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26 June 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 1:50pm

Why “diversity” in publishing is not enough

Focusing solely on the number of people of colour working in the UK publishing industry misses bigger questions about our literary culture’s race problem.

By Anamik Saha

Perhaps more than any other cultural industry, publishing has, over the last two decades, grappled with its own institutional whiteness and middle-class bias. Rethinking “Diversity” in Publishing, a report written by myself and my colleague Dr Sandra van Lente, is the latest in a line of reports – from In Full Colour (2004) to Writing the Future (2015) – that have explored the implications of the industry’s cultural homogeneity for those from marginalised backgrounds.

In the build up to the launch of the report, the murder of George Floyd inspired a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests, with an unprecedented spread across the globe. Suddenly, our report into the issue of diversity in a very privileged industry felt trivial in relation to the literal matter of black life and death.

Yet if racism is about the dehumanisation of people of colour – and the higher rates of death in BAME communities from coronavirus exposes how dispensably these lives are treated – one of the powerful things about books, and especially the fiction written by authors of colour, is how they can restore humanity.

This is why we believe we need to rethink “diversity” in publishing. Cultural institutions focus on diversity in terms of numbers: the aim of diversity initiatives is increasing the composition of racialised minorities in the creative workforce to an amount that reflects the population at large, or a number that the white middle-classes who dominate the industry feel comfortable with (around 12-15 per cent).

[See more: How the UK publishing industry has responded to Black Lives Matter]

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But this misses the question of the extent to which marginalised people are able to flourish within these spaces, let alone are free from institutional racism. With Rethinking “Diversity” in Publishing, we shift the discussion on diversity to the question of representation in output. Specifically, we explore the question of whether writers of colour are able to tell the stories that they want to tell, in the way that they want to tell them. One important finding from 2015’s Writing the Future report was that writers of colour felt that they were steered by white, middle-class editors into reproducing racial stereotypes. This was something we wanted to take up in more detail. Rethinking diversity in this way puts the focus on whether writers of colour have the same creative freedoms as their white counterparts.

In this project, we looked at the three key stages of the publishing prices: acquisition; promotion; sales. We interviewed 113 people who worked at each of these stages of production: roughly 40 per cent were people of colour, and the rest were white. We interviewed people in both senior and junior roles across big and small publishing companies, agencies and booksellers.

Quite simply, we found that writers of colour were not given the same freedoms or opportunities as white authors. When asked why they were not publishing more writers of colour, our mostly white respondents spoke of fears over their quality, fears over their authenticity, fears that there stories would be considered too niche. As one white editor put it, “Books that are dealing with issues [like race] are just harder for us to publish.”

Publishing is an inherently risky business, and writers of colour are seen as a riskier investment. The unpredictability of the market produces a system that is essentially based on hedging your bets. Publishers may consider investing in one writer of colour, but no more than that. The fear appears to be that you cannot saturate the market with too many writers of colour as that might alienate your core audience and reduce your chances of a hit.

[See more: “They forgot about the person being hurt”: Are social services failing black and Asian child abuse victims?]

Indeed, we found that the entire publishing industry – from agents, to the big four publishing houses, to booksellers – is set up to cater for a white, middle-class audience. As a result, in order to be published writers of colour need to be seen as having value to this demographic, and are packaged accordingly: either white-washed or exoticised. Writers spoke of how their black characters were literally lightened on front covers. Others spoke of the random use of African/South Asian fabrics in jacket designs in order to convey a soft sense of exotic difference. As one writer of colour we spoke to said, “The industry wants to diversify but it’s on its own terms.”

Some writers of colour described how they wanted to write for their own communities, but discovered their publishers were disinclined to engage with such audiences. We found that publishers and booksellers undervalue “minority” audiences. Or more precisely, they do not see value in the books they think “minority” audiences want. These markets are seen as too small, which seems disingenuous when you consider – as one marketing manager we interviewed put it – literary presses essentially “talk to the same two thousand people in London every single time”.

At best, reaching the communities that a writer of colour may belong to are seen as an added bonus, rather than a reliable constituency. But otherwise, publishers demonstrated a lack of inclination to widen the audience from its incredibly narrow demographic.

The sole focus on one white, middle-class audience and the concomitant disinterest in marginalised communities shapes the entire operation of the publishing industry. This is reflected in the books being acquired, but also the way they are packaged, the media that is engaged for publicity, and the way that bookstores look and feel.

Some writers of colour are afforded opportunities within this system (as one agent told us, “somebody with a degree of polish” would have a particular advantage), and we should acknowledge that there are some brilliant books by writers of colour being published that have expanded how we think about race. But until publishers engage more diverse audiences, writers from all marginalised backgrounds will always be othered, and reduced to a handful of narrative tropes and visual representations.

[See more: Will bookshops be a casualty of the coronavirus crisis?]

As the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world, the UK bestsellers lists suddenly filled up with books about race, many by writers of colour, including manuals on fixing your own white privilege. Astonishingly, it took until 2020 for a black British author to reach number one on the UK overall bestseller list – Reni Eddo-Lodge with her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – while Bernardine Evaristo became the first woman of colour to top the UK fiction paperback chart with her Booker Prize-winning novel Girl, Woman, Other.

It is too early to say whether this is will be a short-lived commercial trend, or whether the profound reckoning with racism that #BLM has provoked is going to lead to radical change. Either way, the publishing industry has to learn that there is more than one audience out there. Modern Britain consists of multiple populations that have distinct experiences, structured within racial and social hierarchies, but who also share common needs, desires and wants.

The industry’s failure to value marginalised communities mirrors the UK’s inability to recognise its own inherent multiculture. In this sense, the publishing industry can learn from the books that are its current bestsellers: the future of publishing depends on leaving behind benign notions of “diversity” and adopting more proactive forms of anti-racism.

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