Publishing must 'radically reimagine' its audience, major diversity study says

Publishing must 'radically reimagine' its audience, major diversity study says

The UK's first academic study on diversity in trade publishing and fiction has called for the industry to “radically reimagine” its audience and value readers outside the white middle classes.

Written by Dr Anamik Saha (pictured left) and Dr Sandra van Lente (pictured right), Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing is a partnership between Goldsmiths, University of London, Spread the Word and The Bookseller. It is being launched with a series of online events this week.

The project was based on interviews with authors, agents and representatives from all of the major publishing houses, including chief executives, managing directors, editors, designers, publicists and sales staff.

Focusing particularly on acquisition, promotion, sales and retail, it found white middle-class audiences were still the only readers big publishers are interested in. Writers of colour are viewed as a commercial risk and at danger of being "niche", while BAME and working class audiences are undervalued. That has a direct impact on the acquisition, promotion and selling of writers of colour, the report found.

Comparing similar books to others as a predictor of sales also create obstacles that privilege established authors and restrict “new voices”, researchers concluded. Some senior agents, meanwhile, tended to focus on their existing networks rather than adopting new strategies that would lead them to having more writers of colour on their lists.

In the report’s foreword, Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo said it was a “clarion call” to an industry which “hasn’t changed fast enough to become more inclusive”. She said: “There is also the misguided belief, still in the 21st century, that Black and Asian people are not considered to be a substantial readership, or to even be readers. I hope that those who need to read this report pay attention to its recommendations on target audiences, notions of quality and partnerships for change.”

The report calls on publishers, agents and booksellers to reflect on their practices, behaviour and cultural biases, developing strategic alliances and investing in writing agencies and audience engagement practitioners to help identify and develop talented writers of colour.

Online retailers, many of which declined to participate in the study, also need to make more transparent the parameters which affect the algorithms on book trends and readership. The report also claims supermarkets could do more to reach diverse communities instead of only selling a limited range of books, while bricks and mortar outlets still tended to focus on middle-class audiences in their displays.

Dr Anamik Saha, lead researcher for Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing, said: “Our study finds that publishers and booksellers do not have the resources, know-how, or sadly, the inclination to reach wider audiences. They do not see the economic or cultural benefit. Big publishers and booksellers need to radically reimagine their audience. The entire industry is essentially set up to cater for white, middle-class readers, in terms of the books it produces, the media it engages, even the look and feel of bookstores and the demographics they serve. This has to change.”

The report kicks off a virtual #RethinkingDiversityWeek launching from 12pm today with an invite-only Zoom discussion featuring novelist Alex Wheatle, the report authors, Spread the Word’s chair Rishi Dastidar and Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller.

It continues on 24th June from 12pm to 1pm with “The Booksellers: Looking beyond the white middle-class reader” hosted on Words of Colour's Instagram Live and featuring Alex Call, W H Smith’s former head of books marketing and founder of online bookstore Bert’s Books alongside Valerie Brandes, founder of Jacaranda Books.

It continues on 25th June with “Rethinking how books by authors of colour are sold, marketed and promoted” from 12pm to 1.30pm, on the same Instagram Live page. Award-winning novelist Dorothy Koomson, author Abir Mukherjee and Dialogue publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove will be in conversation.

On 26th June, a condensed version of the report will be published online by The Bookseller before a final session on Zoom. “The future publishing pipeline and meeting the needs of writers of colour” runs from 12pm to 1.15pm and is open for bookings. #Merky Books author Derek Owusu, Jhalak Prize founder Sunny Singh, Knights Of publisher Aimée Felone, Literary agent Emma Paterson and award-winning author and co-founder of The Good Literary Agency Nikesh Shukla will be in conversation.