Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing – Now Go Out and Make a Difference

On 23 June 2020, Dr Anamik Saha (Goldsmiths, University of London) and I launched our report called Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing. We spent the previous year interviewing 113 people in publishing and bookselling, and we set out to challenge the ways ‘diversity’ was talked about. And we wanted to find out is how books by writers of colour are published and how the structures of the field empower or hinder writers of colour. Our report was always meant to be a resource for the publishing industry to help identify structural problems and pathways to change. Because rethinking diversity and reflecting on our practices might be a first and an important step. But now actions need to follow.

cover of the bookseller supplement about our research on rethinking diversity in publishingSo how to share the report and its findings during a global pandemic? Following Joy Francis’ (from Words of Colour) advice, we arranged a whole series of talks around the main areas of our report, which allowed us to give a number of people a platform and focus on one or two specific aspects rather than trying to cover everything in one session. In addition, The Bookseller published a supplement with an abridged version of our report (link to Bookseller supplement) on Friday.

The timing was quite something: with the Black Lives Matter movement, the open letters from author Dorothy Koomson and the Black Writers’ Guild, the #PublishingPaidMe revelations as well as some other articles (links below), the current conversations and protests have exposed the depth to which racism is entrenched in society and made it impossible to just ignore the unfair conditions for writers of colour throughout the publishing and bookselling process. There were so many people who worked ‘on stage’ and behind the scenes to make this such an enjoyable and professional week. Our partners at Spread the Word, in particular Ruth Harrison, and Philip Jones from The Bookseller had been involved from the very beginning when the project was ‘just’ an idea, and they have supported us with their amazing insight, advice and by being resourceful and patient sounding boards. Massive thanks to our speakers, of course: Alex Wheatle, Alex Call (Bert’s Books), Valerie Brandes (Jacaranda), Meryl Halls (Booksellers Association), Dorothy Koomson, Abir Mukherjee, Sharmaine Lovegrove (Dialogue Books), Prof Sunny Singh, Aimée Felone (Knights Of / Round Table Books) and Nikesh Shukla, as well as Joy Francis from Words of Colour, who took our ideas to the next level and curated the conversations. The Bookseller team, in particular Emma Lowe, and the Words of Colour Team, in particular Jen Igiri and Heather Marks, made sure all tech stuff ran smoothly (what a relief!). And Cherise Lopes-Baker from Jacaranda live-tweeted the living daylights out of our events (I learned about myself that I’m not so great at live tweeting, I lose too much time talking to the screen…). And last, but not least: huge thanks to our BSL interpreters Ali Pottinger and Sharan Thind for making our zoom meetings more accessible!

Our Programme: From Author Development to Bookselling

Day 1: The official launch! We were in conversation with author Alex Wheatle MBE, Spread the Word’s Chair Rishi Dastidar, Philip Jones from The Bookseller, and Joy Francis, Executive Director of Words of Colour, who chaired the kick-off.

Day 2: “The Booksellers: Looking beyond the white middle-class reader” with Alex Call, WH Smith’s former Head of Books Marketing and Founder of online bookstore Bert’s Books; Valerie Brandes, Founder of Jacaranda Books; Meryl Halls, managing director at The Booksellers Association; chaired by Anamik Saha

Day 3: “Rethinking how books by authors of colour are marketed and promoted” with award-winning novelist Dorothy Koomson; bestselling author Abir Mukherjee and award-winning publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove (Dialogue Books); chaired by Anamik Saha

Day 4: “The future publishing pipeline and meeting the needs of writers of colour” with Jhalak Prize Co-Founder Professor Sunny Singh, Publisher and Bookseller Aimée Felone (Knights Of and Round Table Books), Literary Agent Emma Paterson (Aitken Alexander Associates) and author and co-founder of The Good Literary Agency Nikesh Shukla; chaired by Joy Francis

In case you missed any of the conversations and/or want to watch them again, you can (re)watch the recordings and read the threads on twitter (links below). So I won’t repeat what everyone said, but just share some of the aspects that stayed with me.



First Reactions

To be honest, we were pretty much blown away by the attention and response the report and our #RethinkingDiversityWeek received (although the more traditional media could have done a bit more – well, their silence is also kind of proving one of our points…). While I think it’s fair to share that Anamik and I were nervous that we’re not telling anyone (in particular writers) anything new, the reactions were still positive. We received messages of people who said they were grateful to see their daily struggles represented in the report and felt that the combination of the findings and the timing meant that no one can go back to ‘business as usual’. And other reactions showed that some people did, indeed, learn something new about the scale and intensity of the problem. The public reception and the personal messages we received were rather positive and acknowledged the need for sustainable change, but some people in leadership positions at bigger publishing houses expressed their irritation, in particular about a comment that an all-white board might have difficulties to fully understand the structural problems and what needs to change. Well, we meant to provide something helpful for the industry, not something comfortable.

We have seen reactions from individuals questioning their practices – thank you, Alex Call, for being so open about it – as well as statements by Society of Authors, who announce they’ll “work to strengthen [their] own organisational approach to inclusivity across the SoA” (link to SoA statement) and Penguin Random House, who have announced an “accelerated inclusion plan” PRH (link to Bookseller article).

Tom Weldon (PRH’s CEO) says himself: “As a publisher, we believe in the power of words but now is the time for commitment and urgent action and to reassess the goals we set ourselves.” Forgive me if I’m sceptical as long as I only see words and no action, but it is a reaction. And while not all of the effects and measures announced might be easy to verify, at least PRH’s commitment to making it’s leadership team representative of the UK demographics (based on the 2021 census – so not clear by when they want to carry it out) is something they can be held accountable for.

Recurring Themes

Many of our guests confirmed our findings from the report – from assumptions about audiences and what POC can authentically write about (this still drives me up the wall) to the burden for authors and colleagues of colour to basically be activists and educate their peers. Sunny Singh echoed what Dorothy Koomson wrote in her open letter to the industry (link to DK’s open letter): publishing is a hostile environment for people of colour, from agents to editors and marketing all the way through to sales and retail.

And another recurring theme was the complacency of the industry, not least when it comes to finding new talent beyond the usual creative writing or writing competition channels. What surprised me was the publishers don’t partner up with writer development initiatives who already do this work all over the UK, who invest in writers at an very early point in their career (or even before) and who develop the ‘pipeline’ of writers. I have come to know Spread the Word in London a lot better through this project, and I have been to several events organised by Writing West Midlands, so I know how approachable, professional and committed they are. I fear that the industry’s complacency might be a reason for the lack of strategic, long-term engagement so far.

Assumptions about the Audience – and Complacency

Sharmaine Lovegrove reminded us of what surely holds true for all authors and most publishers: “I am first and foremost a reader” However, she continues: “I am not thought of as a reader […] As part of the African diaspora, storytelling is in my blood. Storytelling has come with us on this journey.” So one key assumption that people from marginalised backgrounds don’t have time for stories, “to be excluded from the thing that makes us, is so arrogant”.

Dorothy Koomson and Abir Mukherjee both confirmed that a lot of their PR work rests on their shoulders. They linked it back to the assumptions about what authors of colour write about – and the monocultural comms teams: “There are so many publishers and booksellers who don’t expect black women to write commercial fiction. It’s difficult to change people’s minds to get the interviews, to get in magazines. Because you’re doing something they don’t expect you to.“ (Dorothy Koomson)

Alex Wheatle quotation about the need for publishers to understand the value of Black narrativesAimée Felone added on the topic of expectations how they approach it: ‘With Knights Of, our intention is to publish children’s stories that don’t lean on a trauma narrative, and are just representative. I don’t think its ground-breaking and shouldn’t be lauded as amazing. We’re just doing what needs to be done and unfortunately isn’t being done by the bigger houses. We have sold a murder mystery novel and stories about kids running in massive quantities. There shouldn’t be this assumption that children’s writers have to write their trauma in order to sell or be worth publishing.”

The lack of creativity in comms also came up in several of our interviews. Publishers go for the national newspapers and mainstream channels, but fail at more tailored approaches and engagement with bloggers and other (often smaller) media. There is one interview I always remember in this context. A person of colour who was actually not even working in marketing or PR, came across a spread sheet displaying the bloggers etc. review copies were sent to. The people on the list were all white, the book was ever so clearly targeted at Black women and covered a particular topic that everyone could have compiled a better list in a couple of hours. This interviewee went through the trouble of identifying bloggers with an interest in the topic and managed to engage them. Result: great publicity and a contact list in case a similar book comes up. “It’s not rocket science,” they said, but you have to willing to go the extra mile.

Valerie Brandes said something along those lines in our conversation: “From selling our own books online, we found that it shortcuts the industry’s laziness because people from all over the UK are buying from us! The industry constantly talks about lack of resources and time – don’t! Where there is a will there is a way.”

When Dorothy Koomson spoke about her engagement with bloggers, she also shared that she felt that they were so often overlooked and thus disrespected by the industry:  “it’s also insulting to the people who have created these amazing spaces where people go and share their love to read, and want the opportunity to discover these books”.

And as much as the current climate might be helpful to the cause of equal opportunities, it also risks being turned into a fad, exploited by people who don’t really have a track record of being inclusive before. Emma Paterson expressed her irritation and conern: “I’m also concerned by some of the responses I’ve seen from agents in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter protests have been distressing, triggering, and dismaying. I saw a number issuing sudden calls for Black and brown writers. What is that saying about you? What were you doing before? If you weren’t doing anything before, why should these authors have confidence in you to handle their stories? This should be a time to listen, to self-interrogate and examine why you have failed, rather than to profit from Black death.”

Anamik summed it up:

“We need publishers to fundamentally rethink their assumptions when publishing writers of colour: that they can only write about these topics, that these communities don’t read, that race is niche, that writers of colour don’t want to do these professions etc. […] Our study finds that publishers and booksellers do not have the resources, know-how, or sadly, the inclination to reach wider audiences. They do not see the economic or cultural benefit. Big publishers and booksellers need to radically reimagine their audience. 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, even the look and feel of bookstores and the demographics they serve. This has to change.”

Burdening Authors and Staff from Marginalised Communities

Another major topic that came up repeatedly was the burden that authors of colour as well as employees from marginalised communities experience all the time. Our speakers expressed that they were tired! Tired from explaining over and over again how racist the structures are, from having the validity of their experience questioned, and from hearing the same phony excuses.

Dorothy Koomson said in this context: “If you’re sitting with a white publicist who has no clue about Black Ballad or gal-dem, you’re having to do the work of getting them up to speed. It should be on the whole company’s agenda to be aware of these platforms.” But it’s not, yet. Not only does this often feel like an extra job, it also puts even more pressure on people of colour: “We just want a level playing field,” Abir Mukherjee shared, but he also knows: “If we do fail, it closes the door on much more than an individual”.

Panel speakers on day 4: “The future publishing pipeline and meeting the needs of writers of colour” with Jhalak Prize Co-Founder Professor Sunny Singh, Publisher and Bookseller Aimée Felone (Knights Of and Round Table Books), Literary Agent Emma Paterson (Aitken Alexander Associates) and author and co-founder of The Good Literary Agency Nikesh Shukla; chaired by Joy FrancisNikesh Shukla expressed how important his mentors were for him and his career, so he wants to give the same opportunity to emerging writers. But this work is draining (and often unpaid). I think it’s fair to say that most if not all our speakers felt that they have talked enough and that it’s time now for white people do the work – in the agencies, publishing houses and bookshops. And Nikesh Shukla also addressed white writers directly: “White writers, imagine, all I ever wanted to do was write – I never wanted to do all this work. It’s time for you to pick up the slack now, thank you.’

And Sunny Singh added: “’The anxiety of speaking out and speaking up is constant… I’ve lost friends over the Jhalak prize. When I spoke about moral failure, it wasn’t just the publishing industry. Why aren’t white writers standing with us? […] If you’re sitting around the dining room table and you saw your friends not being served food, would you not speak up? I want to now ask white writers why they aren’t speaking up. Because we’re on that table supposedly. Where is the food?“

She continued: “This is in academia as well. We need to decolonise pedagogy. I don’t want to teach on a course, or learn from a course, where there is one post-colonial week or racial equality week. If you aren’t decolonising your own teaching and reading practice, you’re letting down your students and your colleagues. More than that, it’s a moral failure and a failure of intellect.”

And while it might be uncomfortable to be the one rocking the boat(s), it’s also not so difficult. Sunny Singh suggested some points to start: question why there are no authors of colour on the list or programme. Don’t participate in all-white panels (and that’s not limited to publishing, but can also be done in academia, journalism, etc.)

Joy Francis concluded with an urgent question, or actually a call to action: “What are YOU going to do differently in your spaces – personal and professional – to keep the conversation alive” and be part of the change?

And now?

One of our worries was that people might read the report, say something in line with their company’s PR strategy, and then go on like before. Because how do you get people to change? The current situation, the political activism and the fact that the same message is repeatedly sent to the industry from various sources might make it harder to just out your head in the sand and wait for everything to blow over. Also, some people and organisations have already reacted and been in touch – and they do seem genuinely interested in change. So we’ll have to see if actions follow and hold them accountable.

What I found mostly absent from our discussions (though I think Sharmaine might have mentioned it during our #RethinkingDiversityWeek) is Brexit. Whenever I tried to talk about it (with my German charm), I found people playing it down, not wanting to engage in any discussion about possible consequences. I think, however, that in addition to the brain drain from being treated unfairly – which so many people have referred to already – the risk of a brain drain because of Brexit is quite real, too. What’s great for (multilingual) places like Berlin might become a problem for the UK publishing industry. While I think that this is quite serious, it also seems to me as if the industry still somehow thinks that they’ll get enough people in who want to do their work even if companies only change marginally. In the context of the salary transparency conversation on twitter one person shared her experience: “And instead of rewarding employees for their contributions, publishing tells us, “100 other girls would kill for your job. We could replace you in a heartbeat.” (link to google doc)

What about Germany?

And talking about Germany: I do hope that there will be a similar research project and conversation over here. I feel that we’re quite a bit behind in so many ways: I don’t feel that the German publishing industry is even aware of how exclusive and monocultural they are. I believe we need a better vocabulary in order to have more nuanced conversations – many Black writers and activists in Germany, not least the fabulous Sharon Dodua Otoo (link to interview with Dieter Kassel, 17 June 2020, Deutschlandfunk Kultur), have pointed out that the German word for race (“Rasse”) just doesn’t mean the same as the English race as it hasn’t undergone the same transformation and does not make explicit that it is just a construct – to name just one example. I had the great pleasure to hear Prof. Maisha-Maureen Auma (Magdeburg-Stendal/Berlin) talk in a webinar hosted by the Goethe Institute Finland (link to the DRIN project: Visions for Children’s Books) talk about inclusive children’s book and the “mirrors and windows” that we all need. So we’re getting somewhere, but we have to keep the conversation alive.


To end on a slightly positive note: Individuals, trade bodies and companies have gotten back to us and they seem genuinely committed to doing something. The conversation continues – also in the form of bespoke in-house conversations with Anamik, created to discuss the findings in a smaller setting and help publishers, agents or booksellers figure out what next steps could look like.

And another potential reason for hope were the results of the British Book Awards, the Nibbies, at the end of June. For the first time in the history of the awards, Black authors won the top prizes (sad enough, but also a reason to celebrate them now): Bernardine Evaristo won Author of the Year and Fiction Book of the Year for Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton, PRH), Candice Carty-Williams won Overall Book of the Year for Queenie (Trapeze, Hachette), and Oyinkan Braithwaite Crime/Thriller Book of the Year for My Sister, the Serial Killer (Atlantic, indie).

I would like to close with the words of the one and only Bernardine Evaristo, who called the success of Black women at the Nibbies this year “bittersweet history-making”:

[Text in the tweet by Bernardine Evaristo: “Bittersweet history-making. Still, the commercial & critical argument has been won. Let’s work towards a future where we no longer have these conversations because EVERYONE is included in the narrative: Asian, Black, disabled, LGBTQ+, white, working class”]


Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing links


Words of colour tweets / threads (huge thanks to Cherise Lopes-Baker (Jacaranda) for this!)

Recordings of our conversations

Media Coverage (selection)

Further reading