The professor and author discusses his research into the publishing industry’s recent attempts to improve diversity.
Why have you chosen to focus your research into diversity on book publishing?
The issue of “diversity” is high on the agenda throughout the cultural industries, however I feel the publishing industry has taken this issue most seriously, not least following the impact of Spread the Word’s Writing the Future report (2015). I want to see the impact of the initiatives that publishers have taken since that report to promote writers from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds.
Why is it necessary?
The majority of people who enter publishing do so because they understand that books matter. Not just in terms of providing entertainment or information, but for the way they enrich our lives and relationships, and shape our understanding of the world. For that reason, it’s so important that the books that are available to us do not come from the same narrow range of perspectives—unfortunately, as research tells us, it does. This project is about how we can enable different voices to emerge.
What, so far, is your impression of the publishing business?
I am amazed by the commitment of the industry to the issue of diversity. There has clearly been a lot of money invested in various schemes, initiatives and positions. Many publishers have implemented unconscious bias training. No other industry can say that. Yet the statistics show that there has been little change in terms of the racial and ethnic composition of the workforce, and I suspect this might affect the breadth of books published. For many in racial and ethnic minorities, publishing is not considered a desirable place to work.
What would you like your research to achieve?
I want publishers to benefit from having a more diverse workforce and readership. I have sensed an anxiety among publishers about how best to sell authors from minority backgrounds. Publishing is a risky investment and sometimes minority authors can feel like a riskier investment. I want to help publishers work with such authors more confidently, enabling writers to tell the stories they want to tell.
What do you need publishers, or others in the sector, to do to help?
I want to develop an in-depth understanding of how publishers work with writers of colour, and develop an understanding of every part of the publishing process—from agents developing a writer, to acquisition, to design to marketing and PR, to sales to retail—to see how each stage affects the author. I want to interview people who work at each stage, and how they have approached the publication of such books, and their sense of what has worked and what has not. All being well, the new report will launch five years after the publication of Writing the Future.