We need more modesty, more money and more collaboration

We are in a time of major change – following the brutal, televised murder of George Floyd – and it goes without saying that the book trade supports a movement that must succeed in establishing once and for all that black lives matter. For my new book, Slow Road to San Francisco, I drove from East to West coast stopping frequently to take the pulse of Trump's America, and I have never been so aware of the need and hunger for change - in the media, in politics, in society, in the book trade.

At the same time, and for the first time, we are in the middle of a pandemic which all can see will disrupt and change the world’s economy. So it’s important right now to re-examine the entire book industry: its economics, and how to make those who work in it more representative of the population as a whole.  
Sometime in the 1980s I visited an eminent New York editor for the first time. Someone had told me I had to meet her.  I knew little about her or her list.  But I found out a lot as soon as I was ushered into the dimly lit boudoir of her office. The great lady was sitting, half hidden by flowers, at a desk covered in trinkets, along the front of which, facing me – not her – were framed photographs of four or five bestselling female writers. I was in the engine room of what was then the 'sex-and-shopping' branch of the book trade.

Drinks were served. Cigarettes were smoked. Pringles appeared on a silver platter. Mutual friends were discussed. Titbits of information about bestselling authors and their mighty agents slid almost silently from the side of her mouth. I did my feeble best to reciprocate. And we did absolutely no business.   

Of course, people like that don’t exist any longer. Yet, despite many efforts, our industry is still seen as exclusive and elitist, if sometimes a touch fusty. More modesty from commissioning editors, directors, big cheeses, would make our industry more attractive to a wider range of workers. As would an ambience of equality and mutual respect. Management’s role is to take on the right people, facilitate them doing their jobs effectively and leave them to get on with it. And this will become increasingly important as the new normal becomes the regular normal, as salaries level up and as the industry becomes more diverse, as it must.    

But how does an industry which is still largely run by white men become more diverse?  How can black and minority ethnic men and women be enticed into the industry and get quickly to the top? One way might be to seduce them away from managerial jobs in other – dare I say – more boring industries. And put them in at, or near, the top.  Many bright, literate people fetch up as accountants and solicitors, bankers and management consultants. They do it for the money, but regard what we do as more glamorous and interesting. Headhunters can find such people and the industry must fund their salaries.

Advertising is full of bright, creative people – many of them of BAME backgrounds. We have to match their salaries. When I worked at Dorling Kindersley in the late 1970s, a young woman joined as an editor, was much liked and did great work. After a few months, she announced that she was leaving to join an advertising agency.  She was going to work on the Ariel account. Was she just going to work on Ariel, five days a week, I asked? Yes, she said, and she was excited at the prospect. I met her years later. The Ariel work had been very dull; the people had been nice, but no nicer than us lot at DK. Instead of DK’s second-hand desks – DK was new and small then – the agency was all chrome and leather. But she had changed jobs for the money, not the furniture; at that time she had been supporting her mother who wasn’t well.

To recruit younger BAME people, we must get into universities, but not just universities; we should offer apprenticeships to young people who don’t go to university because they can’t afford to or, perhaps, just fancy getting a job instead. We will need higher salaries, and closer equality of pay within publishing houses, so younger workers don’t need support from parents in order to work in our industry. 

None of this is easy and it is certainly hard to afford. However, the book trade will only shrink if it doesn’t meet these challenges.      

And what of the books themselves? We don’t just have to reconfigure society and deal with an unprecedent viral attack, we have to face up to  ever faker news and a barrage of, often deliberately, misleading social media.  Meanwhile, books still provide the foundation of civilisation. Film, television, journalism and responsible social media follow where books lead.  People look to them for truth, new ideas and opinions. And now, more than ever, people need accurate sources on which to base their decisions. 

I suggest that co-operative deals be made between the big conglomerate publishers and the smaller BAME publishers to make their books, their whole lists without cherry-picking, more widely available, especially as mass-market paperbacks. Such deals should not exploit the smaller publisher or the BAME author, but support them.  Cherry-picking from the list should be avoided because the BAME publishers know their markets; the CEOs and editors at conglomerates don’t; their role is to provide sales and marketing skills in a spirit of co-operation.  

A new, green, more equal world must surely come after COVID and after the reaction to the murder of George Floyd. Thomas Picketty and many economists, including Will Hutton, have shown that a levelling up of income and opportunity will benefit everyone, including the fat cats. The book trade must level up and reflect the world as it really is. The industry is relatively small. It must come together and take a lead at this crucial time. 

David Reynolds was a co-founder of Bloomsbury Publishing, is a director of Old Street Publishing, a qualified teacher of literacy to adults, literacy consultant to Quick Reads and an author.  Slow Road to San Francisco, will be published by Muswell Press on 20 August.