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Diversity In Publishing: What’s Changed?

By Megan Whitlock

In recent years, the publishing industry has been forced to reckon with its shocking diversity statistics and work towards long-overdue change that enables systematic inclusion for everyone. However, after the introduction of initiatives from publishers in the aftermath of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, it is important to examine how much has actually been implemented and sustained two years on. As Booker Prize Winner Bernardine Evaristo addressed the Hay Festival this year: “This is a really good time for Black writers to be published. Whether that will be the case in five or ten years, we’ll have to see. What I’m interested in is for our literature to be embedded in the culture rather than being part of a trend or fashion” (quoted from The Guardian).

The Publishers Association’s Diversity Survey of the Publishing Workforce (released March 2022) reports that “representation of people from ethnic minority groups [...] has increased to 15%, achieving the Publishers Association’s target set for 2022.” However, the proportion of this percentage who identify as Black/African/Caribbean/Black British remains “unchanged from 2019 and 2020 at 3%, which was lower than the estimated population of England and Wales (4%)” (The Diversity Survey).

One example of a Big Five publisher initiative is Penguin Random House’s annual Diversity and Inclusion Report (launched in 2020), and their subsequently introduced targets, such as having senior leaders represent UK society identity proportions by 2026. As well as The Scheme trainee programme (a paid, six-month traineeship targeted at people from ethnic minority or lower socio-economic backgrounds), employees at PRH have also established the Colour[Full] network to support minority ethnic colleagues, and have begun to publish ethnic pay gap data and action plans. Another example is at HarperCollins UK, who run a BAME Development Circle, launched in 2018 to encourage, support, retain and train ethnic minority talent within the company. Though we should all continue to question whether these targets and schemes do anything to tackle the experiences of Black employees once they have joined the company and whether they are further supported and made to feel welcome thereafter, a big problem within publishing.

Outside of the Big Five, there have always been many brilliant independent publishers that are led by and amplify diverse voices. Jacaranda Books is an award-winning publishing house, who launched their #Twentyin2020 campaign (a mission to publish 20 titles by 20 Black British authors in 2020) the same year they won Small Press of the Year at the British Book Awards. They continue year on year to do what bigger publishers don’t. Another example is Peepal Tree Press, founded in 1985, who aim “to bring you the very best of international writing from the Caribbean, its diasporas and the UK.” They run the “Inscribe” programme, which aims to professionally support and develop writers of colour across England with mentoring, workshops, residentials and more.

Yet, despite some positive changes within publishing, there is still a long way to go. Even the tendency in major publisher’s reports to group different identities into one “BAME” or “ethnic minority” category makes it difficult to establish exactly how much progress has been made for individual groups, like those who identify as Black. It is as much down to publishers as it is those already working within these companies to make space, ensure everyone feels welcome, and also to ensure that publishing is even more representative of Black voices in “five to ten years” (as Bernardine Evaristo says).

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