New Report Calls for a More Diverse Publishing Sector, but Excludes Disability
The last week of June saw the publication of a new report, Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing by Dr. Anamik Saha and Dr. Sandra Van Lente. This has been described as “the first academic study in the UK on diversity in trade fiction and the publishing industry.” The project is a partnership between Goldsmith University of London, Spread the Word and The Bookseller, and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. A timely and much needed report based on interviews with 113 industry professionals, it highlights the lack of diversity in the publishing industry and explores the obstacles that BAME writers face in trade publishing with a focus on literary, crime and YA fiction.
As a disabled woman, the research illuminates what has always been clear to me: the publishing industry is extremely unequal, more so than other sectors of the cultural industries. Ask any reader why they read and the answer will most likely be that they like empathising with people’s different life experiences and enjoy broadening their horizons. Yet, publishers still fail to see the economic and cultural benefits of reaching wide and diverse audiences. So, according to them, a book by a black author does not fit the business model as I, as a white woman, apparently would never buy it. Never mind the fact that I recently read Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams and loved it, despite not being a black woman. This is just one example, but the point is that the entire industry is essentially set up to cater for white, middle-class readers in terms of the books it produces, the media it engages with, and even the demographic targeted by bookstores. The Rethinking Diversity report rightfully highlights how urgent it is for things to change.
But as a disabled woman facing barriers to enter the publishing industry precisely because of my disability, I am annoyed that in this report, ‘diversity’ seems to be reduced to a box-ticking exercise related exclusively to ethnicity, which will probably only last for as long as the Black Lives Matter movement makes the headlines. What the industry needs is consistent and long-lasting change on all fronts. BAME, LGBTQ+, working-class and disabled writers. I would like to discuss the aspect of disability in particular because it is, as of yet, the minority that receives the least attention in the sector.
Disability is a category that, more often than not, is excluded from the diversity narrative. However, a recent survey by Lee & Low Books revealed that as many as 11% of those who work in the publishing industry have a disability or mental health condition. Why, then, do we never consider the sector’s tendency to cater for able-bodied readers? We need to recognise that the publishing industry has an ableism problem.
I think that the most evident sight of disparity in this sense is entry-level jobs. In my experience, many jobs do not even give disabled candidates the chance to disclose their disability during the application process. This alone is enough to put me off applying for jobs altogether. It makes me feel like I do not have the right to exist in the industry just because my body is different. It is disheartening when you realise that employers do not want to make the effort to get to know you and what you can offer despite (or maybe because of) having a disability.
As a result, disabled people are often forced to accept freelance work, such as copy editing, proofreading, book reviewing or sensitivity reading. According to the same survey by Lee & Low Books, almost 20% of book reviewers are disabled, and they chose that job because they were unable to get the adjustments they needed in order to work in an office. But while freelancing can be empowering, many disabled and chronically ill people need things like benefits and paid sick leave, which they cannot access without an employer. Paradoxically, a choice like freelancing, which is becoming ever more common and whose flexibility is valued by many, is also what is reinforcing existing inequalities in the literary industry. Because of the traditionalist structure of the industry, freelancing is often the only choice for many. Nothing is being done to address the issue.
This is why we need to open up the conversation about diversity on a wider spectrum. Reports like Rethinking Diversity in Publishing are sorely needed, but publishers need to distance themselves from a tokenistic idea of diversity and need to address diversity by taking into account a wide group of minorities, including those categories such as disability that are routinely excluded from the diversity narrative. The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly changing things in many positive ways and the publishing industry seems to be increasingly committed to transparency on many fronts, but there is still a long way to go. We need to remember that diversity has an impact on the kind of stories that are told, and stories can be life changing. What better way to change a life than through a book?
Article by Sofia Brizio