Diversity in publishing: moving past a tick box exercise

Diversity in publishing: moving past a tick box exercise

by Suswati Basu
1 comment
Diversity in publishing needs to be more than tokenism, says Suswati Basu

The world of publishing, often seen as a realm of creative expression and diverse perspectives, has grappled with a disheartening lack of diversity. Despite progress being made in recent years, the industry remains predominantly white and struggles to represent the multitude of voices and stories that reflect the world we live in. Much of the progress is based on metrics, but it still feels very much like a box-ticking exercise. It’s hardly surprising that some are still using the #PublishingSoWhite hashtag on Twitter/X.

Colonial perceptions, psychological dominance and ignorance

Jock Brocas, author of Deadly Departed, highlights the issue of ignorance and false perceptions that contribute to the lack of diversity in publishing. Speaking to How To Be Books, he emphasises that literary prowess is not bound by colour or creed and calls for an understanding that “all blood runs red.” The editor-in-chief of Paranormal Daily News said: “I have read wonderful books by black authors and wonderful books by white others, the words do not choose the author or reader but the author and reader choose the words. Do not be blinded by ignorance.” He adds, rather, it is the industry’s barriers that restrict the flow of diverse voices.

“If there is one reality that we should all comprehend is that ‘all blood runs red’ and that we all, no matter color or creed have the same capacity for beautiful prose than another.”

Jock Brocas, Author of Deadly Departed

Jennifer Toof, a PhD candidate in International Psychology, ties the lack of diversity in publishing to the historical dominance of Western psychology and colonialism. She suggests that the skewed representation in published works is “part of a longstanding history of non-Western/non-White voices being seen as inferior or invalid.” The licenced counsellor proposes cross-cultural research and diverse editorial leadership as methods to rectify this imbalance, urging the industry to embrace inclusivity.

Toof also points out that despite the US population representing just 5% of the global total, “Western psychology has historically dominated the globe.” Moreover, individuals from the United States stand as the primary contributors to and participants in published psychological research across the globe.

Empowerment and representation

Ashley T Brundage is the author of Empowering Differences: The 10 Empowering Actions to Leverage Change. The expert sheds light on the role of empowerment in overcoming the lack of diversity in publishing. She told us: “The lack of diversity in publishing is largely tied to efforts around book bans to limit the reach of marginalized communities.” Brundage stresses the importance of connection and calls for active efforts to build up individuals from different backgrounds.

“Getting in front of key decision makers and sharing stories of why people who are different should have their voices amplified is what we need to do to overcome.”

Ashley T Brundage, empowerment expert and author

Challenges in small presses, self-publishing and nice markets

Miette Gillette, behind Whiskey Tit publisher, provides insights to us about the challenges faced by small presses in seeking diversity. Limited resources and reliance on referrals or submission platforms result in a lack of diverse leads. Gillette suggests that “publishers have to peel back the onion of that final polish to find promising, innovative projects that come from authors representing more diverse communities and identities.”

“It’s self-published authors who are reaping the early days of digital book marketing in a world searching for diversity.”

Morgan Gist MacDonald, Paper Raven Books CEO

Whilst Morgan Gist MacDonald, the CEO of Paper Raven Books, highlights the gains in self-published works by diverse authors. The self-publishing platform enables authors to connect directly with their audiences, leveraging niche markets that may not be well-served by traditional publishing. She mentions Dr. Nichomi Higgins, Dr. Mercedes Samudio, and Steven Adjei, all Black authors (American and UK), who have sold thousands of books to their own followers, either through Amazon or through their own websites. Morgan identifies the power of digital book marketing and keyword-based searches in catering to readers seeking diverse themes. But it does draw attention to the fact that people of the global majority are still having to find other avenues of publishing.

A mixed bag of progress in the UK

Stephen Lotinga, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association, notes the encouraging movement in representation for ethnic minority groups. The goal of achieving 15% representation from these groups by 2022 seems to have been reached. However, there is still substantial ground to cover in this area. Positive trends are also observed in the growing presence of LGBT+ individuals and those with disabilities. Lotinga stresses that while it’s a step in the right direction, there is no room for complacency.

And that’s very true given socio-economic background remains a significant barrier to inclusivity with 67% being from professional backgrounds, mirroring broader societal trends. Regional diversity also lags, highlighting an area for improvement. Representation of people from ethnic minority groups (excluding white minorities) has increased to 15%, achieving the Publishers Association’s target set for 2022. This is still miniscule, however, and just under the ratio in comparison to the population.

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In terms of ethnicity representation in London, there has been an increase in respondents from ethnic minority groups (excluding White minorities) since 2020, going from 16% to 18%. However, this remains well below the actual London population, which is at 40% based on the ONS 2011 Census.

In the Booksellers Association’s Workforce Diversity Survey 2022 Report, they reported that 7% of the 185 respondents identified as being from ethnic minority groups (excluding White minorities), in comparison to 18% of the population of England and Wales (2021 Census). Similarly, in 2021, across both England and Wales, the proportion of disabled people was 17.8% (10.4 million), according to the Office for National Statistics, but in the publishing world, it’s at 13%.

US publishing: an uphill battle

In the United States, the publishing industry’s diversity landscape presents contrasting outcomes. A 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey by Lee and Low Books indicated that a significant 76% of the industry remains predominantly white, encompassing publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents. This survey was initially conducted in 2015, and the 2019 iteration revealed that the industry’s diversity makeup had scarcely changed over the span of four years.

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In this context, the survey highlighted that 74% of those within the publishing sector identify as cisgender women. Nonetheless, an interesting pattern emerged, with around 38% of executives and board members being cisgender men. This trend indicates a gender disparity where men advance to influential positions more swiftly than their female counterparts. Furthermore, the survey disclosed that 81% of respondents identify as straight and 89% as non-disabled.

Of particular concern, the 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey brought to light an unsettling observation regarding the editorial sector’s lack of racial diversity. Despite industry initiatives to drive transformation, this sector demonstrated even less diversity in terms of race compared to previous assessments.

This sobering insight was reaffirmed by Publishers Weekly’s Publishing Industry Salary Survey in the same year. The survey’s findings indicated that a substantial 84% of the industry’s workforce consisted of white individuals, underscoring the fact that the publishing industry continues to remain primarily a domain of white representation. This demographic composition held relatively steady in the survey’s most recent version, with only a minute 1% variation in results.

Pay disparity and efforts for change

The #PublishingPaidMe movement exposed substantial pay disparities between white and non-white authors. These authors included the likes of award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer N. K. Jemisin, and novelist and English professor Jesmyn Ward, who both indicated that they were being paid less than their white counterparts, despite their success. Jemisin has since deleted the thread.

Lit in Colour

Following the Black Lives Matter protests, major publishing houses such as Penguin Random House UK initiating its Lit In Colour series. Run in partnership with The Runnymede Trust, the aim is to support schools to make the teaching and learning of literature more inclusive of writers. This seems to be part of an antidote to what is happening in the US, where books are being banned and challenged from school libraries.

Their research from 2021 revealed less than 1% of GCSE students study works by writers of colour. The campaign underscores the willingness of both educators and students to embrace diversity in the curriculum. A Penguin Random House spokesperson told us: “The great thing the research highlighted is that there is an appetite for this change amongst both teachers and students, as 70% of young people agree that diversity is part of British society and should be represented in the school curriculum.”

Lit in Colour collaborates with diverse educational organisations to catalyse transformation, providing pragmatic tools for educators and leading the Pioneers Programme in collaboration with Pearson. This endeavour assists schools in incorporating a range of texts from the Edexcel curriculum, featuring works by authors such as Malorie Blackman, Meera Syal, and Benjamin Zephaniah.

Lit In Colour

The programme has actively involved thousands of students and generously supplied numerous books to schools. The campaign also underscores initiatives by other publishers, such as Bloomsbury, striving to enrich educational diversity through their individual programmes. Similarly, the Publishers Association have asked 21 publishers to work towards new inclusion targets for their UK workforce. 

Diversity in publishing: challenges and pathways forward

A landmark study by Goldsmiths University identifies key challenges hindering diversity in publishing. These challenges include audience assumptions, failure to reach diverse audiences, undervaluing diverse audiences, acquisition issues, fear of “niche,” and more. The main factors that stood in the way of becoming more diverse were:

  • Audience assumptions. The industry primarily caters to a white and middle-class audience, resulting in the whitewashing or exoticisation of writers of colour’s work to appeal to this demographic.
  • Failure to reach diverse audiences. Publishers express a desire to reach diverse audiences but struggle due to a lack of knowledge or reluctance to allocate resources.
  • Undervaluing diverse audiences. Black, Asian, and minority ethnic/working-class audiences are undervalued both economically and culturally by publishers, leading to repercussions in the acquisition, promotion, and sales of writers of colour.
  • Acquisition challenges. Agents and publishers have difficulty finding writers of colour due to a lack of creativity in searching for authors. Notions of “quality” are often used to dismiss writers of colour, which reflects the publishers’ uncertainty in reaching non-white, non-middle-class audiences.
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  • Fear of “niche”. Publishers fear that books by writers of colour are too niche and won’t resonate with their primary audience. This influences the selection and treatment of such writers.
  • Promotion limitations. Traditional media channels are heavily relied upon for promotion, missing out on engaging with digital media targeting neglected communities.
  • Limited resources. Publishers allocate resources based on a narrow audience conception, hindering books by writers of colour from breaking out.
  • Complacency. While publishers hope for broader audiences, proactive efforts to engage “BAME” or working-class audiences are lacking.
  • Retail challenges. Decision-makers in retail often cater to white, middle-class audiences, impacting the visibility of books by writers of colour.
  • Supermarket and online retail issues. Supermarkets and online retailers can reach diverse communities, but limited offerings and opaque online processes create barriers.

Next stages for a more diverse collection

In response to these challenges, the report suggests the following actions:

  • Rethinking ‘diversity’. Professionals need to challenge assumptions and behaviours, fostering a fairer industry.
  • Engaging diverse audiences. Publishers should value and engage directly with non-white, non-middle-class audiences.
  • Diverse hiring. Employing staff from marginalised communities and allowing them to work without speaking for those communities can tap into new audiences.
  • Strategic alliances. Collaborate with writing agencies and audience engagement practitioners to find and develop writers of colour, establishing long-term partnerships to bring their work to publication and wider audiences.

While the publishing industry has made strides in acknowledging and addressing its lack of diversity, it is evident that much work remains. From misconceptions and colonial legacies to pay disparities and socio-economic barriers, the road to inclusivity is complex. As the industry continues to evolve, the push for diversity and inclusion remains essential for capturing the richness of human experiences in the written word. And it needs to be more than paying lip service and a ‘DEI initiative’ featured on LinkedIn to be seen to be being fair. If we see a wealth of diverse writers in the next few years from the Big 5, we will know it’s working.

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