Publishing for everyone

Publishing for everyone

I came into this business straight out of university having first worked in a bookshop, and following a week's work experience at Penguin Random House. I haven’t had a job outside of books since I was 20 but I'm not it seems what you'd call a ‘typical publishing person’. I'm Black and working class, I was raised by a single mum and received free school meals. I'm state educated. I'm even Welsh. Women, Race and Class, to quote Angela Davis' seminal book title, I tick every box. 

That difference has been an instrumental factor in my career. I'd even go as far as to say that it has been the key to all the success I've achieved so far. That difference is not just good for business, it's good for us all spiritually, cognitively and emotionally. Difference is to be embraced; it’s what makes us human. 

Let's take the trinity of women, race and class and look at it through the prism of publishing for everyone.  

There is not one Black woman at senior management level at any of the major, corporate Publishing houses in the UK today.  

Last November, The Guardian reported that you were eight times more likely to see an animal main character in a kids' book than a non-white person.  

Five years ago The Guardian reported that of the top 500 books sold, six were written by Black British authors. 

Now arguably you could say that while these statistics are shocking and unacceptable, for the gatekeepers of the industry - publishers and retailers- they aren't interrupting the day-to-day business of selling books to their current readership. And that readership it is assumed is mainly white, straight and affluent. Except that we know that isn't the case. There is a market out there that we call in the business 'non-traditional readers'. And there are quite a lot of them.  

Every now and again, someone will come along and blow apart previously accepted publishing norms. They are outliers, authors and books that no-one saw coming, that open doors for others and deliver monster sales. Sales that publishers and retailers didn’t think were there. Like Malorie Blackman, a million-copy selling author; gay comedian Alan Carr, who shifts half a million copies of his debut memoir; and just recently the mighty Pinch of Nom, selling well over a million copies and a best-seller in every region with the exception of London. They will tear up the rule book and change the publishing landscape forever.

They are game-changers. And if we are going to be publishing for everyone, I am urging all prospective future publishing talent, as well as the current gatekeepers of the industry, to double down in the effort to find them. Schemes like Representing Wales: Developing Writers of Colour, which was launched in April by Literature Wales with the aim to establish a pipeline of diverse Welsh talent into the industry, and on whose board I sit, are much needed interventions - but they're not enough. 

With university attendance amongst young people now standing at 50% in the UK and the Department of Education reporting that 32% of kids of primary school age in England are of minority backgrounds, there is absolutely no reason why our boardrooms and bookshops are not more reflective of the population. After all, 3% of 65m people is rather a lot of Black people and it is completely unacceptable that we are scrabbling through catalogues counting a handful of titles by Black authors. Likewise, any other so called 'marginalised' group. I hate that term. I'm a regular person just like everyone else. And I read. 

It sounds obvious but it is important that we reflect the world around us as it actually is – what it means to be British, who we are as a country and as people. Who even lives here (as I've discovered, relocating to Wales after 20 years in London and being asked if there are any Black people here).  

There are two big myths I want to bust on the point of advancement and progression of non-white talent in the publishing industry.  

The first is that it will take time to see through. 

The second is that if you're from a lower socio-economic background, you are not interested in the arts and it's associated financial instability and erratic career path. 

I had my first major hit as a commisioning editor at 23. I'd been assisting for about 18 months. I had a boss at the time who was open to new ideas and actively asked for them. Good ideas for books come from everywhere and anywhere.  

Since 2012, Creative Access has placed 350 non-white interns across the pPublishing industry. There is a growing aspirational class of Black and non-white talent who want to do the 'fun jobs'. I might have been slightly ahead of the curve when I entered the industry in the late ’90s but that hasn't been the case now for years, I've seen it first hand through the internship programme. However all and especially Black and non-white talent needs to be supported up and through the industry. We need allyship and meaningful allyship at that. In my view that means targets for staff and output.  

The PA have set a target of 15% non-white staff in the industry to be achieved in 5 years (set in 2017). PRH just released their new diversity plan with a target of 5% output. 

What I'd like to see is a consistent target for staff and output agreed across publishers and retail.  

I think we need a formal independent body that monitors and tracks how equality is communicated and industry progress on this.  

I would also like the industry to move away from this notion of Black authors for Black readers. That is not, in my view, how people read. Publish more Black and non-white authors, more LGBTQ authors, but publish these books for the widest market possible and see what works. That means cookery and science fiction, sport memoirs and chick lit, poetry and gardening. There are no boundaries and no limitations. Good storytelling and good books are the key. We need to platform and promote more diverse writers, which is the aim of Representing Wales: Developing Writers of Colour. The 12-month programme aims to support writers as they work towards their long-term ambitions whilst participating in workshops, masterclasses and networking opportunities to increase their profile and demystifying common professional career paths, such as publishing. And we need more books written and published by everyone, more stories that cover the gender, class and race trinity to help level this playing ground and normalise difference.  

It comes back to connection and our common humanity as the central aim and purpose of storytelling and books. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, this feels like a seismic moment in our human history. People are starting to connect culture with social cohesion. Political freedoms only get you so far. You can't omit great swathes of people from the culture and expect to live happily side by side.  

I would like publishers and retailers to really take this point on, it is a business yes, but we are gatekeepers with a massive social and cultural responsibility too. Difference is to be embraced. Not just in business but for us all as people.

Natalie Jerome is a former publisher and now literary agent at Aevitas Creative Management, a transatlantic literary agency, and a board member of Literature Wales.Representing Wales: Developing Writers Of Colour was launched in April by Literature Wales.