For those who weren’t at this week’s British Book Awards, a.k.a. the Nibbies, the dominant meme from the evening was about the warmth and friendliness of the books sector. Author of the Year Lee Child spoke from the podium how this had been one of the first things he’d noticed after coming into the business from television. The bar was set low, he said, but you "soared effortlessly above it". We are, as Book of the Year winner Sally Rooney has not yet written, "lovely people".
The importance of books and the dedication of those who deliver them into this world is a given, of course. To celebrate that is not just to laud the best (though that helps) but also to showcase the enormous work that goes into it all, often unheralded. To examine it is to understand it—and why it matters so much. It is the reason the Nibbies were first created (by Publishing News founder Fred Newman, of course), and our guiding philosophy at The Bookseller. "Books are different, and the book trade is different too," said Tim Godfray, outgoing executive chair of the Booksellers Association, who picked up the Outstanding Contribution award. Rightly so, too.
For the misty eyed among you, I’ll stop right there. Because, of course, there is another perspective. For some the books world can be an off-putting and exclusionary place, only latterly and somewhat painfully becoming aware that it needs to open itself up to different voices. It was for this reason that the judges felt so passionate about commending Little, Brown, and its creation of inclusive list Dialogue Books under the ever-impressive Sharmaine Lovegrove, from the stage. It did not win Publisher of the Year—that accolade went to Penguin General, with its bold publishing of Michelle Obama demonstrating in another way how a commitment to diversity can manifest—but few should doubt Dialogue’s importance to us and our judges.
This week’s survey that The Bookseller commissioned of those Creative Access interns who went into publishing (300 of them) offers a third perspective—outsiders who have become insiders. The results are encouraging—74% said they still wished to work in the business, and 52% said they had noticed an improvement in diversity since joining the sector. However, 55% said they did not feel publishing was open to change or welcoming—the conversations around this, said one respondent, did not "mean companies and publishers are striving for inclusivity and have a genuine interest in [it] at all levels". Another added that they had "yet to see" people of colour progress up the career ladder, as others can and do—"there would always be a ceiling", said one who left their role.
This is grim stuff, but a shift is evident, both at the awards and within the industry. The problem, to borrow from Lee Child again, is that the bar was set too low (and for too long), and we have yet to sail above it. This reform won’t come effortlessly either, and some changes—as this week piece on sensitivity readers shows—will be tricky to handle. But you are lovely people, and together we will do the right thing.