Writers have called on the publishing industry to “take action now” on diversity by offering bursaries and paid internships for all entrants to the industry and mentoring writers from under-represented groups.
In an extract published in The Bookseller, writer Kerry Hudson calls for individuals within the industry to take responsibility for fostering inclusivity. Her provocation is part of Writers’ Centre Norwich’s The National Conversation, which yesterday (9th July) hosted a debate entitled “Unheard Stories, Unheard Voices” at the Bloomsbury Institute in London. During the debate, Hudson called for audits to ensure companies employ staff from varied backgrounds and help their careers progress, as well as a ban on unpaid internships and the introduction of the Living Wage for entry-level employees.
Authors have backed Hudson, telling The Bookseller that offering better pay will attract a more varied workforce, which is key to publishing books that feature more diverse characters. Author Nikesh Shukla, who took part in the debate, said: “Free internships will only bring a certain type of person—rich enough to work or live for free in one of the most expensive cities in the world—to your door, so if you want to diversify, pay people.”
Author James Dawson said publishers of Young Adult and children’s books were publishing a “phenomenal range of books featuring diverse characters”. But, he added, “publishing houses themselves are still very straight, white and middle-class, both in terms of staff and the authors they boast”. He continued: “While authors are free to represent minority [groups] in their novels, there is still a need for authentic voices coming out of minority groups, and thus still a need for prizes like the Green Carnation.
“Starting wages in publishing, I feel, are the single biggest barrier to attracting a more diverse workforce.Low-paid entry roles and internships are out of reach to all but a few very lucky, financially bolstered young people who can take advantage of London crash-pad second homes and media connections.”
Author Catherine Johnson said there had been steps taken to support writers from diverse backgrounds but there was still a need for “long-term writer development for writers” from a variety of backgrounds.
She added: “As writing becomes harder to make a living at, and as publishers stop investing in writers for the long haul, there needs to be a consistent effort to encourage those whose voices aren’t heard [and a commitment to] long-term mentoring.”
Farhana Shaikh [pictured], m.d. of Dahlia Publishing, a Leicester-based publisher that champions regional and diverse voices, said the publishing industry was “too white”.
“If we don’t actively represent more people from society, we lose an important part of who we are today simply by overlooking everyday stories that are otherwise ignored,” she said. “It’s great to see that the industry is waking up to the fact that it needs to look at how it can be more inclusive, but it’s also important to recognise that discussions around diversity need to be more than just that: we need publishers to take action now.”
Dahlia works with universities to create opportunities for young people to see how publishing works and gain first-hand experience of the industry. Shaikh said the industry should “do more to ensure that the workforce truly reflects wider society and create opportunities that don’t exclude those who can’t afford to live off their parents or to move to London. Offering training bursaries and e-placements in the editorial department specifically to BME candidates would be a significant step in the right direction.”
Joining Hudson and Shukla on yesterday’s panel were Alexandra Pringle, group editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury, and freelance editor Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. Danuta Kean, author of Spread the Word, a report into diversity in the industry released earlier this year which found that the book trade was still an “old monoculture”, acted as an expert witness.