On reading, publishing and being working class

I don’t suppose there will be many in the publishing world who will contradict me when I say that to be successful as a publisher, you must first be a reader. But reading is not a given for all. It is a tenuous product of years of nurturing that the more working class you are, the less likely you are to receive. I’m really glad that this has become a source of debate within the industry and that people are trying to change things. I fully support it. But it is not enough.

My mother can read, but only just. For her the idea of reading for pleasure is a mystery. But she has always understood that if you can penetrate that mystery, then important things lie beyond. I grew up in a house unfurnished by books and I knew a lot more about "Blue Peter" than Enid Blyton. But my mum always tried to help us read and she would foster it whenever she had the chance, despite not really knowing what she was doing. Comics and Asterix got us started, and when school started asking us to read some classics she would order them from what she called "the nice ladies at WHSmith".

And so I started getting into some reading on my own. Or sort of. I read Thomas Hardy and Wuthering Heights to impress my middle-class girlfriend and at her suggestion (and backed up by The The’s "Infected" video) I read The Wasteland. I read Seamus Heaney for my A levels and in his poetry found a lifelong inspiration. And to Elaine O'Neill, the teacher who read us The Turbulent Term of Tike Tyler, I will be forever grateful (best twist ever – eat your heart out, "The Sixth Sense").

But I don’t know that even with this and a university education I would have become a habitual reader had I not gone to work for Waterstones, where it became impossible not to be. I might have dabbled, but I'm not sure it would have stuck.

All of this anecdotage is really to try and show that reading habitually is not a given activity that all right-thinking people do. The recent Demos report A Society of Readers states that reading for pleasure is one of the most important indicators of success at school and that working class children who do this score much better than their non-reading peers. Excellent articles by writers like Kit De Waal and Kerry Hudson have raised the class deficit in the book world. This is an issue that goes much deeper than HR policy and recruitment procedures, and if we are serious about it then we need face the issue properly, and put the promotion and encouragement of reading for all at its heart.

If we want more working class stories, authors and editors then we have to look at how first we might encourage and develop working class readers. If you work in a publishing house, as I have for years, you will rarely have tried to reach the reluctant reader. And in fairness why would you? Publishing is a business and like all businesses it relies on the 20% who bring in the 80%. Why spend your hard-won revenue on trying to convince non-readers to try a little literary fiction? Better to leave that to government policy, schools and charities. I wonder why I haven’t paid more attention to this myself and sought to find ways of reaching these readers? Perhaps too often the obvious outweighs the difficult.

But difficult does not mean impossible. Yes it does require deep, committed and long-term outreach work above and beyond our usual promotional activities. There have been some successes. Initiatives such as Quick Reads and Reading Partners and work done by the Royal Literary Fund have certainly had an impact.

But what else could be done?

Firstly, we could know more about our readers and how they are faring. We understand the quantitative elements of the market but do we understand how people acquire the reading habit, what sustains it and, most importantly, what inhibits it? Could we as an industry engage with the increasing number of academic publishing departments to research what is really going on with readers – and non-readers? Are fewer people from working class backgrounds finding their way to books? What impact are library closures having on the working class reading habits? What are the more direct interventions we could make to support the wider cohort of young readers?

Secondly, perhaps we need a more global approach to reader development, one that is funded for the long-term and engages earlier and more actively. If the industry’s engagement with organisations like the Reading Agency were more securely structured they would have the opportunity to capitalise on the research and develop bold long-term initiatives. As opposed to being funded out of annual promotional budgets subject to the shifting annual cycle, could the industry as a whole develop a kind of 'sovereign wealth fund', an endowment that could seek to understand, develop and support our readership?

Thirdly could there be better coordination between these initiatives and more creative support from both publishers and booksellers? When the industry comes together, through such things as World Book Day, it makes a difference. How much more might be achieved by deploying clear research, solid funding and broad support from the industry in the service of an ambitious strategy to reach reluctant readers and working class children and adults.

So why does any of this matter? At a time when there has never been more cultural competition, just maintaining a readership means constantly pushing at the frontiers of our market and not just relying on the faithful. If the industry truly wants to be more diverse, to represent the wider world and to publish new stories, then encouraging a wider culture of reading must go forward, hand in hand, with investment in new writers and new publishers.

Is what I am asking here a contemporary form of Victorian philanthropy of the sort that led to the foundation of our public library service? Yes, in a way. But one that, over time, can serve to renew the foundations of our entire business. Publishing is special, an industry unlike any other. After all, unlike TV or film, it makes its profits on the back of one our most fundamental social skills. The ability to read. Imagine for a moment how closed the world would be to you if you were unable to read at all.

Publishing lies at an intersection of entertainment, information and education and is the method by which we record our culture. The works of Jane Austen and contemporary working-class author Anna Burns are not just units of revenue, they are a way of understanding who and what we are as humans. In publishing we act as custodians to the culture while also trying to make a few quid. But those revenues are precarious if whole sections of our population are excluded.

I’m grateful for the serendipities that gave me a reading habit and a career. I have experienced what my mother only glimpsed. But if we want more Kerry Hudsons and Kit De Waals, more editors from social housing and working-class novels newer than Kes to be read in schools, then we will have to engage in a deeper, more strategic and more active way with people that our industry has left behind. This is an opportunity for publishers, writers and readers to move forward together. Because to write and edit, first we must read.

Noel Murphy has worked as sales and marketing director at Yale University Press, as chief executive of the New Zealand Book Council and as a marketing director of Faber and Faber. He is now a marketing consultant.