Diversity in Publishing

December 17, 2018

Getting Published

Iram Satti reports from a recent panellist discussion exploring diversity and inclusion in publishing.

Mireille Harper, graduate from the University of Birmingham, approached me a few months ago asking if I would take part in an event hosted by UoB called ‘Book to the Future’. The panel that Mireille, a few other grads and I would be a part of was all about diversity and inclusion within the publishing industry. The five of us all felt that we could have carried on talking about our experiences and observations for more than the allotted hour at the event – hence this blog piece covering the questions we had on the day. The thoughts below are our own opinions and observations from our time in the industry.  

  • What do we think about diversity and inclusion in publishing, specifically in the areas of publishing in which we have worked? Is there a need? Why? Personal experiences welcome. Discuss diversity in both material published and in publishing workforce.

Iram: Having spoken to a number of colleagues in the academic publishing industry there was agreement across the board that there is an issue with diversity in all its forms. The biggest challenge that we face is that if you want to create a diverse industry and workforce, you need to have a diverse pool of applicants applying for roles. Within academic publishing, the works published tend to be diverse because academia is a diverse entity within itself in terms of challenging assumptions, generating debate, building new theories etc it is a shame that the workforce isn’t necessarily the same.

Obinna: I believe diversity and inclusion is much broader than just topics of race, gender and class. When it comes to academic publishing, we see the more established journals (gatekeepers of academic production) are situated more often in western countries. This gives them leverage in determining what is considered “knowledge” and how this is assessed. There is a need to challenge this narrative but this will only happen through sustained action, the key word there is sustained.

Samantha: As a journalist, working for regional and national publications, I’ve been constantly dismayed by the lack of colleagues from BAME, LGBTQ and lower social income communities. For me, this lack of diversity within the editorial mix impacts upon the way stories that originate from these communities are then told. I grew up on an estate in Birmingham within a large Irish community, and the malignant stereotype of the Chav infuriates me. However, the national press has been allowed to drive wedges within lower income communities by painting people either as ‘hard-working’ families or ‘scroungers’. On my estate I was taught the principals of socialism by football fans, educated on colonialism by factory workers and introduced to 1960s’ pop art by Mods – not one of my extended family and social circle wore a tracksuit or owned a bulldog. The lack of people of colour on editorial teams has resulted in the reporting on issues within BAME communities coming through the lens of white, middle-class people who have no experience, and often no understanding, of the community. I feel that such is the power of the press (Brexit anyone?) the lack of diversity undermines democracy.

Mireille: I think diversity is a constant need in publishing. Publishing revolves around trends, interests and what’s attracting the public – it’s a voice for the times we’re living in, so diversity is key. I’ve worked in adult trade, education, events, tech and children’s publishing and there are changes being made, but we need to keep plugging for diversity across both the material being published and the workforce.

  • Is there enough conversation about the diversity of roles and industries within publishing? (Range of roles covering Tech/Analytics etc and discussing Education/Tech/Academic publishing).

Iram: There is definitely plenty of opinion when you start to open up the discussion around diversity. Is the conversation being had enough? I’m not sure that it is however, there are plenty of initiatives coming through which suggests that the issue is being recognised and things are beginning to change. As with most ‘issues’, the landscape will eventually change organically and over time – sensitive issues such as these do not change overnight!

A few of the initiatives to be aware of –

  • Coalition for Diversity and Inclusivity in Scholarly Communications (C4DISC)
  • Creative Access
  • Bookcareers (Suzanne Collier) – there are some excellent articles written by Suzanne. One that I think is definitely worth a read when it comes to catering different cultures.
  • Spare Room Project

Obinna: Most people are not aware of the vast roles that exist within the publishing industry. This is also dependent on how publishing firms market their organization and corporate culture, many firms view themselves as a niche part of the economic engine as opposed to the behemoths they actually are. Companies usually do not place themselves in areas where there can be a plethora of potential recruits from very diverse backgrounds. Yes a love of books is necessary, but so is the love of designing book spines, recording for audio books, and perusing data to improve sales targets. And the more diverse the pool of employees and talent, the more diverse things these people will read, and this will place these companies in pole position to tap into previously uncharted publishing territories

Mireille: I think there’s a great deal of change at present and people are becoming more engaged and involved in conversations around diversity, especially within publishing. We need to speak more about the variety of roles (from rights to IT and facilities) within the publishing world, why publishing is more than Penguin Random House and Hachette, and why the industry needs different people! That’s what is vital to helping people see it as a viable career option.

  • Talking about experiences within publishing. Has there ever been concerns for the lack of diversity and inclusion within the areas we have worked? How do we feel this could be bettered? 

Samantha: I was pleased to see Midlands Trinity Media editor-in-chief Marc Reeves put into place a 50 per cent rule for new editorial appointments, that at least half the candidates must be from BAME communities. This is appropriate given the Midlands is particularly multi-cultured. However, there is still the problem that if you don’t see yourself represented fairly in the press, then why would you be attracted to a career that is often poorly paid, and one where often the representation of your ethnicity or economic status has been weaponised for political purposes? There has to be better balance in reporting – alongside the stories of stabbings etc, we need to see stories where people of colour, immigrants and lower social groups are celebrated for the very large contribution they have made to this island.

Mireille: I’ve been fortunate that I have a lot of employee networks at my disposal – there’s everything at Hachette from the Changing the Story committee, an outreach + partnerships group, networks galore from Thrive (BAME network) to an environmental network. The main thing that needs to change is people’s attitude towards diversity and the importance of inclusion. So many people want ‘diverse candidates’ coming through the door, offering ideas, but when it comes to the retention and development of these people – we need to see more of a willingness to support this. It’s the same with how people respond to things – if we’re kicking up a fuss about the gender pay gap, we need to be kicking up the same fuss about the BAME pay gap. The discussion has to be intersectional.

Executive support and funding is absolutely necessary to diversity support and development across all industries. We see changes like Stormzy’s imprint #Merky Books and the companies like Knights Of building traction – but both have required big names behind them and the funds to get the ideas of the ground.

Iram: From my personal experience, I haven’t necessarily met anyone (that I am aware of) who has come from a very similar background to me. One major element within my commissioning editor role is international travel. Growing up I never travelled abroad because within my family we didn’t have the means. The first time I actually went abroad was when I was 22 years old (sadly, a good few years ago now!). By this point my career was taking off and I was incredibly eager to experience international travel. These wants/desires of travel of mine were quite romanticised and I came to realise this when I eventually had to travel for work and had a slight meltdown because no-one around me could really understand the anxiety I had developed around travel (purely because of my lack of experience). Luckily, my manager had a sit-down with me and basically said ‘all you really need is common sense’. Today, if I need to be at a conference or visit a Law faculty, I can do it at the drop of a hat and remember that I DO have common sense. The main point behind what I am saying is if I had articulated my anxiety around travel a little earlier and had found more of support system with the industry at that time, I probably would have come to terms with my anxiety earlier on! It may have taken me a few years but I now know that it is perfectly fine to be different from those around you, and I would hope that one day the differences I have experienced will make me all the more rounded as a colleague for others who may need to be told that nugget of advice – ‘all you really need is common sense’.

  • Making publishing a viable career for everyone – are buildings accessible? Is there subsidised rent? Are there positive action schemes? Are some publishers too London-centric?

Obinna: For me the resurgence of poetry is something I’m really excited about. The mantra of “poetry is dead” and “poetry does not sell” is being thrown out the window. Works of poetry are flying off the shelves like airport novels. 

Samantha: I don’t think London is the creative hub that it used to be – having lived there for 15 years I watched the mass sale of social housing/gentrification eradicate whole areas of ‘affordable’ housing. London has always been celebrated because it attracted the diversity that creativity needs, but with social media creativity need not be location based. While London still holds the cards in terms of the print publishing industry, the biggest obstacle remains being able to afford to live there and that’s where paid-internships and spare room schemes can help. Also upping freelance rates, a good route into publishing is freelancing but the paltry sums offered make it a hard path for anyone other than a Bertie Wooster type with a private income.

Mireille: At Hachette, I’m fortunate that I was offered a season ticket loan, and there’s the option of a rent deposit loan too. There’s also subsidised rent offered and lots of benefits. These are for full-time staff, so interns and trainees have more difficulty building financial independence, however. I think there need to be more positive action schemes opened out to people with little/no experience in publishing across data, tech, rights, sales etc. – the unusual career paths, and we need to make publishing more of an option for those who don’t live in London – where are the publishers in Birmingham? York? Hull? These places are alive, buzzing, creative and need publishers present!

  • What advice would you give to students who want to break into the industry but feel that publishing isn’t aimed at them? What can students do at university to spark change in the publishing industry? What do we think we can do in our current positions to change the landscape?

Iram: Diversity needs to come through from an earlier point and there is no doubt about that. Those of us who are in the industry need to figure out what perceptions are held of the industry and break down those barriers to enable change.

However, those of you that have an interest in the creative industries such as media, publishing, journalism – look at why you want to be there and don’t worry so much about who is/isn’t there because we all come from different backgrounds, have different points of view and will have different insights to offer and that is the important thing. If we encourage this kind of diversity then the creative industries will be all the more richer!

Obinna: It’s very easy to romanticize the lack of diversity, hence choosing not to apply. Do not fall into that trap. Go ahead and apply to exactly where you want to be. Additionally, I’ll say get involved with what’s around you from student newspapers to blogs, and finally create your own platforms. The companies you are eyeing all started somewhere, don’t wait for anyone to validate you, get to work and do the work you enjoy with the people you enjoy working with and all will fall into place. The universe helps those who help themselves.

Samantha: I’m a great believer in the punk ethic of DIY. If you don’t see yourself or your community being represented in the way you think it should, then create that publication. There are enough digital tools and independent printers to do this. I always think of how in 1980 Nick Logan had his idea for The Face magazine rejected by Emap, but he launched it himself. I think the publishing industry, whether books, newspapers or magazines, need to find ways to stop being so insular. Look to the Asian and black media that exists to source talent, host competitions where representatives go out to communities and encourage applications from everyone, not just young people!There’s lots of thwarted talent out there in older groups.

Mireille: I’d advise uni students to start up their own stuff. I wrote for four years whilst at uni (unpaid), but it helped me get paid work and build a name for myself, and that also helped me stand out when it came to job applications. Get as much work experience as you can (get a retail or hospitality job to support yourself income-wise) and see what opportunities there are in your university town. Seek out anything and everything and do it when you have a spare moment/when you’re on reading week.

Authors and Panellists

Mireille Harper is an Editorial Assistant at Octopus Publishing Group, a publisher within the Hachette Book Group. She spent 12 months as a Fresh Chapters trainee at Hachette – at Trapeze Books within editorial, and Hodder Education, in marketing, having previously worked in children’s, educational, tech and events publishers. Mireille obtained a BA in Modern Languages from The University of Birmingham in 2017, and also currently runs her own creative agency and works as a freelance PR and writer.

Samantha Lyster was born and raised in Birmingham, the daughter of Irish immigrants. She is a former journalist, training with regional papers before working for The Times newspaper’s website as a digital editor. She is now a communications manager for a conservation charity following an MA in Environmental Resource Management, and one of her projects is encouraging creative writing inspired by interactions with the natural world. She writes auto-fiction short stories in her spare time.

Obinna Chukwu is a Sub-Editor on International Affairs at The Republic, which publishes critical thought on socio-political and economic issues relevant to the Nigerian and broader African affairs. Obinna studied at the University of Birmingham and obtained M.A International Relations (2017),and was involved with the Nigerian Society, African Business Society, DebatingSociety and African Development Forum.

Iram Satti is a commissioning editor on the Academic Law list at Edward Elgar Publishing. Iram read ‘English Language and Literature in Education’ at The University of Birmingham, obtaining a first-class honours degree in 2012. She came to Elgar in 2015 after working with Routledge (Taylor and Francis) for 2 years on their Student Reference texts.

Special thanks to all of our colleagues who discussed these issues with us – Tim Williams (Edward Elgar), Alex Pettifer (Edward Elgar), Fiona Briden (Edward Elgar), Vicky Capstick (Agenda Publishing), Sanphy Thomas (Jessica Kingsley Publishers), Oliver Gadsby (Rowman & Littlefield International), Suzanne Collier (bookcareers.com) and Bridget Shine (IPG).

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