by Nikhat Hoque
It is no secret that the publishing industry is lacking in diversity. Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing explores the obstacles that writers of colour face at each stage of the publishing process. While there have been previous studies In Full Colour (Kean, 2004), Free Verse (Spread the Word, 2005), Writing the Future (Spread the Word, 2015) and Freed Verse (Teitler, 2017), this “is the first in-depth academic study in the UK on diversity in trade fiction and the publishing industry” (pg. 2). The report found that writers of colour are disadvantaged at every stage of the publishing process.
The study is co-authored by Dr. Anamik Saha and Dr. Sandra van Lente in partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London, Spread the Word, and The Bookseller. The report is based on qualitative interviews with 113 industry professionals across publishing, both white and ‘BAME’ respondents. The names of the respondents have been anonymised, to protect their identities and job roles. However, some indication is given regarding the respondent’s role, sex, and race.
In the foreword author and professor, Bernadine Evaristo points out that “good literature about anything can be enjoyed by all kinds of people. Literature transcends all perceived differences and barriers” (pg. 4-5). For centuries non-white and non-binary people were able to enjoy “good literature” written by the white middle to upper-class men, however, why is the reverse so difficult to achieve?
As noted in the statement from The Bookseller, in 2019 the Publishers Association (PA) found that “86% of publishing staff are white, and while the number of ‘BAME’ employees is growing, it is still below the PA’s own target of 15%” (pg. 7). However, increasing the amount of ‘BAME’ staff to any number is counter-productive unless there is “an understanding of what difference means” (pg. 7) and a true willingness to see what the inclusion of diverse voices has to offer on a higher level. Dr. Saha and Dr van Lente’s report moves beyond numbers and statistics. It delves into the assumptions and views that are holding the publishing industry back from achieving a genuinely diverse and inclusive environment and how to navigate around it.
The report mainly focuses on the obstacles that writers of colour face during the publishing stages of acquisition, promotion, and sales and retail, but it also rethinks meritocracy, comping books, book cover designs, and literary festivals. From the report, it is clear that publishers do desire diversity, and while this provides hope for a more diverse future, there needs to be a genuine attempt to dismantle biases and assumptions.
The report found that the whole industry caters to one audience, white and middle-class and as a result, writers of colour are either marginalised/excluded or whitewashed or exoticized to suit the sensibility of this core audience. This is highlighted in the following quotes from a ‘BAME’ and white respondent (pg. 14):
“And I think a lot of white editors were like ‘We thought you were giving us this immigrant narrative, but you’re not, and so we’re not going to pursue it.’ … I think there’s a particular narrative that they’re at ease with, and they know how to grapple with politically, and they know how they want to publish it in a particular way."
– ‘BAME’ respondent
“What people don’t seem to be as open to, is somebody [a ‘BAME’ author] writing a rom-com, or a crime novel. It seems it’s almost like we’ve pigeon-holed [them] and so the more diverse authors are generally writing about war or terrible things."
– Editor, senior, white, female
Writers of colour are pretty much forced fit into the niches of literary fiction or compromise by fitting the standards of their white editors based on a disillusioned view of their core audience. There is an assumption that minority cultures do not read and that the core audience is “a sort of 50-something middle-class to upper-middle class white woman who reads a lot because she has time, and she has resources to spend on books,” (pg. 20). The report also exposes how often books by BLACK authors with black characters may feature a white person to seem more accessible to this ‘core audience’. It is clear from the report that while trying to hold on to their ‘core audience’, publishers are not making enough effort to attract a wider audience or even the communities represented in books by writers of colour.
The first step to achieving diversity, as the Report consistently outlines, is to RETHINK organisational mindset and behaviour. Avoid tokenistic hires to tick a ‘diversity’ box and provide ‘BAME’ staff with the appropriate tools and opportunities as you would a white person. The study urges publishers to reach out to ‘BAME’-led online platforms while promoting books by writers of colour. Simply publishing a book by a writer of colour is not enough, the book also needs to be appropriately invested in and marketed, otherwise, the book will not bring in the commercial value as other books with the proper investment would.
The report ends with a “Rethinking ‘Diversity’: Calls to action” (pg. 38):
Rethink how you measure diversity
Rethink your audience
Rethink what is considered ‘quality’
Rethink your hiring practices
Rethink who you join forces with
What We Think
Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing is a very important report which seeks to create a dialogue within the publishing industry to come together and RETHINK practices that are holding back writers of colour. Not only does the report highlight observations, but also provides valuable recommendations to counter the problems. In the report’s conclusion, the Co-authors have been transparent about a gap in their research which was beyond the scope of the project. They were not able to address where publishers’ desire for diversity stems from fear of social media shaming for not being inclusive.
The report has further highlighted a gap in publishers’ understanding that lies beyond the scope of the report, and that is the gap in understanding of the domestic UK audience. Throughout the report, there seems to be a prevalent cultural assumption that Black and Asian people do not read and therefore “are not considered to be a substantial readership” (pg. 4). We, as Bad Form, are concerned about the proliferation of this viewpoint among British publishers. Though this report does not evidence the existence of Black and Asian readership, it is logical to assume it does exist with the recent success of commercial fiction not aimed at the default white middle to upper-class readerships such as Candace Carty-Williams’ Queenie (2019) and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer (2018). In line with this thought, the report ends with the question: “if publishing is a profit-based industry, then why the lack of interest in reaching new audiences?” (pg. 37).
As the BLM movement is calling for structural change across all institutions, this report calls upon the whole book publishing industry to rethink its structure and cultural bias, from publishers, agents, promotions teams, design teams to booksellers. The trade fiction and publishing industry need to rethink and evaluate “To what extent are publishers able to reach – or are invested in reaching – [‘BAME’] communities? (pg. 21).
*While a few weeks ago BAD FORM made the executive decision to refrain from using terms such as BAME, BIPOC, POC, we have used ‘BAME’ in this article to maintain consistency as it is used in the report.