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  1. Much like the BBC as described by Greg Dyke, UK Publishing is ‘hideously white’. I’d add ‘hideously middle class’ and possibly dare to throw in a ‘hideously middlebrow’ as well.

    Editorial control of major and minor publishers alike remains in the hands of a self-limiting homogenous socio-economic group, overwhelmingly white, middle class, university educated women and men. On the whole they are very good at and committed to their jobs in finding and publishing exciting fiction and non-fiction, But the conformity of social background, educational grounding and aesthetic tendency means that achieving a true diversity of authors from the widest possible reaches of society – the richest imaginable mix of races, faiths, gender identities, familial, social, economic and educational experiences – is severely hampered.

    Speaking as a white, middle class, university educated person myself I don’t mean to imply any criticism whatsoever of editors who are simply doing the very best within the limits of their taste and judgment. But surely in 2017 something has to change.

    Unfortunately, the industry’s well-meaning efforts seem to me to fall well below what is necessary. Little, Brown has just announced the launch of a new imprint "to source, nurture and publish writing talent – and reach audiences – from areas currently under-represented or not covered by the mainstream publishing industry", according to multi-national publishing giant Hachette.

    This follows initiatives such as Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s ‘Hometown Tales’ series of short books by authors from ‘under-represented’ areas of the UK and Little Tiger’s BAME Young Adult anthology, as well as the £1,000 “Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour” which was founded by authors Sunny Singh and Nikesh Shukla to “celebrate the achievements of British writers of colour".

    The trouble with all of these approaches is at best tokenism and at worse ghettoization. Shappi Khorsandi, the author and comedian, chose to withdraw her book from the Jhalak shortlist because she said it "felt like my skin colour was up for an award rather than my book".

    Of the major publishers trying to tackle this issue, only Penguin Random House seems to have the right idea, launching not an imprint but a campaign – ‘WriteNow’ – to find and publish new writers who are "under-represented in books and publishing”. The aim is to reach writers from socio-economically marginalised backgrounds, writers who come from LGBTQ or BAME communities, and writers with a disability. PRH plans to offer under-represented authors one-to-one time with editors, as well as access to literary agents, booksellers and published authors at regional events in London, Birmingham and Manchester. This is a strategy that really seems designed for inclusivity. So far there is no sign that WriteNow authors will be herded into a Penguin Minorities imprint, and for that Penguin should be applauded.

    Diversity simply cannot be fostered and encouraged in bespoke, exclusive corners of the industry, specially established to promote authors and yet at the same time treating them as some kind of minority curiosity. To achieve real diversity in the books that are published, the publishing world has to address the problem of the lack of diversity amongst its editorial staff. Not by hiring ethnically or socially or geographically diverse editors into positions within specialist imprints, but by reinvigorating the existing well known and loved imprints with an influx of talent which can bring truly diverse ideas, experiences and tastes. If not, then I can foresee the day when Waterstones has two or three BOGOF tables of the usual suspects of new fiction, plus another one to the side for its pick of this month’s BAME titles. That would be grotesque.

     

  2. A very encouraging attitude is emerging at HarperCollins UK, where the c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne (yes, yes, he’s related to that Redmayne) is looking at and talking about the future seriously.  In recent years too many people in the high command  (as opposed to the editorial non-commissioned officers) have chosen to ignore both the predators gathering in the woods around them and the deep, self-inflicted wounds that had begun to bleed them to death.

    No longer is the Celebrity Memoir to be pursued as the easy cash cow of established delusion.  As Redmayne says (at the Scottish Book Trade conference), publishers were routinely paying over a million pounds in exchange for the reveries of the walking famous, and yet on average only three of these autobiographies each year were selling over 200,000 copies.  While generously feeding celebrities’ bank accounts and ISA schemes on steroids, that is no way for publishers to make money, and a sure way to lose it. It’s no longer a case of ‘you’re on the telly/in the movies/all over the glossy mags – you’ll do’. Instead, the wise captain of HC urges a much more cautious, precise approach to the acquisition process.  It’s about time.

    But that’s not all.  Redmayne also understands the huge potential and ongoing importance of the back list, or the long tail, or whatever term you favour to describe the wealth of riches for which HC holds contractual rights, accrued over decades.  For years, during one of its many periods of crisis, publishers lurched from hit to hit, largely disregarding any of its output that failed to trouble the bestseller list.  The real challenge in this industry where art and commerce have always existed in tectonic collision, is to make those inter-hit patches economically rewarding rather than abandon them to the column headed ‘loss’. Here again Redmayne imports enormous good sense, suggesting that the disproportionate hits should be recharacterised as the icing on the cake rather than the fiscal gold dust that funds the failures.  That is a philosophical shift to be welcomed very warmly.

    Then there is the intriguing success of HC’s subscription service.  This model may be more familiar to readers from the Kindle Select programme, which operates as a kind of Netflix or Spotify for books.  As with the eruption of digital publishing, too many major conventional publishers are resisting this development on what often turn out to be spurious economic grounds.  For readers, and writers, and agents, however, it makes perfect sense to test and – all being well – adopt any and all methods of supplying authors’ work to a receptive readership.  Publishers now seem to have come to terms with the shock of realising that people will buy and read books even if they are not on paper (parallels with the Jurassic music industry abound), but still seem unable to free themselves from the imperative of ownership.  Once, you bought a book made of paper and bound with cloth or glue.  Then digital advances meant you could buy the content of a book.  In both models the key is ownership of the object or file.  Subscription provides what appears to be a radical alternative, but is in fact only a small advance – especially given the success of the same model for films, TV and music.

    What do authors and agents want?  The widest possible dissemination of the authors’ work while still earning money.  What do readers want? The easiest and widest choice of access to authors’ work while still acknowledging that work has to be paid for.  What do publishers want?  Surely they ought to want the same, because the genie won’t go back in the bottle.

    I applaud Redmayne for seeing and saying this so clearly.