• The Publishing Post

Rethinking Diversity on the Ground

2020 has been a poignant year for conversations around racism. As Black Lives Matter protests broke out around the world and antiracist books shot to the top of bestseller charts, corporations took to social media to show solidarity, including publishers. In June, the Black Writers’ Guild sent an open letter to the industry’s major houses, raising the concern that “British publishers are raising awareness of racial inequality without significantly addressing their own.” Indeed, many criticised the performative allyship of publishers profiting off the sales of antiracist titles, whilst failing to address racial disparities within their own industry.


The industry’s lack of diversity is not a new issue: in 2015, Spread The Word’s Writing the Future report estimated that up to 8% of the industry’s workforce identified as BAME; in 2017, bookcareers.com’s salary survey found that 90.4% of respondents identified as white British; and in early 2019, a major survey found that, although the number had increased, only 11.6% of respondents identified as BAME.


The Publishing Post’s BIPOC team created our own survey own.” Indeed, many criticised the performative allyship of publishers profiting off the sales of antiracist titles, whilst failing to address racial disparities within their own industry.


The industry’s lack of diversity is not a new issue: in 2015, Spread The Word’s Writing the Future report estimated that up to 8% of the industry’s workforce identified as BAME; in 2017, bookcareers.com’s salary survey found that 90.4% of respondents identified as white British; and in early 2019, a major survey found that, although the number had increased, only 11.6% of respondents identified as BAME.


The Publishing Post’s BIPOC team created our own survey to explore people of colour’s experiences of the industry culture and recruitment processes. We had fifty respondents and opinions varied, but many felt that the industry needs to do more to reflect the demographic of the readers it serves.

When considering the hiring process, the overwhelming majority noted the impact of racial inequality: 58% of respondents felt that the publishing industry is inaccessible to BAME individuals. Furthermore, 38% felt that the industry is not making significant strides towards inclusivity. When asked what the key access barriers are, 50% selected a “lack of inclusivity” (Figure 2). Some respondents felt othered in the hiring process – one even mentioned feeling “judg[ed]’ in ‘official’ publishing spaces.”


There were, however, many neutral responses in the survey, perhaps indicating uncertainty or that more transparency on the demographics of industry employees is needed. A sizeable number of respondents expressed their frustration at the unhelpful “blanket” BAME label, suggesting that even the language used to discuss diversity issues is outdated and that the issues affect more people than the label suggests.


While the big publishers boasting BAME schemes like to pat themselves on the back, believing “they’ve done their part”, many respondents are less sure. The pitfalls of filling diversity quotas form an overarching theme: a significant 40% are certain these “surface-level” schemes make them vulnerable to claims of preferential treatment (Figure 3), rendering the pitiful diversity hiring figures.


One voice sums up: “the initiatives are well meaning but for years we have been telling you that the problem is how toxic the environment itself is to BAME staff.” Surprisingly, 44% were unsure whether or not these schemes facilitate long-term career development. The majority of respondents occupied entry level roles, echoing the opinion in the recent ‘Rethinking Diversity’ survey that “they had ‘yet to see’ people of colour progress up the career ladder.” This lack of senior opportunities is highlighted in this shocking anecdote: “I do remember being an assistant editor and being put up for [entry level] diversity initiatives”. Overall, respondents are adamant that these schemes, whether conducive to career development or not, are somewhat futile: they open doors to an industry that is fundamentally alien.


Once in the workplace, the scarcity of BAME publishing professionals is highlighted in Figure 4: only one out of thirty-eight respondents had more than eleven publishing colleagues of colour and twelve had none. One respondent commented that they are the only Black person in their whole division. Another refused to answer the survey altogether, stating their fears of losing anonymity given that they had never met another publishing professional of the same ethnic background.


We also found that that over 50% feel pressure to weigh in on diversity issues within their workplace, reiterating many of the “diversity hire” grievances launched against BAME schemes. When asked whether they feel comfortable openly speaking their opinions in the workplace, respondents were evenly tied. However, the comments suggest otherwise: one noted the difficulty of being “the only [BAME] one in the conversation” and another expressed the “toll” of speaking their mind “on [their] mental health”.


Many respondents wrote comments expressing their views which added nuanced opinions hindered by multiple choice answers. While our survey was small, it echoed the same sentiment as larger ones: more BAME individuals should have senior roles in the industry. Indeed, respondents cited the lack of BAME individuals in managerial roles as a barrier for people of colour entering the industry. As one respondent said, “These are roles that have power to challenge other white seniors.” Publishing companies have more inclusive hiring practices in order to diversify the industry. This is important for more diverse voices to be included in the culturally crucial work of publishing.