Publishing is too used to centring whiteness and must concentrate on actively seeking new talent, nurturing it and promoting it outside of the mainstream, attendees heard at a Frankfurt Book Fair session on improving diversity and addressing inequalities, where other key recommendations included focusing on more diverse hiring and reconnecting with retailers to aid discoverability.
The panel event, organised by the Fair and the International Publishers Association, ran on Wednesday (14th October), was chaired by Dr Anamik Saha—co-author of the Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing report—with panellists Sandra van Lente from Goldsmiths University, co-author of the report, Michiel Kolman, senior v.p. of information industry relations at Elsevier, Thabiso Mahlape, founder of South African independent Blackbird Books, and Sharmaine Lovegrove of Dialogue Books.
In the session, Mahlape (pictured), whose publishing focuses on the black South African experience, said it is “not a secret some companies only want to be seen to be diverse”, relaying she was unable to find an ideological fit for her publishing as part of larger houses in South Africa.
She emphasised the importance of seeking out and publishing new voices where there is lack of representation. “For me it is really about finding that new talent and nurturing it,” she said. "Don’t chase after the big names—they’ve already made it, they’re there, they can get a deal anywhere else. Find talent to nurture and allow them the possibility to dream of a writing career.”
After van Lente shared some of the qualitative findings from the Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing report—such as the cyclical “Catch 22” situation around allocated marketing and publicity spend for books which have been undervalued—she urged publishers, “don’t only focus on mainstream media” and “go out and find talent”.
Giving examples of good practice, van Lente praised independent publishers “who went the extra mile", saying: "They didn’t just approach the mainstream media, but organised events people could attend who would maybe not go to a traditional bookshop; think about that there might be an audience for a book who might go buy it somewhere else. That’s one step.
"We also had recommendations to work with writing development organisations like Spread the Word, because they have created programmes to foster new writers and writers are also readers. They already have the access to communities and they know how to reach them, beyond London and beyond the middle classes. Go out and find the talent. Go out of the bigger cities. So many people are available online right now, enrolled on these writer development programmes. It’s just one way to find talent in a different way. Don’t wait for independent publishers to discover them first and then buy them off.”
Supporting van Lente’s recommendations, Lovegrove however wondered how it had come to this, where academics need to tell editors to go out and find authors who are different to who they are—in essence, how to do their job. “How did we get to this point?” she asked. “You just described what my job is, what my publicists and marketers do… they do all this really naturally. Why wasn’t it happening?”
While van Lente described how many editors had begun to see themselves as “project managers” of manuscripts over and above “people who go out there and discover” new talent, Mahlape posited it is the centring of whiteness that has gone unchecked for such a long time in the industry. “You have to tell people to go out and do something different, to go do their jobs, because whiteness has been centred for far too long… As a publisher one of your biggest jobs is to watch the trends, so why are they not? Why do they need to be told? Because it is difficult for them to uncentre themselves.”
Lovegrove said surely it is the job of editors to be intellectually curious, to consider not only the trends but what is happening in the world and the writers who are responding to that in a micro- and macrocosm. “I just think that intellectual curiosity is part of what is being the creative project manager, which is how I describe my job,” she said. “Creativity and curiosity is often what’s missing.”
Kolman said that while the commercial benefits in publishing more diversely are widely accepted and talked about, it was important to “keep making the moral argument” too to effect change. “We as publishers should be catalysts of change,” he said. “It’s our responsibility that children of colour recognise themselves… If you work in an organisation that is very much female white folks who hire other female white folks and cater to female white folks, that’s difficult. So you must have a different mindset. The business case helps but also the moral case.”
Lovegrove said discoverability was “key”, also. Considering the supply chain, she highlighted the importance of connecting with retailers, excited how the launch of bookshops.org next month will bolster the position of indies. She also emphasised sales teams should be given the confidence to go out and sell books with “a really clear focus on why these writers should be in the hands of readers”: “The word of 10 years ago—discoverability—is absolutely the key.”