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Write On! Features: Diversity in Publishing: How Can We Level The Playing Field? by Amber Hall

By Amber Hall

Today, diversity is a hot topic. This is fantastic, obviously. It’s great that we’re starting to talk about the ways things such as race, gender, sexuality, class and religion impact the opportunities we have. It is not, after all, a level playing field. And though the myth of meritocracy persists, it’s nice to know we’re moving in the right direction. Sort of.

But the truth is, there’s a long way to go. Across the board, industries are still overwhelmingly white, male and middle class. Diversity may be on the agenda, but in business, policymaking and – yes – publishing, it’s still an issue. For example, although we’ve seen a continued increase in the number of women on corporate boards, there are currently just nine female CEOs working in FTSE 100 companies.[1] And, while the UK government reached a so-called ‘diversity milestone’ in the last General Election (with 10% of Members of the House of Commons being from minority ethnic backgrounds), it doesn’t reflect the diversity of the UK population.[2]

The literary landscape looks slightly more promising, but only at first glance, as women actually dominate the publishing industry, accounting for 66% of the workforce. However, representation of people from minority ethnic groups currently stands at just 17%, only 15% of the workforce identify as LGBTQ+, and 16% have a disability or long-term health condition.[3] When you scratch the surface, it’s hardly groundbreaking. Publishing has a class problem, too. In a recent report carried out by the Publishers Association, two-thirds of those surveyed came from professional backgrounds; privately educated individuals were cited as being ‘overrepresented,’ and socio-economic status was highlighted as a ‘major barrier’ to inclusion.

So, while there’s been a huge push to diversify the workforce, it isn’t happening. Or at least, not as quickly as it ought to be. For many, diversity has become another corporate buzzword; a box-ticking exercise for HR departments up and down the country to deal with. However, the lack of diversity in publishing is particularly discouraging, as storytelling shapes our lives.

Stories have the power to connect us. They give us access to different perspectives, helping us to broaden our understanding of the world. Stories uplift and empower us; they give meaning to our very existence. And currently, those who write and those who decide what gets published are (largely) cut from the same cloth.  This matters, because when we’re told stories from a limited pool of people – drawing on a particular set of experiences – we lose the bigger picture. Our worldview becomes limited, too.

But what can we do about it? How can we break down the barriers, so we hear from a wider range of voices?

1: Nurture Emerging Talent

Talent is not the sole preserve of a select few, but does need to be nurtured. Writing, like any skill, must be honed; you have to work at it, if you want to get anywhere. Courses and workshops allow emerging writers to develop their craft. But these are costly endeavours, making them inaccessible to many. For low-income families, putting food on the table will always trump art, even if you are the voice of a generation. And, with many people trying to survive an escalating cost of living crisis, the future is looking less than rosy for underrepresented voices. As an aside, it’s worth remembering that intersectionality is a real thing. It’s much too complicated to really get into here, but statistically, black and minority ethnic people are twice as likely to experience poverty.[4] Like most things in life, diversity is a nuanced and complex thing; one that can’t be solved by tick boxes on job applications.

What’s more, the London-centric nature of the UK publishing industry means a lot of talent goes unnoticed. There’s a need to decentralise the landscape and invest in regional writing programmes to better support people from all walks of life. Fortunately, accessibility has somewhat improved post-pandemic. Remote opportunities are commonplace now, though cost remains an issue. Free events and workshops, such as those organised by Pen to Print, are sadly few and far between. This poses real questions about the future diversity of the industry, because it eliminates those who’d most benefit from the opportunities already available.

2: Facilitate Connection And Create Safety

In this business, contacts are everything. You need to know the right people to get your foot (or even your little toe) in the door. Nepotism is having a moment in Hollywood, but we hear less about it in the literary space. Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, we know it is. In fact, a 2017 report commissioned by Arts Council England concluded that ‘literary fiction is dominated by insider networks,’ making it ‘tough’ for people to break into.[5] Dominated. It doesn’t bode well, does it?

Free, nationwide events connecting new and established writers, literary agents and other publishing professional, could build a culture of trust, support and collaboration. Mentorship of any kind is invaluable, but there also needs to be a sense of safety in spaces that have felt off-limits to specific groups. If you’ve grown up on the outside of all this, your ‘otherness’ follows you around, even if you do manage to get past the gatekeepers. After all, it’s easy to develop limiting beliefs about yourself when you’ve been told your stories don’t matter.

Imposter syndrome is something that seriously threatens diversity: it’s internal as well as external and takes a lot of self-awareness and hard work to overcome. There’s strength in numbers, though, which is why I think writing groups can be so helpful. Plus, collective voices can be powerful instigators of change – and change is exactly what we need.

3: Demystify The Industry

For those comfortably inside the ‘network,’ the door to publishing isn’t just open; it also makes complete sense. But for many of us, the industry is shrouded in mystery. And, unless you’ve been shown the ropes by a kindly elder, it seems impossible to navigate.

For many people, the idea of ever being published feels like a pipe dream. And most aspiring writers don’t fully understand the ins and outs of the industry. The processes that underpin it aren’t clear for anyone who hasn’t had a leg up, so getting a manuscript into the right hands is no mean feat. Of course, there are opportunities to self-publish, and this is an option that’s open to all. But most writers actually want to know what goes on behind the gilded doors of publishing houses, which is why it’s so important to have transparency in the industry.

There’s power in forging your own path, too. I’ve spent a lot of time doing my own research and speaking to published authors. This means I have, at least, some knowledge of how the industry operates, even at this relatively early stage. There’s no harm in taking ownership of your future and, let’s be honest, it’s also an excellent way to stick two fingers up to the whole thing.

Perhaps, if we all scream loud enough, the glass ceiling will begin to splinter, but it needs to be a joint effort. The industry has a responsibility to make space for underrepresented voices – to really make space for them – and prove that it’s working. It isn’t enough to say changes are being made if the statistics don’t add up. Now we’re finally casting a critical eye over the systems that underpin everything, isn’t it time we started looking for the stories that are yet to be told?

You can connect with Amber on Instagram: @amber.marie.123 and Twitter: @amber_marie_123.

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Issue 16 of Write On! is out now and you can read it online here. Find it in libraries and other outlets. You can find previous editions of our magazines here.

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Collective voices can be powerful instigators of change – and change is exactly what we need.