Rethinking 'diversity' in publishing

Ever since the publication of Spread the Word's Writing the Future report in 2015, publishers have made some huge steps in addressing the problem of "diversity" in publishing. From more inclusive recruitment processes, to unconscious bias training (across the entire workforce—no other industry can say the same), to paid internships and even free accommodation for interns from outside London, there have been some remarkable strides taken by the industry.

This is encouraging, and from my own research into these issues, I found that publishers were actually quite open, progressive and self-reflective when it came to issues of race and ethnicity.

Nonetheless, the situation is that writers of colour either struggle to get their books commissioned or struggle to reach the right audiences when they do. As a 2018 study by academic Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold revealed, the number of books published by black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) authors in Young Adult fiction has been falling since 2010; and it would not be surprising to find the same trend in other genres. Moreover, a key finding in Writing the Future that received less attention, relatively speaking, was how writers of colour feel pressured into using racial and ethnic stereotypes. So we have a situation where writers of colour are struggling to get their stories out there and, when they do, they feel like they are being made to reproduce the very stereotypes that they set out to challenge in the first place.

Starting on 1st May, I will be undertaking a major new research project, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and in partnership with writing development agency Spread the Word, The Bookseller and Goldsmiths Press that will look into how writers of colour experience the publishing process.

In my previous research into publishing, I found that it is the production process itself—from commissioning and acquisition, to book design, to marketing and publicity, to distribution and retail—that is a critical area relating to the issue of "diversity" in publishing, but one that is relatively neglected. The fact is, in an unpredictable market, many publishers see writers of colour—especially new ones—as a riskier investment. And faced with this unpredictability, they try to manage the production of the author in the best possible way, using data, their experience and their own gut instincts in order to make the book succeed in the marketplace, through its content, through its design, through its promotion.

A new approach

With this new research, I want to delve into the publishing process more deeply and investigate how different stages of production affect the books of writers of colour. When it does not work, are they the victims of unconscious bias or commercial or economic forces? When it goes right, what decisions made during the production enabled this success? This kind of knowledge will be incredibly valuable to publishers really committed to the project of not just having a more diverse workforce, but also attracting more writers from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds, and helping them to widen their audiences in the process (and, subsequently, profit from it).

For this project, I am looking to interview people who work at different stages of the publishing process, from literary agents, to managing directors, to editors, to designers, to marketing and PR personnel, to sales and retail, across different genres. From these interviews I want to get a detailed sense of how publishers negotiate the market when working with writers of colour. All interviewees will be anonymised and no publishing houses will be named in any of the outputs. The main aim is to produce a report of the findings by the time of the London Book Fair in 2020, five years after Writing the Future.

To reiterate, it has been really heartening to see the publishing industry respond to that report in such a positive way. This research will explore the impact of the steps taken to solve the problem of "diversity", but specifically in relation to the publishing process. The findings produced will potentially have huge benefits, for writers, audiences and publishers alike.

Dr Anamik Saha is a senior lecturer and co-convenor of the MA in Race, Media and Social Justice at Goldsmiths, University of London. He can be contacted at a.saha@gold.ac.uk.  He will be in conversation with Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, at the London Book Fair on 13th March at 11.30 a.m.