Publishing must ‘wake up to the world beyond the M25’, new report urges

Publishing must ‘wake up to the world beyond the M25’, new report urges

A new report championing working class writers has published today (1st May), recommending better funding for “new collaborations” and the “decentralisation of UK publishing”–including asking more literary agents to move outside the capital–to help promote inclusion.

The Common People report, which suggests “the full diversity of voices active in British society is neither heard nor acknowledged in UK publishing today”, is a piece of work compiled by Professor Katy Shaw. It was developed based on the experiences of the 17 emerging working-class writers who featured in Common People, the 2019 anthology edited by Kit de Waal (pictured) and published last year. The regional writing development agencies, professional mentors and publishing professionals involved in the writing development programme also participated in the research.

In the report, numerous “pervasive barriers in the way of working-class writers” are identified, with one of the “most significant” of these being lack of confidence, or imposter syndrome, owing to “a lack of cultural capital”, for example from growing up in families without books. While a lack of peer support networks and industry contacts is problematic, the lack of social diversity in publishing is “a major barrier” also, according to the report.

One respondent said: “I think humans are predisposed to give preferential treatment to their own kind, and right now there aren’t many working-class influencers occupying the key positions in the industry.”

Another said meetings with agents over the years had made them “cringe and really depressed because they’re all very posh, white. It just seems like people from another world, another age.”

Contributors to the research also expressed concerns that some existing publishing diversity schemes and events are more tokenistic than a meaningful attempt to uncover talent: “as well meaning as they are, I don’t feel they are really, really, engaging… I feel almost that some of them are sort of paying lip service by doing these schemes.”

Advocating the “decentralisation of UK publishing” and “an industry-wide recognition that developing and supporting new working-class writers will ultimately benefit us all”, recommendations followed that the industry needs new public and private investment to support new publishing ventures outside London, “which will bring publishing closer to broader audiences and generate more entry points to the industry for talent throughout the UK”, as well as increased investment in regional writing development agencies to improve “talent pipelines”.

It also encouraged more literary agents to set up outside London “to facilitate change and broaden the base of the industry’s taste makers”. The report said: “The future of publishing does not begin and end at the M25,” and it emphasised the need “to decentralise and to build on the change [the industry] has started to make”.

There should be more transparency around routes into the industry, pay and job opportunities, it said, too, with more accessible recruitment campaigns, and “awareness and acknowledgement of the multiple barriers facing working-class writers through meaningful designed and sustained support programmes across the UK”.

Also recommended were partnerships with the voluntary sector, highlighted as “especially relevant for early stage writers”, and new government policy “to create new policy options for overcoming barriers and incentivising partnership work through public funding and regional initiatives”. 

Claire Malcolm, chief executive of New Writing North and the publisher of the research, said: “The UK publishing industry, publicly funded culture and government all have a critical and collaborative role to play in deconstructing the barriers to working-class writers. There is no longer anywhere to hide when it comes to issues of class within our sector. We need new ways of working and new collaborations that understand how we can all play our part to lead the change that this report shows is desperately needed.”

De Waal said: “There is a lot yet to do. The publishing industry – and government – still needs to wake up to the world beyond the M25. … We are past the time for listening and now we need some action."

The report follows The Bookseller's Working Class survey, published last year, which found close to 80% of people in the publishing industry who see themselves as working class felt their background had adversely affected their career.