Diversity in publishing: 'For change to take place, we need to get personal'

Diversity in publishing: 'For change to take place, we need to get personal'

How can the diversity of the publishing industry in the UK be improved?

That was one of the questions at the heart of a discussion between eight employees of Penguin Random House and young people working at Rife Magazine when they met in Bristol earlier this month. Penguin Random House was invited by author Nikesh Shukla, who is editor of Rife magazine.

Penguin Random House's Aissetou N’gom and William Rycroft tell The Bookseller what they took away from the day, but first Ore Agbaje-Williams, an aspiring editor, foodie and English graduate who is currently interning at Bloomsbury Information, explains why she believes there needs to be more open discussions between publishers and potential BAME employees:

"As an aspiring editor, there are a number of problems that people of BAME backgrounds such as myself can face when trying to enter into the publishing industry, including a lack of representation, a shortage of BAME narratives and protagonists, and the fact that publishing can appear to be impenetrable unless you know someone within the industry who can pull a few strings.

"For many BAME creatives it appears that there is little room for different stories and perspectives, when there are already a few writers of colour who are available to tell more commercially viable stories instead. Instead, many writers of minority backgrounds have found a way to tell their stories and illustrate their talent using platforms already available to them and/or creating their own, establishing a space for a narrative that is necessary but can be ignored.

"The opportunity to have an open discussion with people from Penguin Random House, to debate issues affecting BAME people trying to get into publishing and learn how those within the industry are actively trying to attract BAME talent and increase diversity, was an incredibly informative one.

"From marketing and publicity managers, to children’s fiction editors, online magazine creators and spoken word poets, the room was full of talent, including three of Rife’s content creators, Jazz Thompson, Aisla Fineron and Aisha Sanyang-Meek, who provided insight into their work at the magazine.

"We had a discussion about exactly what inclusivity of BAME talent within the industry requires, and how far it should be going, with great points regarding tokenism and the idea of “separate but equal” coming to mind when giving BAME writers their own section within bookshops to promote them, rather than simply placing them based on genre and/or author name. The absence of recognisable BAME protagonists in books also provided an interesting topic of conversation. It was also interesting to hear statistics provided by Penguin Random House during their presentation regarding how people choose what they read. It occurred to us that whilst there are BAME writers available, their work can be hard to find and can seem inaccessible through the regular channels that are often used to find new reading material.

"Penguin Random House has recently introduced a number of measures that show it is actively trying to recruit people from different backgrounds. These demonstrate progress, but there needs to be a more active pursuit of BAME talent through creative channels such as blogs, zines and social media, because these are currently the means by which writers believe their work will be seen and appreciated.

"Talented writer, poet and editor of online zine gal-dem Leo Shire, also known as Varaidzo gave a compelling talk about her experience as a young reader, and how it informed her narratives as a writer over the years, providing an engaging and relatable understanding to the struggle to find both a marketable but also honest voice as a BAME writer.

"Later in the day we were thrown into the deep end that is speed networking, allowing us to talk one-to-one with people from Penguin Random House. It was daunting but also an incredible experience which provided further insight into the industry, and allowed me to connect with people whose ideas and aspirations were similar to mine.

"The event created a space for intelligent debate and discussion, getting across the idea that there is room for young BAME creatives within the publishing industry. Moving forward, events like this should become more common, so that those of BAME backgrounds can truly see what is being done to diversify the industry and talk to those within it about how to contribute, so we can have a publishing industry truly representative of the society in which it exists, with a protagonist, author and editor that looks like everyone."

Penguin Random House UK's social media producer Aissetou N’gom said hearing from young writers was powerful:

"Spending the day with the team at Rife magazine was an absolute privilege. I run Penguin Platform, our online channels for young adults, so I jump at any opportunity to chat with this audience.

"One of our core principles at Platform is never to underestimate teens. Listening to this group of passionate, socially motivated young writers discuss the ways they feel excluded from literature was incredibly powerful. It reminded me not only how right we are to never underestimate young people, but also how far we still have to go to create more balance in our publishing.

"Their sense of exclusion while reading is one I can 100% relate to being mixed race myself, and sadly it is one I experience in many forms of media. It’s not just books that lack proper representation – its films, TV, theatre, the lot!

"The good news is that Penguin Random House is shining a spotlight on this problem in publishing and actively trying to address it. We’re making some amazing changes internally to our recruitment processes and reviewing our output, and days like this one at Rife are part of that shift.

"It was great to talk to the Rife team about addressing diversity in a larger sense. But something that really struck me was hearing one young writer talk about how, growing up, she found herself only writing white characters because that’s all she’d ever read. It was very personal. And for real change to take place, we need to get personal."

Vintage's community manager William Rycroft said listening is key to making publishing more inclusive:

"I’m part of a group within Penguin Random House that has been discussing different ways in which we could improve the diversity of our publishing – from our authors to our books and their characters. We felt it was very important to leave the meeting room and engage directly with young talent to help shape those endeavours. Before working at Vintage I was in an entirely different creative field and I know that there is a lot that publishing can learn from looking at those other industries and how they have promoted inclusion.

It was really thought-provoking to meet with such a talented group of people, who express themselves not only through writing but also music, film-making, performance and art, yet who feel excluded from something as simple as a visit to a bookshop. 'Where are the books that speak to me?' was a common question and I don’t think any of us want the answer to be 'over there on that special shelf'.

"Later this year we’ll host roadshows around the country to find new writers and illustrators, which is very exciting, and meeting with Rife helped us to understand just how important it will be to make the right people aware of them. How best can we reach people who feel excluded? And what is the best way of getting them involved? Talking to people at Rife has already helped us to find some of the answers.

"As a group we shared our favourite books by BAME authors and it reminded me that reading is an act of empathy. As Atticus Finch said: 'You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.' I hope that if we take the time to listen, we’ll better understand our readers and it will inform the ways we’ll help make publishing more inclusive."