Finding the X Factor

The recent Creative Access survey highlighting the experiences of interns from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds in the publishing industry made for sobering, if not entirely unsurprising, reading. As someone who has first-hand experience of mentoring many of these interns as they entered the industry, responses such as an “endless, fruitless slog”, “wading through mud” and “every face and every opinion was the same” were familiar.

For some time now, the clarion call for more inclusive publishing has become louder and louder, along with the urgent need to redress the woeful imbalance in staffing in relation to those from a range of backgrounds. What we are told repeatedly though is that these changes will “take time”.

I entered the publishing industry as an editorial assistant 20 years ago. I’ve worked for the big corporates for pretty much my entire career. I now consider myself as something of a unicorn for not only am I from a BAME background, the only child of a single mother, but I’m also from a small, predominantly working-class town in South Wales. I had free meals at school. Statistically, a successful London publishing career was more than unlikely for me. So I’m infuriated by the notion that change within publishing will only become a reality in the decades to come.

Ten years ago, I commissioned a memoir by all-black boyband JLS. Expectations for sales were reasonable but not exceptional. JLS were runners-up on “The X Factor”, the biggest TV show in the country at the time, and I suspected the book was being undercooked a bit in-house. I kept my counsel though, given that I was a young editor, and the fact that I had been signed off to go ahead and acquire the book at all was a big deal for me. And then it took off. We sold 150,000 copies by Christmas.

Not long after, I acquired the memoir of comedian Alan Carr. Again, expectations for sales were modest. Graham Norton’s autobiography had underperformed, I was told by the publisher, while privately I was thinking, “Well I think Al’s bloody funny, and yeah, I know his show’s on Channel 4 late at night but still, it might just work.” Would Alan Carr have been compared, like for like, had Graham Norton been straight? In the end it didn’t matter—Alan went on to sell 500,000 copies of his book.

Inclusive publishing works—it always has. I’d go as far to say that not having different voices and opinions in the room is bad for business. It’s very bad when your business is storytelling. JLS and Alan Carr are but two of countless examples I could give of books that were perceived as risks at the time they were published, their position as relative newcomers in their respective industries massively influencing their commercial potential in ours. They needed championing, which is why having diverse voices and champions behind the scenes counts—good stories, great stories can so easily slip through the net, even when you are a face off the TV.

But the notion that we need to seek out their "special" readers, find "ways to talk to them", is, quite frankly, preposterous and insulting. The idea that there are gay books for gay people or black books for black people is nonsense. I think Alan Carr would have objected if we had chosen to market his book to a specifically gay audience. All people read: we simply need to commission what might appeal to as wide a variety as we can—the Netflix model—and then put books in places where people will see them and buy them. I’m not being facetious; it really is that simple. Supermarkets and Amazon could be our greatest friends. These are channels that enable us to reach a wide, diverse audience—the so called “non-traditional reader”.

I’d quite like to knock the concept of the “traditional reader” on the head now anyway. It’s a bit like saying the “traditional TV watcher”. Perhaps “the traditional reader” has stuck around as a term in publishing because we just haven’t, as an entire industry, published enough of a variety (and then seen the big numbers come through) for “non-traditional” books. Where is the black Wilbur Smith? Or the Indian David Walliams? Do you really need to be the wife of the first African-American president in history to be BAME and sell a million books in the UK? Where are the young BAME twenty-something commissioners in the major houses, the talented sales, marketing and PR people coming through to first buy the books, and then see them all the way through to the shelves? Surely these are the key roles that all the internship schemes should be focused on filling and doing so with a sense of urgency, as if our very businesses depended on it.

None of this makes sense nearly 20 years into this new century and in our digital, hyperconnected age. Social media should be a gift for publishing and storytellers—a beautiful, twisted, slightly out-of-control juggernaut that fantastically (in my view) has the capacity to bring people together in a way we’ve never seen before. In an instant it has created a truly global marketplace. I can talk to someone living in South America as easily as I can in Cardiff and that seamless communication is transforming the way we consume product. If you don’t believe me, check out the awe-inspiring marketing campaign for Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty range. ‘Emerging markets’, as we still call them, will not be emerging for very long, and we in our mature publishing industry are perilously close to being left behind. You only need to look at the make-up counter at your local Boots—teeming with the full spectrum of diverse colours following the wildfire sales of Rihanna’s make-up range. Her masterstroke? To debut not with lipstick but with 40 shades of foundation, flying in the face of cosmetics industry giants like Max Factor and Estée Lauder who have spent years telling their customers that there was a limited market for darker shades. Take a look at the K-pop phenomenon, a $1bn industry from South Korea with bands who don’t sing in English yet still effortlessly score US Billboard number one after number one.

So what I’d like to see more of in our industry is hurry—hurry to think outside London, globally instead of domestically; hurry to take more risks, commission broadly and employ more people from a wider range of backgrounds in positions where they can make a difference as to what hits our bookshelves. I don’t mean a trickle. We need a flood.

That might start with something like the “big four” working together and collaborating to get the job done—perhaps a public commitment to diversity, regional and otherwise, in the form of a national charter or mandate that includes addressing the key roles that will affect the most change as well as the content we’re producing.

A national database of schools and universities that all publishers can access for workshops and roadshows, demystifying the industry. An annual event, perhaps as part of World Book Day, where we explain to kids how books are made (and by whom). Opening offices or creating hubs outside London would do so much to open up our industry to those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Creative Access, the social enterprise that helps young people from BAME and lower-socioeconomic back- grounds to find roles in the creative industries, already operates nationally, and the British publishing industry needs to follow suit.

Just a few months ago, in a quirk of fate, I published the début kids’ picture book from the wife of a member of JLS, TV presenter Rochelle Humes. A book with a black lead character on the front cover who encouraged children to embrace themselves and their curly hair. That book sold out on Amazon a day and a half after release, with the entire 10,000 first print run cleared in less than a month. Inclusive publishing is good business. After all, you can’t be what you can’t see.

Formerly the acquisitions director and publisher at Bonnier Books, Natalie Jerome is a brand-publishing specialist who has published a host of high-profile names. She can be reached at natalie350@btinternet.com.