishing how diversity will affect what’s being published he said this: ‘equality is good within poetry, but diversity is bad within some houses. We need more independent BME publishers than we currently have. It’s an area where public sector investment is crucial to help get businesses off the ground. We also need more information about demand and how to develop new markets. I suspect it will need pubic funding.’

Is anyone listening?

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