The time for talking is over, now the real work begins. Julie Vuong looks at how the UK publishing industry is activating change
After much hand-wringing and many panel discussions, it seems enough has been said on the subject of diversity. A consensus has been reached. No longer a box to be ticked, being representative from submissions to staff, and authors to attitudes, is a moral obligation that makes business sense. In the UK, there has been a wave of new inclusive imprints, company initiatives, anthologies and prizes: a signal that change - both authentic and lasting - has started in earnest.
Root and branch approach
A real sense of change, not "virtue signalling", is the goal, according to Ruth Bennett, editorial director of Stripes Publishing. "Everyone is aware that we need to address the lack of diversity in the industry. At Stripes, we wanted to play an active role, not just show an acknowledgement, and it was important to do something that meant concrete change."
The Little Tiger Group imprint released a YA anthology called A Change Is Gonna Come in August, featuring short stories from BAME writers. It's the start, says Lauren Ace, brand director for the group, of a top-down change, with diversity as a lasting commitment. "We are hiring a commissioning editor, ideally from a BAME background, who will work across our whole company to ensure we are representative."
Other publishers are taking stock to ensure their output is organically and authentically diverse. Hachette's Changing the Story - a diversity programme including paid internships, mentoring schemes and structural improvements across the board - launched towards the end of last year, and continues to evolve. New, diverse "networks" include an in-house group for BAME staff members called Thrive, which recently held a welcome picnic for all members of staff, and another for women to discuss gender balance, and maternity and paternity leave. Penguin Random House (PRH) UK, meanwhile, is launching an Inclusion Tracker to "reflect UK society by 2025", by evaluating the diversity of all new staff members and authors. Data will be measured and published on the PRH website every year for complete transparency.
Our identities are not a trend
Diversity, however, is not a buzzword. The Little Tiger Group was keen to avoid the trap of being opportunistic, as Ace explains. "Nikesh Shukla, one of our anthology contributors and editor of The Good Immigrant, said: 'I don't want to be a trend', and, 'Diversity is so hot right now!' I believe this is a period we need to move through and eventually it will become part of the normal publishing landscape."
Shukla's concern is one that is shared by Wei Ming Kam (left), co-founder of networking community BAME in Publishing, a monthly gathering of professionals from minority backgrounds. She recently co-founded Pride in Publishing, a similar model, but for the LGBTQ community. "I worry that publishers see it as a 'trend', as they did in the early 2000s with writers like Zadie Smith," she says. "Our identities are not a trend, and I really want that idea to be let go of. I want them to see commercial successes as a sign of the talent that they should be investing in and actively looking for."
Kam believes the industry must act fast. "Demographics are changing, which means audiences are changing and forcing publishers to realise how many readers they've ignored," she says. She backs this up with findings from recent surveys. "Ethnic minorities are projected to be the majority in the USA by 2055*. Here in the UK, the population is going to be 30% BAME by 2050**, and there are similar projected increases across Europe. The percentage of young people who feel comfortable enough to openly identify as queer is increasing. And let's not forget that a large part of the population is disabled - almost one in five here in the UK***. That is a massive number of markets that cultural media, not just publishing, could be tapping into, not just for readers, but for writers and employees. If change continues to be slow, publishing will find that it's been left behind."
A notably progressive move came in July, when Little, Brown launched a new "diverse" imprint called Dialogue Books, with Sharmaine Lovegrove as publisher. It aims to publish four to six titles in its first full year, fiction and non-fiction, in areas under-represented or not covered by the mainstream publishing industry. Little, Brown ceo Charlie King said that the list was a response both to "a moral imperative" and to a "commercial imperative" - a truth not universally acknowledged.
If more proof were needed that being representative nurtures a healthy bottom line, Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give (Walker), inspired by Black Lives Matter, debuted at number one in the New York Times Young Adult bestseller chart in February, has remained on top since, and has also been a bestseller in the UK; while The Good Immigrant (Unbound) convinced any remaining sceptics of diversity's commercial value. "Publishers need to wake up to the fact that it is a commercial opportunity," Ace says. "Missing a huge swathe of the population means people are disenfranchised from reading. We're constantly worried about selling books, but this is a really obvious way to convert huge parts of the population to read books."
Supply and demand
The demand is there, but according to many, the supply is the problem. Again, the team at Stripes is being proactive. "From September, we are open to submissions for middle grade or young adult fiction from BAME writers," says Bennett. "Very few publishers accept submissions directly, mainly due to workload, but we want to remove the normal barriers in publishing and actively search in other sectors to find new and exciting writers."
Stripes is not alone in attempting to seek out new talent. Faber held its inaugural Faber Andlyn BAME or FAB Prize earlier this year to unearth emerging children's illustrators and writers from minority backgrounds, providing prize money and mentoring for the winners. Davinia Andrew-Lynch at Andlyn said: "What has really stood out is the range of stories and artwork submitted. It's proof that fantastic writing and illustration shouldn't separate us; commonalities can be found whilst teaching us something new." Fellow judge Leah Thaxton, Faber children's publisher, added: "We will run this prize again because it makes sense for us in every way, including commercially."
PRH is continuing its WriteNow scheme to discover 12 new writers from underrepresented communities; it drew more than 2,000 applications last year. Tom Weldon, ceo of PRH UK, said of this year's initiative: "With WriteNow we're going out into local communities to find, nurture and, I hope, publish talented new voices from communities that we know are not well represented in books and publishing today."
Ascent of agile indies
Making marginalised voices mainstream is on the agenda for ambitious small presses, who say no niche is too small. This year has seen the launch of two significant indies intent on amplifying lesser-heard voices. Feminist publisher Silver Press hit the scene in May thanks to Joanna Biggs, Sarah Shin and Alice Spawls, and is set to release a poetry and essay collection by the late civil rights activist and poet Audre Lorde called Your Silence Will Not Protect You later this year. Where more established corporates weigh up what they perceive as risks, agile start-ups are eager to test new ground. Also aiming to champion voices outside the mainstream is 3 of Cups, which is dubbed a "micro publisher". It's a collaborative structure, like Silver Press, made up of eight women and non-binary people from different areas of publishing.
"We have a duty as an industry to represent all spheres of society," says editorial and communications director Lizzie Huxley-Jones. "I heard about a young adult author whose submission was turned down on the basis that the publishing house already had a book with a black protagonist. It got me so angry. We want these voices because traditional publishing is not providing it. Hopefully 3 of Cups is a small way of correcting it."
According to the company's editorial director Clare Bogen, the beauty of being a small press is its flexibility. "We're not commercially driven or subjected to the same constraints as bigger publishers," she argues. Since she announced the launch of 3 of Cups and the crowdfunding of its first anthology On Anxiety, Bogen has been heartened by the community feel among indies. "What we've noticed is that other small presses that champion diversity have been so supportive and enthusiastic. They've not seen us as competition." She continues: "It's very important that our writers are not involved in anything racist, homophonic, transphobic, and we ask them to sign a waiver to commit to this."
While most of the publishing industry is united in acknowledging that more needs to be done, the outlook is positive. Like many, Wei Ming Kam is eager to see what happens next. "I am certainly hopeful," she says. "Real change will become embedded in publishing when an effort is made by those in power to change historical institutional bias, and to bring that mentality to every part of the business, not just in one or two departments. I think it's too early to tell if the changes that are happening now will continue, but I am cautiously optimistic."
* Pew Research Center
** Policy Exchange
This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch Frankfurt Show Daily.