It’s been almost a year since the industry made the switch from being predominantly office based to working from home and essentially living at work. Frankfurt meetings went from being in a packed rights centre or brightly coloured stall to being completely online via Zoom. London Book Fair moved to June. Book launches went from being in our cosy, beloved bookstores to our living rooms – again, via Zoom. Not that this post is sponsored by Zoom or anything, but we have been able to run internships remotely, reach a far wider range of audiences with our events and keep the synchronicity of team working without being in the same room for months.
As evidenced by the unique pressures of the pandemic, our industry can change quite rapidly when needed – so why are the levels of ethnic diversity in publishing still so stagnant?
I have been told many times when it comes to changing the publishing workforce that these things take time. That by having more entry-level and internship positions recruiting from a ‘diverse’ pool of candidates we will see that diversity trickle up and eventually have a more representative workforce. However, according to the Publishers Association’s latest annual workforce survey, representation of people from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups in the publishing industry has “stalled”. Though the level of women in senior and leadership positions are now in line with targets set in 2018 and there is increasing representation of people with disabilities, and those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual – we are not seeing people of colour work, progress and thrive in publishing at anywhere near the level needed to move the needle.
I’ve seen first-hand the keen efforts the industry making to diversify their workforces. With the Inclusivity Action Plan providing 10 steps to ensure publishers better reflect the UK population, and the Industry Commitment to Professional Behaviour in Bookselling & Publishing, there seems to be a collective understanding that creating a workforce that represents the rich diversity of the UK’s population is necessary to ensure the long-term health of the industry.
I figured out very early on in my career that to be able to work at my best, I needed to be in a place where I not only loved the work I was doing, but felt supported, appreciated and understood whilst doing it and I refused to accept anything less than that from my working environment. I’ve said before that learning to operate with the strange duality of invisibility and hyper-visibility that comes with being one of very few Black people in a space from a young age is what prepared me for my career in publishing – and what makes me such a fierce advocate for my clients – but that doesn’t come without some serious sacrifices.
My heart aches for the people behind those statistics. The people who have entered the industry and found the environment that they were met with too hostile to continue working within it. For those of us who have stayed working in the industry despite the experiences that might have convinced us otherwise, because the love of books, writers and writing keeps us going. And for those who haven’t been hired at all – for whom the barriers to entry for internships, or outdated hiring practices, were too much of an obstacle.
The way that publishing has changed quickly to cope with the pandemic shows me that we are capable of swift and decisive action. Now is the time to change from our core to not only accommodate but invest in more people so that we can create the tangible change we so desperately need across the publishing eco-system.
From making sure that we are being transparent with pay structures from entry to mid-level and clearly outlining what is required to progress through careers in the industry to bespoke mentoring programmes for members of staff. There are several small steps we can all take to ensure that navigating those early stages of a publishing career are easier for the junior staff who come after us.
The idea that your productivity or level of commitment to the job was intrinsically linked to the amount of time you spent at a desk virtually disappeared overnight. Now, I’d like to see us understanding that there are different ways to express enthusiasm for a project, and to notice and reward the contributions that people are making in their roles before they get to the flashy, article-worthy stuff. I want to see individuals listened to and appreciated for their contributions, and the unique ways that they are offered. We also need to be aware of how things like imposter syndrome can manifest itself and become an additional weight and strain on Black and brown employees who may be feeling like they don’t belong in a room (or on a Zoom) because no one else there looks like them.
After a year where we have shown that the publishing industry can adapt, it is time to finally start showing that we can change.
Silé Edwards is an agent at Mushens Entertainment, and has been shortlisted for the 2021 LBF Trailblazer Awards. You can find her on Twitter at @sileloquies.