Rethinking diversity... together

Rethinking diversity... together

Germany is as much a multicultural country as the UK – with these words, the tone was set for a day of exchange between British and German publishing experts, almost one year after the publication of the "Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing" report in the UK. The aim was not to see who is doing better (or worse) in creating an inclusive industry with regards to authors, staff and representations. This day served to share insights and good practice examples from Germany and the UK, and together formulate strategies that can tackle inequalities in the publishing sector.

Ninety participants joined us in exploring questions of diversity on the production side of the industry and how to reach wider audiences. In addition to the main panels, participants shared their experience and good practice examples ranging from alternative channels for literary criticism, writer development programmes like the London Writers Award (run by Spread the Word) and setting up the anti-racist mobile library Audream in Berlin.

In the opening panel, publisher and bookseller Aimée Felone (Knights Of and Round Table Books), diversity and inclusion manager Saskia Bewley (Hachette UK), German indie publisher Nikola Richter (mikrotext) and German journalist and activist Ferda Ataman (Neue deutsche Medienmacher*innen) talked about how the industry itself could be more inclusive.

The last panel of the day focussed on audiences. In both countries, the imagined or dominantly addressed audience is white and middle-class – and everyone else often underestimated. Publisher and agent Crystal Mahey-Morgan (OWN IT!), academic and literary critic Maryam Aras (Bonn University and WDR), festival director Shantel Edwards (Birmingham Literature Festival) and bookseller/agent/literary festival founder Stefanie Hirsbrunner (InterKontinental) showed how they reach wider audiences through their community-building work, creative programming and cooperation with guest curators and partners.

Making publishing more accessible and transparent and less like a “secret society”, as well as checking one’s own networks and making them more heterogenous were two recurring themes. Interestingly, many of the speakers and participants worked with more than one hat on and/or had founded their own businesses as a response to what they saw missing in the industry. And their success is truly inspiring.

Among many examples of good practice discussed on the day was Nikola Richter’s "open publishing year" (Jahr des offenen Verlags), during which she opened up her publishing house for guest publishers and their communities to publish their book projects under her roof – an inspiring and successful process during which everyone involved learned a lot, not least with the interactive antiracist ‘ally guide’ Dear Discrimination.

As another example the Neue deutsche Medienmacher*innen (the ‘new German media creators’, a collective that works to empower BIPoC journalists and other media people, co-founded by Ferda Ataman), have compiled a “Diversity Guide” for German media organisations. They only share these tips and instructions, however, if the CEO of the interested company agrees to enter in a conversation with the activists for an hour – to make sure it is not just filed somewhere and forgotten. They also created the “Vielfaltfinder”, a free database with BIPoC experts who work on all kinds of topics from quantum physics to literature.

In a breakout session, writers Denise Rawls and Mark Mukasa, both winners of the London Writers Award, shared how writing development schemes can help emerging writers with their craft, but also their confidence by creating communities of writers – and support them with knowledge about the often opaque industry. To me, it seems that we would benefit from more writer development agencies in Germany.

One of the most striking differences between Germany and the UK is the lack of data in the German context. There might be a historical reason for a certain unease around this topic, but unfortunately, this often leads to a dismissal of the legitimate criticism of underrepresentation of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in publishing (staff, authors, stories). Activists as well as publishers and booksellers agreed that research in the German publishing and bookselling industry would be interesting and helpful.

While the German and British publishing industries share many of the problems on the way to becoming more inclusive and while many activists in both countries have been drawing our attention to the structural issues for decades now, the conversations in Germany have not reached the same attention as they have in the UK.

One example: a contact at the German equivalent of The Bookseller claimed that while their team was on board and understood the importance of transforming the industry to be more inclusive, their monitoring of reader behaviour showed that articles about 'diversity and inclusion' received substantially fewer clicks compared to industry news and ‘corona-content’. Apparently, this has also an effect on their choice of coverage.

While there would have been room for more people from the bigger publishers, as the organisers, Dr Anamik Saha and I were very happy that so many people across the German publishing industry signed up and got involved. The conversations continued after the last session, new connections were made – and the participants left with the knowledge that they’re not alone in this.

Dr Sandra van Lente is a guest lecturer at the Centre for British Studies at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She is the co-author of the “Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing” report (2020), with Dr Anamik Saha.

You can access the programme of “Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing: British and German Perspectives” at https://www.gbz.hu-berlin.de/research/projects/rethinking-diversity.