As I sit at my desk at HarperCollins, surrounded by the work of Hilary Mantel, J R R Tolkien and Agatha Christie, and with the 15th-floor skyline spreading through the window behind me, I feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of it all—and incredibly
fortunate to be working with such talented, generous and supportive colleagues. (I know, it’s a cliché.)
I haven’t always felt so supported by those around me. As a person of mixed race growing up in the 1970s—my birth mother is American, my father Tanzanian—I saw the ugly face of racism at that time, once having the misfortune of being around after the break-up of a National Front meeting in my hometown, and being abused and beaten up for my trouble.
However, in my career my heritage has also been an advantage. Some years ago, when I was doing legal work for a private practice, my superiors wanted the person who “looked least like a lawyer” to work on “Spitting Image”, and that person ended up being me... My large afro at the time probably helped. In more recent times, proudly representing HarperCollins, I had the privilege of being named on the inaugural UPstanding Executive Power List of BAME leaders, meeting some truly incredible business people in the process.
Being of mixed race certainly has its obstacles. I’m seen as both “other” and part of a homogenous whole and some people looked at me slightly askance when I told them I was on a list of BAME success stories, such is the way I look. But more than anything, I find my heritage empowering. I find it gives me a different angle and outlook in industries that are dominated by white faces and cultures.
The idea that being of a diverse background gives me a different perspective is directly relevant to the publishing industry. The vast majority of publishers work in London, a city with a 40% non-white population (it’s around 15% in England and Wales). If we’re not representing that kind of diversity, we’re not representing the wider consumer market, and readers. Of course this is about the kind of books we are publishing, but it’s also about the people we employ.
At HarperCollins, we’ve been honest with ourselves. Objectively we can see that BAME individuals are underrepresented and we have taken action to address that imbalance, most notably in the introduction of an industry-first traineeship targeted at BAME graduates. I had the pleasure of interviewing candidates in the first stage of the recruitment process, and not only was it inspiring and life-affirming, it was also incredibly exciting from a business perspective. These young people have so much to offer to our business and our industry, and I can’t wait to see how they move us forward. As our UK c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne says, reflecting diversity is not only the right thing to do, it’s also good for business.
Furthermore, it’s not just about employing people. It’s about nurturing that talent, whoever they are and whatever background they have come from. On a personal basis, my team at HarperCollins has benefited massively from the championing and nurturing of new talent, such as the brilliant Neha Vyas, who started off as my assistant and is now handling anti-piracy for the global business, all while qualifying to be a lawyer. Her blossoming career demonstrates how nurturing talent (“diverse” or otherwise) should be central to our success as publishing businesses. I’m certain we’ll see many, many more stories like Neha’s in the future.
For a long time, publishing has been torn between its twin identities of tradition and looking to the future. I believe that the dialogue that’s started in recent years is finally taking us into a new age of diversity and inclusion, one in which we honour our traditions while also truly representing our rich and vibrant modern society.
Simon Dowson-Collins is general counsel at HarperCollins.