Word of Colour

Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing launches with clout

The UK’s first academic study on diversity in trade fiction and publishing calls on the industry to “radically reimagine” its audience and to “rethink diversity” in the 21st century

Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing, the first in-depth study in the UK on diversity in trade fiction, will call on publishers to “radically reimagine” the traditional white middle-class reader and to “value” diverse audiences at its launch today (Tuesday 23 June 2020).

Written by Dr Anamik Saha and Dr Sandra van Lente, the project is a partnership between Goldsmiths, University of London, Spread the Word and The Bookseller, and is based on interviews with authors, agents and representatives from all of the major publishing houses, including CEOs and managing directors, editors, designers and marketing, PR and sales staff.

Primarily focusing on the so-called ‘neutral’ components of publishing (acquisition, promotion, sales and retail), the report found:

• assumptions about audiences being white and middle-class still prevail, which is the only audience the big publishers are interested in
• publishers still see writers of colour as a ‘commercial risk’
• Black, Asian and minority ethnic and working-class audiences are undervalued by publishers, economically and culturally, impacting on the acquisition, promotion and selling of writers of colour
• comping practices, when books deemed similar are compared to others as a predictor of sales, create obstacles that privilege established authors and restrict ‘new voices’
• continued ambiguity of ‘diversity’ as both a moral and economic imperative.

In the report’s foreword, 2019 Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo said: “Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing arrives as another clarion call to an industry which, with all the apparent goodwill in the world, hasn’t changed fast enough to become more inclusive. 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.”

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.”

Philip Jones, Editor of The Bookseller, said: “Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing isn’t just another report into publishing’s poor record on diversity. It scratches beneath the surface and digs into why publishing, for all of its fine words and initiatives, is changing very slowly, and why much of the good work is now being done by new presses (outside the corporates) and by individuals who did not find publishing willing to change. As an industry we need to understand the way forward. This report, which The Bookseller was pleased to support from its beginning, can put the trade on that journey.”

For that journey to happen, the ‘opacity’ of online retailers (many of whom declined to participate in the study) who change parameters which affect the algorithms on book trends and readership, has to be more transparent. The report also claims that supermarkets could do more to reach diverse communities instead of only selling a limited range of books.

Award-winning author Alex Wheatle MBE said: “We have a wonderful opportunity to address the disparities in the publishing industry now that we have everyone’s attention. We want to work with partners to address all of these inequities, and publishers now need to invest in the value of Black writing. Publishers need to understand the value of Black narratives and not be seen, in their minds, as of lesser value commercially. Publishers need to see these narratives on their own terms, as great storytelling, and to market and support them in the way they deserve.”

Rishi Dastidar, Chair, Spread the Word, said: “The need to rethink diversity shouldn’t be viewed as a negative, far from it. The report clearly shows that there are untapped audiences that can be reached and sold to. #PublishingPaidMe and the launch of the Black Writers’ Guild show that publishing absolutely has a role to play in changing the unequal landscape. Through fiction and non-fiction, the industry is in a prime position to tell the stories that we all need to know and hear. So we must do all we can to start to dismantle the structures, and assumptions, that hold writers of colour back.”

Among its wide-ranging recommendations, the report calls on publishers, agents and booksellers to reflect on, and challenge, their practices, behaviour and cultural biases, and to develop strategic alliances with, and to invest in, writing agencies and audience engagement practitioners to help identify and develop talented writers of colour.

The report will be launched as part of a virtual #RethinkingDiversityWeek, a PR campaign managed and hosted by Words of Colour, from 12pm on Tuesday 23 June to Friday 26 June 2020.