A year in diversity

<p>Danuta Kean</p><p> The perception of publishing as a bastion of liberal values was challenged in March 2004, when The Bookseller and Arts Council England (ACE) produced In Full Colour: Cultural Diversity in Book Publishing Today, the first in-depth study of the subject in the industry, as part of ACE's decibel project. The report revealed a profession that is predominantly white and middle class, and sometimes complacent. It found that black and Asian publishing professionals felt marginalised and excluded from the networks that ensure career success.</p><p>The biggest shock of all was that the laissez-faire attitude towards diversity meant publishers were missing out on the disposable income of Britain's black and Asian communities, worth an estimated &#163;32bn. It is a potential market that a &#163;1.5bn industry cannot afford to ignore.</p><p>Winds of change</p><p>The report was a blast of fresh air that triggered many good intentions, but did anything change? A year is a short time in publishing, an industry notoriously slow to evolve. But there are signs that In Full Colour has triggered long-term change through a raft of projects, the fruits of which may be seen in boardrooms in years to come.</p><p>One of In Full Colour's most shocking revelations was the sense of isolation felt by many black and Asian people in the industry. Full-blown racism was rare, but common among minority ethnic workers were experiences of institutionalised racism, tokenism and insensitivity. More than one recalled being hauled into meetings with minority ethnic authors about books they would not be working on because the publisher wanted the author to know that it had black or Asian employees. Minority ethnic publishers also spoke of the lack of role models and the sense that they were carrying the flag for their entire race.</p><p>The situation inspired Alison Morrison, head of marketing at Walker Books, and Elise Dillsworth, editor at Virago, to take the initiative and set up Diversity in Publishing Network (DipNet). "One of the things that Elise and I felt when we discussed In Full Colour was that we did not want it to be something that was talked about and then in five years' time people were as frustrated as we had been," Morrison explains.</p><p>DipNet has two main aims: to support minority ethnic people already in the industry; and to attract a more diverse group of people into publishing than the white middle classes who currently dominate employment and recruitment. "There was no formal network for black and Asian publishers to meet each other," Dillsworth explains of one of DipNet's roles. "Part of making the industry more diverse is to create new networks, and also to try and provide role models for minority ethnic people coming into publishing." Both women hope DipNet will provide access to the network for jobs. They also hope it will provide those working in isolation within publishing houses with contacts who understand what it is like to look around and not have your face reflected back. As well as a website for those interested in publishing as a career, DipNet will be hosting events throughout the year.</p><p>The initiative has funding from ACE and a handful of publishers ranging from the mammoth Random House to the tiny children's publisher Tamarind. Sponsors are adamant about why they should put money into DipNet. "It is absolutely important," Andrew Franklin, Profile Books m.d., says, "and there are straightforward commercial reasons for supporting it."</p><p>Experience pays</p><p>DipNet has, so far, been the most high-profile outcome of In Full Colour, but John Hampson, ACE senior literature officer, says it is only one of a variety of initiatives ACE has backed to help to address the issues raised by last year's report. Hampson is particularly pleased with two ACE-funded bursaries that will see two minority ethnic candidates receive a year's publishing training at Faber or Random House.</p><p>Advertised in January, the schemes attracted applications from hundreds of would-be publishers. Interviews take place this month with the chosen candidates expected to start work in April. Belinda Matthews, Faber editorial director, and Rachel Stock, RH human resources director, are co-ordinating each scheme. The response challenged misconceptions that black and Asian people are not interested in publishing as a career. "The standard of applicants was very high," Matthews says. "We were incredibly impressed by that, and by the huge amount of trouble taken over the applications."</p><p>The two schemes will differ slightly. Whereas the Faber candidate will be given a taste of all aspects of working in a publishing company, the RH recruit will work entirely in editorial in either the commercial or literary group. "There are two reasons we are doing this," Stock says. "First, it is the right thing to do, which sounds corny, but we do want to influence diversity in the industry. Second, it makes commercial sense to make sure that you are reflecting the market."</p><p>The placements are paid because a criticism raised last year was the need for would-be publishers to gain work experience through unpaid placements, which discriminates in favour of those with alternative sources of income. There is no guarantee of a job at the end of the scheme, but both recruits will be well placed to apply for jobs in the industry after such in-depth training.</p><p>The bursaries are among the first fruits of RH's and Faber's efforts to improve diversity within their companies and the industry as a whole. Stock says RH has also improved careers information for universities, deepened its involvement in reading in the community schemes with local schools and is in talks about collaborative recruitment ventures that will expand publishers' presence on the annual university "Milk Round". HarperCollins UK has also targeted graduate recruitment and this year attended the Diversity Fair at UMIST in Manchester.</p><p>Spectrum of writing</p><p>Publishers are not only trying to improve diversity in recruitment, according to ACE's Hampson. They want to tackle staff retention and institutional racism head on and ACE is co-ordinating meetings between publishers--including Penguin, which has a pioneering and wide-ranging diversity programme--keen to train managers in diversity awareness. It is a long-term project. "What is quite clear is that we can't just adapt any of the models that work in the public sector, they are not appropriate to the private sector," he says.</p><p>Training will include issues faced by minority ethnic writers in an overwhelmingly white business. In Full Colour was critical of the way writers are recruited and the specific issues they face when dealing with a culturally monopolised industry. Minority ethnic authors complained that publishers limited their expectations of black and Asian writing. In fact, many regard the preference for books that highlight the white experience of minority ethnic culture--novels focusing on racism set in either ghettos or the colonial period--as institutionalised racism.</p><p>Author and journalist Esther Armah articulates the view of many black writers. "There is a very narrow band of what is acceptable from black writers. The spectrum of black writing is as wide as crime writing, but when it comes to writers who happen to be black there is an obsession in white middle class publishing circles around race." Armah says that as a result, white publishers are reluctant to consider books by black authors that deal with anything other than race as a central theme.</p><p>Armah tackled the issue head on and last year launched Literary Leanings, a series of workshops in which unpublished black and Asian writers could meet leading publishers. The first was hosted by Penguin. It included contributions from Hamish Hamilton publishing director Simon Prosser and Helen Fraser, Penguin m.d., who dealt with concerns that publishers were too busy looking for White Teeth Vol II or Brick Lane Again to recognise the wide range of experience reflected by talented black and Asian authors.</p><p>Another project that should open up the cultural dialogue between authors and publishers is Crossing Borders. Funded by the British Council, the project matches black African writers with established British authors. The writers will be showcased in Crossing Borders Magazine and Becky Clarke, former editor of the Heinemann African Writers' books and the only black agent working in publishing, edits the series. She is also on the literature board of Africa 2005, a year-long festival of African arts and culture.</p><p>Clarke's frustration at the limited outlets for black writing led her to set up her own publishing house, Ayebia Press. "I think we are still tied up with that colonial attitude," she says. "Publishers are looking for a certain type of writing and if your writing doesn't hit that market they are not interested." She is keen to challenge that perception, and has garnered good reviews for Ayebia Press titles.</p><p>Crossing borders</p><p>Crossing Borders will help large publishers scout out fresh talent to reach the huge untapped minority ethnic market, Clarke says: "There is a huge and growing market of black middle class professionals in Britain. The issues we want to read about are much broader than racism, which is a very small part of our lives."</p><p>What it is that Britain's black and Asian readers want to read about and, crucially, how to sell it to them, is at the heart of groundbreaking research funded by Penguin. One area of the work has looked at black and Asian parents buying children's books, a second at how minority ethnic consumers wish to be reached, including instore merchandising. Both pieces of research will be shared with the trade as a whole and Penguin's retail customers in particular.</p><p>"What is very interesting in the black and Asian market is that they all want to go to a dedicated area within bookshops," Joanna Prior, marketing and publicity director, says of initial feedback from the research. "We had a lot of assumptions about that being a ghetto in store, but actually it seems that if it is really well stocked and is not in the grimmest corner of a bookshop, then it is a great magnet for black and Asian readers to browse in."</p><p>The research also revealed that minority ethnic readers want to find the latest bestsellers by black and Asian authors in the specialist section as well as in front of store. As a result, Penguin has created a specialist black and Asian section in its core stock list that will mean double-stocking some titles.</p><p>Prior says that the incentive for publishers to learn from the research is a share of that &#163;32bn. It is a point made by Verna Wilkins, m.d. of multicultural children's publisher Tamarind. "Cultural diversity in publishing makes good economic sense," she says. But she believes that real change will take longer than a year. "You have to start working at it now and it will pay off, because you are taking minority ethnic people from a place where they were totally ignored to a place where they are valued. That is a long walk."</p><p>danutakean@mac.com</p>