At BookExpo America (BEA) on Friday (May 13), Cake Literary’s Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra — who spearhead “We Need Diverse Books” — led a panel of editors asking the question: “How do we diversify the publishing industry?” Joining Clayton and Charaipotra were Scholastic’s David Levithan, author Kwame Alexander (who gives a keynote address in August at Writer’s Digest’s Annual Conference); Little, Brown’s Alvina Ling, and Crown Books’ Phoebe Yeh. In the US, as in the newly formed BAME in Publishing network in London, the pressure is on, as Sarah Shaffi tells Alastair Horne here, “to change the discussion” to something actionable. — Porter Anderson
By Alastair Horne | @PressFuturist
‘Think Outside the Usual Process of Talent Discovery’‘People are still agonizing rather than taking action.’
The lack of diversity in British publishing is a common topic for discussion within the industry. Evidence of genuine progress has been scarcer, however.
Last year’s Writing the Future report saw editor Danuta Kean investigate the position of black and Asian writers and publishers in the UK, revisiting the subject of her 2004 study, In Full Colour. Kean found that little had changed for the better in the 11 years since that first report. Instead, a decade of retrenchment prompted by a period of turbulent change for the industry had left publishing less diverse and more conservative than ever.
With the intent of helping to address this problem, a new network for people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds has been launched by Sarah Shaffi, The Bookseller’s online editor and producer, and Oberon Books sales and marketing assistant Wei Ming Kam.
BAME in Publishing is meant to give people from such backgrounds working in the industry an opportunity to meet and share advice and news of opportunities, and to find mentors to help develop their careers.
“We want to open doors for talented people who want to get into publishing” says Shaffi.
“I want to see people making connections, collaborating on projects, helping others get into the industry, finding mentors,” says Ming.
Shaffi says that for her, the impetus behind launching the network was an urge to turn the ongoing conversation about diversity into action: “The Bookseller was regularly covering all of these issues,” she says, “and there never really seemed to be a change. I was eager to change the discussion from being one where we always moan about the lack of diversity to one where we try to do something positive and actually change the situation.”
Some change is taking place – Shaffi and Kam point to positive moves including Profile’s decision to pay its interns a living wage; HarperCollins’s new BAME graduate scheme; and Penguin Random House’s move to accept applications from people without a degree. But overall, there’s still a sense that, in Shaffi’s words, “We’re largely still in a place where we just talk about the same things over and over.”
As Ming puts it, “People are still agonizing about what to do rather than taking action.”
Both say they’re huge fans of the work done by Creative Access, an organisation founded in 2012 to provide paid internships within creative industries for young people from BAME backgrounds.
“They do absolutely stellar work,” Shaffi says, “and have been quietly and steadily changing the face of the industry for a while. But they’re also aware that a single organization can’t bear the burden of diversifying an entire industry.
“There’s nothing I find more frustrating than when I ask a publishing house what they’re doing to increase ethnic diversity and they tell me they have a Creative Access intern. That’s great, but one Creative Access intern a year in your company of 100, 500, 1,000 isn’t going to result in change fast.
“Publishers need to look beyond external initiatives and engage directly with a much wider group of potential recruits.
“Are you connecting with schools in rural areas, in deprived areas, and making sure students there know about the opportunities publishing offers? Are you advertising in a range of places when you have job openings? Does every university in the country have a list of all the roles you offer in their careers centre? Are you actively looking on Twitter? Are you holding open days?”
The industry also needs to end its culture of unpaid internships, Shaffi and Kam say. Which might seem to make short-term economic sense, but ultimately restricts the recruitment pool to those who can afford to live and work without income in London.
“Pay your interns,” Kam says.
“Pay them the living wage. I am tired of hearing about brilliant people having to turn down great opportunities because they can’t afford it.
“It’s shameful, and as an industry we are preventing ourselves from accessing the best talent.”
Entry-level posts are only part of the problem, she says: publishers need to be recruiting more inclusively at higher levels too. Kam says that if you’re still looking in the same places for such posts, and asking the same people for recommendations, then very little will change. And the same is true for writers.
“Go out and look for new authors,” Kam says. “Tell people you want their writing. Think outside the usual process of talent discovery. If we put in the work, we’ll get results back.”
These founders of BAME in Publishing expect, they say, to help improve the prospects of people of black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds by celebrating the BAME talent already within the industry. The network’s monthly meetings will be a “positive space for people from BAME backgrounds, Kam says – lively, full of frank exchanges but also events in which people make positive connections and discover talented individuals.”
Kam says they’ve had “an amazing number of emails already from people wanting to sign up” to their mailing list – “people really want this opportunity to connect with others.”
The positive effects of a more diverse industry may ultimately prove financial.
An unchanged industry may, as Kam points out, struggle to catch up with changing demographics and appetites for different kinds of books, but, as Shaffi notes, “The wider the backgrounds of the people who work for you, the more likely they are to come up with new ideas and new books, and the more people they reach, and the more books are sold.”
To find out more about the UK’s BAME in Publishing, you can visit their Tumblr. To join their mailing list and find out about forthcoming events, email Shaffi and Kam at firstname.lastname@example.org with your details. Include your company and job title if you’re already in the industry. If not, list whether you’re an author or an aspiring publisher. Later events, the organizers say, will include opportunities for both groups to find out more about the industry.