The book industry needs to take responsibility for transforming itself

It would have been hard to have missed the recent digital launch of Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing over four days as part of #RethinkingDiversityWeek on social media and Zoom.

Authored by Dr Anamik Saha and Dr Sandra van Lente from Goldsmiths, University of London, the report - the first of its kind on diversity in trade fiction - not only landed noisily, but put the publishing ecosystem in the dock.

From retailers to booksellers to agents to marketeers, the industry was called out over its historic and continued mishandling of writers of colour and disregard of Black and Asian readers with a call for more transparency and the dismantling of structural racism.

A partnership with The Bookseller and Spread the Word, the report’s PR campaign, which I curated and co-hosted, saw me chair the launch and closing panel discussions on the report’s context and the future publishing pipeline and meeting the needs of writers of colour, respectively.

While winding up the final event, I posed a question that wasn’t rhetorical: ‘What are you white publishers, writers, online retailers, booksellers and marketeers going to do differently in your personal and professional spaces to keep this conversation alive?’

Some industry professionals immediately responded to this question, and the wider debate, on social media. Marketeers, PR specialists, agents and others, overwhelmingly white and female, challenged their peers, and themselves. On Twitter, Hilary Bell, PR executive at Egmont Publishing UK, said: ‘Look around publishing. LOOK AROUND. Change is long overdue and we need it now.’

So why was, and is, this question necessary and vital? The act of rethinking diversity is not based on what Black and Asian writers, inclusive publishers and literature organisations can do for the industry anymore. The last vestiges of goodwill have already left the building.

There is no doubt that this report, the third one to place the spotlight on diversity in publishing since "In Full Colour" was published in 2004, has to be the last Herculean attempt to offer publishers a road map for change, funded by others.

Anyone with a conscience and smidgen of common sense would have been rightly chastened by the campaign’s guest speakers’ candid, passionate and incisive dissection of the industry’s largely unchanged modus operandi of pursuing the white middle class reader.

Award-winning author Dorothy Koomson’s description of publishing as a ‘hostile environment’ was echoed by Jhalak Prize co-founder professor Sunny Singh who added that the lack of progress on diversity and inclusion by publishers is a ‘moral and intellectual failure’. She asked of publishers: ‘What is it you don’t get? Are you just refusing to understand? And what does it say about you?’

Rishi Dastidar, Spread the Word’s chair, argued that it was now ‘business critical’ for publishers to adapt and that it was inexplicable for a commercial enterprise to ignore untapped markets and audiences, chiefly Black and Asian readers, who, as Bernardine Evaristo is tired of stating, do read.

Co-founder of The Good Literary Agency Nikesh Shukla drew a stark picture of the reality facing writers of colour, many of whom spend 60 percent of their lives writing and 40 percent being mentors to writers of colour, anti-racism activists and change-makers. He doubted that Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Nick Hornby were having to field questions and offer insights on diversity and racism 24/7.

Alex Wheatle MBE drew attention to the role of the media in enabling British writers of colour to remain largely invisible due to the scarcity of reviews, interviews and profiles, not just in print but broadcasting. He wanted to know ‘why are the media players denying us the space unless we win a literary prize such as the Booker?’

One recent outcome that speaks volumes is the financial journey of the #InclusiveIndies crowdfunder, established by Jacaranda Books and Knights Of, to raise £100,000 to support their work and other independents. Two weeks in, the fund had stalled at around £30,000. After the murder of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter protests, suddenly publishers and other industry players located the money to donate to the crowdfunder, pushing it beyond its original target.

Knights Of publisher Aimée Felone said: ‘I have always struggled with the fact that support from the UK, for the work that independents are doing, seems to be sorely lacking. It shows that the UK is extremely uncomfortable with its position on racism, specifically within publishing, and that they don’t know how to handle it unless until it becomes a wider topic over there [the USA].’

What cannot be ignored is why the death of a black man, George Floyd, underpinned by systemic racism and trauma, should serve as a catalyst for paying lip service to inclusivity. Couldn’t that money, without the impetus of a tragedy, have been invested in an in-house development mentorship programme for writers of colour?

As the dust settles on #RethinkingDiversityWeek, the general consensus is that white people in publishing, including white writers, need to step up, have the critical conversations and do the work. The onus has to move from writers of colour being positioned as the race experts, as if racism is solely a ‘black issue’, and being used as a bottomless, unpaid resource, to transform an industry that needs to take full responsibility for transforming itself.

The industry can put its commitments on social media using the hashtag #RethinkingDiversity; we look forward to seeing them.

Joy Francis is executive director of Words of Colour Productions.