Diversity needs unions

In response to the discussions around the #PublishingPaidMe and #BookJobTransparency hashtags, and the open letter from the Black Writers’ Guild, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Book Branch recognises that these problems are not new and will not be fixed without ambitious, far-reaching changes to the industry. We at the NUJ Book Branch would like to state our support for Black authors and workers in the publishing industry and endorse the measures outlined in the open letter. It bears repeating that while BAME representation in publishing leaves much to be desired, Black people are one of the most underrepresented groups both as employees and as authors and illustrators. This fact must not be lost in broader discussions of diversity and inclusion in publishing. 

Several surveys have revealed the industry is overwhelmingly white and middle class. Just last year, the Arts Council Time for Change survey noted that “People from black or minority ethnic backgrounds are poorly represented in the UK publishing industry.” The Publishing Association’s response was to set a target of 15% BAME employees in the industry and an additional target of achieving 50% of leadership roles held by women. These goals are not enough to create meaningful change, especially considering the facts that 68.6% of publishing employees identify as female (PA survey, 2019), and the vast majority of publishing companies are based in London, where 40.2% of the population identify as BAME (Office for National Statistics, 2019). We must do better. 

The lack of diversity in publishing cannot be detached from the issue of poor pay at the entry level, as pointed out by Crystal Mahey-Morgan (Bookseller), Niamh Mulvey (in her recent blog post and Bookseller follow-up), Maris Kriezman (LA Times), Ruth Comerford (Bookseller) and most recently Layla Mohamed (Bookseller). Low pay causes the industry to haemorrhage talent and effectively excludes anyone without access to extra financial support (from partners or family). One of the proven solutions to low pay is an organised workforce, yet less than 5% of publishing employees belong to a union, and a minority of companies have a recognised Chapel. This must change. 

Good work has been done on both diversity and pay. Aki Schilz’s years-long campaign on pay transparency has contributed to more publishers including pay levels in job postings. The Hachette Ethnicity Pay Gap Report spurred discussions, but its small sample size meant it highlighted the low numbers of BAME employees rather than producing useful data on pay equity. Programs such as Creative Access and Changing the Story have tried to address the lack of diversity in who the industry employs and publishes respectively and appear to be making some headway. However, we cannot expect a few individuals, programs and charitable foundations to solve industry-wide problems. That is the responsibility of all of us both as individuals and collectively.  

When there is no representation for employees, the culture of silence around the specific challenges faced by employees of colour will remain. The Time for Change survey showed that employees from underrepresented backgrounds face and witness racist comments, a lack of senior role models, lack of investment in ‘diverse’ books and a constant pressure to “promote or comment on diversity issues”. Black people and people of colour within the industry are presented with constant barriers – barriers to accessing the industry in the first place, barriers to promotion, barriers to feeling comfortable and included. Yet once within a publishing role, these workers are expected to act as cheerleaders for the industry that has excluded and discriminated against them, to give comments on any book defined as ‘diverse’, and to act as unofficial, unpaid antiracism consultants. Any suggested solutions are vague and often handed down from management rather than designed by employees.

Employees of colour should not have to be alone in addressing racism nor work with firm-controlled systems that give no guarantee of appropriate responses. People should not have to choose between their career or their dignity, nor should they have to monitor and report their colleagues. In this context, an organised workplace can be a help, and while internal employee networks are useful, the only employee-led organisation with legal recognition and the power to hold management to account is a union. Unionising is not the only solution, but it is a necessary condition. 

With publishers facing the worst financial crisis of the century and the prospect of redundancies in the near future, it is more important than ever to stand in solidarity. 

Members of NUJ Book Branch

The National Union of Journalists represents a broad range of media professionals, and has a dedicated Book Branch. Find us on Twitter @NUJBook and learn more here: https://www.nuj.org.uk/home/