More city, less village

Last month at the Association of Authors’ Agents (AAA) a.g.m., I stepped down from AAA Committee after six years, the last two in the role of president. I am proud to have worked for a trade association whose value for its members is unquestionable. I am not referring to our informative or social events, or our advocacy for agents and authors to publishers and in the public sphere, though they are great. Rather, to the fact that —because any cowboy can call themselves a literary agent—membership of the AAA is the only simple way for an agent to convey their seriousness and reliability as a professional. All our agencies commit to abide by our Code of Practice and its associated guidelines, you see. 

 Beyond that joint commitment, and our fiduciary duty to put our clients’ interests first, the AAA is a pretty broad church in many enjoyable ways. But although many AAA members are actively engaged in the project of making our profession more inclusive, we are still an undeniably white, middle-class group, for the most part.

One of my final projects was to edit association guidelines on how to be better recruiters and retainers of diverse talent. In fact, my “goodbye” speech proposed that the only thing we publishing professionals should have in common is our love of books. Of course it is a source of embarrassment and disadvantage to all of us in publishing that the majority of us share so much more than that, in our common experiences of culture; of education; family; geography; religion; and ideas of morality. 

The books business is a village: everyone knows everyone. We speak the same language. We have our jargon, our pet hates and habits, and common enemies; our spring fairs and our Christmas festivals. It’s a fantastic community which at its best is unrivalled for its cheerleading of its own successes and its mentorship of new talent. But at its worst, our community is like any village: attached to what it knows, looking for what it expects, wary of the new. Gossipy.

At the seminar on unconscious bias the AAA ran early last year, we were advised to “beware looking for ‘a good fit’”. That struck a chord with me. So often I hear us looking for authors and employees who “get it”—how to talk and act like a person who works in the books business. Who knows when and how to push for what they need and want, and when not to. When to put an “X” after their name on an email, and when not to. Some agents complain on Twitter when they get letters from authors who clearly didn’t get the memo about what tone to use in their submissions; people who couldn’t afford the Guardian workshop on “how to get published” maybe. Some of our insider language makes the unpublished and the unhired feel like exiled outsiders.

Strange times
“She’s a bit weird,” I hear agents and editors say of some of their number sometimes. Well, thank God some of us are a bit weird. Fitting in might be overrated. Would I have had the courage to stand for president of the AAA, and to advocate to publishers, MPs and fellow trade organisations, if I had “fitted in”? Would I have co-written the industry’s Commitment to Professional Behaviour? 

Who is “our kind of person”? What if our kind of person was the non-fitting-in type of person? I like brilliant and difficult people. It’s not just ethnic diversity and gender diversity and sexual diversity we need (although we do) but personality diversity: alphas and betas, people who don’t work well in teams, morning people and afternoon people. I have been worrying for a while that our industry of readers is paradoxically disadvantaging introverts, with our open-plan offices, emphasis on high communication skills, and romance with social media.

To facilitate a more diverse workforce, we should try to be less of a village and more of a city. We need to be less reassured by the idea that we are all “friends” and more focused on being superlative professionals, which means being as welcoming as a great and bustling city to everyone we don’t recognise; those who challenge us to see the world differently. What we have in common is that we all love books. And maybe one day, too, that we aren’t afraid of difference and true innovation; of working outside our comfort zones; of change; of the radical; and of the things and people we don’t yet know. 

The AAA can epitomise diversity and courage of thought when it is at its best. As I told its membership last week, it has been an honour to be their Head Weirdo. I know they will remain weird, brave, questing and strong for many years to come, and I will be proud to be among them.

Lizzy Kremer is head of books at David Higham Associates. She blogs at publishingforhumans.com.