'Diversity in publishing is not just a nice liberal aspiration, but a necessity'

I fell into publishing almost by accident. My first plan, on graduating from the University of Sussex with a History degree, was to try my hand at a career in journalism. It was a weak plan and my conviction faltered pretty quickly when I realised I’d have to find the time and inclination for further study or work for a provincial paper in a small town somewhere.

Publishing, I thought, might perhaps be easier to get into and enable me to be in London (my home town). And it wasn’t a million miles from journalism. Naïve, I admit, but in the end not foolhardy.

With a crash course in secretarial skills under my belt, I applied for every entry-level publishing position I could find in the Guardian. I landed an interview for a secretary/editorial assistant at Guinness Publishing, publisher of what was then known as The Guinness Book of Records—the “World” came later—and a fledging reference list. I was interviewed by a gruff Scot, the talented Ian Crofton (then publisher). He was less interested in my schooling but put me through my paces on the shorthand and transcription, and then made me complete a general knowledge test. Finally, he asked what was I reading. I was reading a slow-burn Carson McCullers book. The misery must have impressed him, because my shorthand was rubbish and I still got the job.

Since then, I’ve always worked in publishing, with stints at Guinness, Reader’s Digest, Which?, Encarta and, for some years now, at Pavilion (on Batsford and The National Trust books). It has been the most rewarding job I could have imagined, and I have never regretted my choice. Moreover, I can safely say I never felt that my ethnic background held me back in any way.

When I was asked about writing something on the subject of ethnic minorities in publishing, I wasn’t sure my story was particularly illuminating. But it got me thinking about how and why I went into publishing, and why so few black and Asian graduates consider the profession or are able to make that first step into the industry.

Is it because so few black and Asian faces are seen in publishing that it isn’t considered a welcoming career? That might be part of the reason, but I am not convinced that tells the whole story. Today, publishing jobs are still sought after and competition is fierce. With dozens of applicants for entry-level positions in editorial, most applicants have some kind of work experience in a publishing house on their CV. Those with the most expe- rience and good degrees (and no spelling mistakes!) will stand out. While hardly noticing it, we are skewing the process towards those who have the financial background to work unpaid (probably in the capital) for weeks, if not months on end. The socioeconomic barriers to publishing are there for people from a range of backgrounds. I know the Publishers Association’s Spare Room Project [through which book-trade staff offer use of a spare room to a prospective publishing employee based outside of London, free of charge] is an attempt to address the problem, and it’s much welcomed. But alone it won’t make enough of a difference.

I think the health of the publishing industry as a whole lies in producing real variety in our commissioning. That means ideas from people from a range of backgrounds, with a range of interests and different insights. Diversity in publishing is not just a nice liberal aspiration, but a necessity in order to keep our industry relevant.

Tina Persaud is publishing director at Batsford.