Diversity in action

There was a sobering moment at last week’s publishing conference, FutureBook 2013, after I tweeted a picture of the eight speakers for the “Big Ideas” session.

As Random House’s Charlotte Bush put it on Twitter: “Big Ideas session #fbook13 and a grand total of one woman on a panel of nine. We’ve talked about change today—time to change this!”

The conference was a huge success, the biggest yet, showing an industry on the front foot. The “Big Ideas” session was a highlight, but nevertheless there was something important about this response to the make-up of the panel. We had 13 female speakers at the conference this year, out of a total of 41—a decent ratio (and in fact our highest mix to date) and one we should build on. Less remarked upon though, was that there were only two BAME (black, Asian, minority ethnic) speakers—and none on the final panel.

That publishing has a diversity problem is well known. The Bookseller published a supplement on the issue in 2004, titled In Full Colour.  Since then the sector has worked hard to open itself up. And yet, as the Bookseller 100 shows, there is still room for improvement. On the 102-strong list 40 are women, but only two, who are professionally employed in the business, are BAME (the third being the author Malorie Blackman). If we were to look at their social or economic background, we would doubtless see a similar bias. As Profile’s Andrew Franklin told us: “Publishing is dismally un-diverse, dominated by people from a similar background.”

This is a complex subject, and it merits a considered response. But my sense is that this is only going to matter more as the world shrinks and publishing aims to reach out more globally.

In this week's magazine, Random House’s Crystal Mahey-Morgan argues that by attracting a more diverse staff publishing will be able to target new sectors: her own background brought something new to the business, she says, an understanding that even reluctant audiences can be attracted to the right book content published in a smart way.

This business-first approach is spot on. In his “Big Ideas” speech at FutureBook WME head of literary Simon Trewin made the point that the bigger the gene pool of talent publishing attracts the more robust the body will become at adapting to change. There is also, as Abu Bundu-Kamara, Pearson director for diversity and inclusion, put it, a  “reputational” opportunity for the sector to show it can lead this. Some might think it already is: but an online poll on Equip’s website, asking “Do you think UK publishing is becoming a more equal industry?” has 71% saying “no”.

We should congratulate the book trade’s most influential figures. But this is also a good moment to ask whether the image we have of the business is actually the one it reflects to the outside world.