Report: New Voices: How Can We Support Diversity in Writing, Publishing and Reading in the UK?

Words by Chris Russell, photos by Annie Poe

The opening Byte the Book event of 2018 dealt with arguably the most pressing topic in publishing today – diversity. In the stately surroundings of the House Of St Barnabas chapel, chair and literary agent Julia Kingsford led an uplifting conversation between Joy Francis (Words Of Colour), Chris McCrudden (Golin), Sharmaine Lovegrove (Little Brown) and Natalie Jerome (Bonnier Publishing UK).

DSC02423Our panel (from left to right): Sharmaine Lovegrove, Joy Francis, Natalie Jerome, Julia Kingsford (Chair) and Chris McCrudden.

DSC02254The panel with Justine Solomons and the audience in the spectacular House of St Barnabas chapel

It’s an undisputed fact, continued Chris, that the publishing workforce is not nearly diverse enough, and he offered some startling statistics to demonstrate this. 43% of those working in the industry are from the middle- and upper-middle classes, and of course white people are vastly over-represented at all the major publishing houses. Every member of the panel spoke of their dismay at hearing the tired mantra that “diverse books don’t have a market”; and yet, as Chris revealed, of the UK’s twenty-one million adult readers, studies suggest that nearly twelve million “like being surrounded by people of different backgrounds and cultures” and would welcome books reflecting this preference.

DSC02385Julia Kingsford encouraged participation, questions and comments from the audience and they were happy to comply.

In other words, as Little Brown’s Sharmaine Lovegrove put it, “the problem is the pipeline”. White writers are picked up by white agents and pushed to white publishers, and the vicious cycle continues. “Readers aren’t to blame for this,” agreed Natalie Jerome, brand and licensing director for Kings Road, a division of Bonnier, “and neither are BAME authors. The issue is the workforce: the monoculture responsible for acquiring new talent.”

DSC02277Joy Francis mid-flow.

What are the solutions, asked Julia, to this systemic gridlock? “It’s as simple as publishers putting their money where their mouth is,” replied Natalie, “and giving young diverse editors money to buy books.” Sharmaine, meanwhile, called for more BAME employees in the workforce. “In the major publishing houses,” she commented, “I am one of only four black women acquiring books. In a division of one hundred and fifty people, I am the only black person.” Joy also pointed out that unpaid internships are a major issue for young people from poorer backgrounds, and this chimed with Chris’ experience, who comes from working-class roots in the north-east. “When I started my last job,” he said, “my boss told me that I might find publishing an ‘uncomfortable’ place to work, purely because of my background.”

DSC02400The evening couldn’t end without comment from the amazing, Valerie Brandes of Jacaranda Books (centre). Both she and Jazzmine Breary (right of picture), also from Jacaranda Books, spoke of the importance of the independent sector in producing books that the main publishers shy away from. The audience for diverse books is there. It’s about getting the books to that audience.

To close the discussion, Julia offered up some encouraging sales figures to debunk the myth that white, middle-class novels are the only books that sell. Between them, she revealed, Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race have sold a hundred thousand copies in the past year. And if that isn’t evidence of a buoyant market, then surely, nothing is.

DSC02462No Byte the Book is complete without networking afterwards. 

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