This month's BAME in Publishing meet-up featured author and poet Benjamin Zephaniah at Simon & Schuster's offices. We speak to the organiser of the event Bobita Dey, senior business analyst at Simon & Schuster, about the event and Zephaniah's legacy.
Why did you put this event together?
I'd wanted to host the BAME in Publishing network at Simon & Schuster for a while but wanted to centre our hosting of the event around a central focus point—an author, an event or something more than just offering our office space for the network. I also wanted to host the event so that staff at Simon & Schuster who would otherwise never go to a BAME in Publishing event would be able to meet members of the group and listen to the conversations we all have when we’re together.
How did you get Benjamin Zephaniah involved?
Benjamin is giant of UK, and World, culture. He is a cultural titan and he is one of the authors whose book I’m most proud that we have published at Simon & Schuster. Outside of his own writing, he is a professor and a lecturer and the majority of the BAME in Publishing network are younger members of staff in their first or second jobs in publishing and I don’t believe there is a person better qualified to talk to young BAME people in UK media than him. We had to navigate around Benjamin’s touring schedule and music work but once asked, he was more than happy to come in and share his life and experiences. There aren't enough good things I could say about him!
Benjamin Zephaniah and Bobita Dey at the event © Laurie McShea
What do you think about Zephaniah’s legacy and his impact on BAME people in the industry?
Benjamin’s impact on BAME people in publishing (and in all media) keeps us all honest. We asked him, as he was facing down the most powerful elements of our Right Wing media channels, how he kept going and staying upbeat and motivated. He responded, simply, with "I knew I was right". And that’s such a brilliantly simple message for everyone in media—not just BAME people who already have many different forces working against them. Keep fighting, keep striving because, ultimately, you are right. Brilliant.
How did the event go?
It’s hard for me to say as the host but we know the free tickets were snapped up really quickly and the room was full to capacity. Benjamin spoke for about an hour in pin drop silence and the audience was engaged throughout. Benjamin also agreed to a Q&A with the audience which was good fun and also very informative. Having an author, that everyone in the audience knows, or has read, means attendees have a common talking point so makes those sometimes awkward ‘networking introductions’ so much easier. It’s very rare for young members of staff to get up close and personal with authors, especially the more renowned ones, so I hope it was a real treat for everyone who came.
What are your thoughts about the BAME in Publishing group so far?
I think each event and meet-up should be centred around a focus point – in our case, ‘An Evening With Benjamin Zephaniah’, but previous events have had readings from Jason Reynolds and Kehinde Andrews, for example. The BAME in Publishing group are doing great things in the industry. Before our event I think their most recent event was a ‘Ramadan Iftari’ (opening of the fast) event at Hachette and group members were still talking about the opportunity to rub shoulders with senior members of staff at Hachette, including David Shelley, as the entire Hachette group were also invited to the event. I think that’s really important. When publishers host the group I think there’s great value in the publishers staying in the building and inviting the entire company—I understand that might be more difficult at the bigger companies. It’s at this point when inclusion takes place, otherwise we are still on the ‘outside’.
How do you think diversity is changing in the industry, if at all?
During Benjamin’s speech he was actually quite positive about the changes that have taken place in publishing from the days when he was first trying to get published—back in the hot iron press days. It was great to meet members of Hachette’s Thrive network and to hear what they are doing at their company and I think those sorts of initiatives show real intent and make staff members and potential applicants very welcome. There’s lots more to do, of course, but once major companies show intention then changes will have to take place as changes will then be measurable. As someone who works in finance, I can say that statistics don’t lie.
© Laurie McShea