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.