Last year on 1 May (which is not a public holiday in the UK, as I learned) I started to work with Dr Anamik Saha at Goldsmiths, University of London, on our joint project called “Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing”. The idea had been brewing in our heads for about three years, I think. Anamik worked tirelessly to secure the funding and managed to convince the Arts and Humanities Research Council to grant us money so we could investigate!
We set out to challenge some ways ‘diversity’ was talked about. We felt that it was often talked about in terms of workforce – and while we would welcome a more diverse workforce, of course, we’re quite doubtful about whether this alone can bring more variety to the books published. Would these new colleagues be allowed to bring to the table what they want, or would they be expected to conform to the status quo? Or would the new staff members from underrepresented backgrounds even be expected to discover and defend books by writers with similar backgrounds, burdening and restricting these new employees in this way?
What 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. We focussed on ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian or minority ethnic) writers, but as you can imagine, in addition to race and ethnicity, class played an important role, too. And we concentrated on literary fiction, crime and YA – not least because we read about the stark underrepresentation of writers of colour in YA and the huge market of crime fiction in the seminal Writing the Future Report published by Spread the Word (2015).
We invited our interviewees to reflect on their practices and challenge their assumptions about authors, markets, audiences, and industry lores. In total, we interviewed 113 people in the literary field across career stages, businesses and departments: among them were agents, CEOs, MDs, editors, marketing, publicity, design and sales personnel as well booksellers and literary event organisers and some others. In the beginning, we did not want to burden authors of colour any more by asking them to talk, once more, about ‘diversity’. However, when the narrative we were presented with felt, well, a bit one-sided, we interviewed a number of ‘BAME’ authors who kindly agreed to talk to us, so we were able to include some of their perspectives as well.
Unfortunately, I am not allowed to share any details about our results, yet. But I am allowed – and very happy – to say that the one and only Bernardine Evaristo kindly agreed to write a foreword for our report and comment on our findings as well as her own journey through the literary field in the UK.
Join us for our launch week
The launch of our report will take place at the end of June 2020 – wherever you have internet access. The fantastic Joy Francis from Words of Colour put together our PR campaign and we’re compiling a series of conversations around our findings with a variety of professionals from the field. You can listen to these conversations on Instagram (live or later) and you can participate, e.g. by sending us questions (via Instagram or beforehand at s.vanlente[at]gold.ac.uk). In addition to these live events, The Bookseller is also publishing a supplement on diversity in the literary field around our launch date, so we really hope to get the conversation started and keep it going.
As virtually everybody can join us, we also encourage publishing and bookselling experts from outside the UK to join us, compare their experience and work with our interviewees, and think about whether there might be one thing or another their own industry at home might want to revisit…
We’ll share the detailed programme, the links to the report and the events as well as our hashtag closer to the date, so stay tuned!
Our work was funded by the AHRC www.ahrc.ukri.org
and we partnered up with
Ruth Harrison and Eva Lewin at Spread the Word, London’s writer development agency: www.spreadtheword.org.uk and Philip Jones at The Bookseller: www.thebookseller.com
Ellen Parnavelas and Sarah Kember published our report at Goldsmiths Press: www.gold.ac.uk/goldsmiths-press
And Joy Francis from Words of Colour created our launch and PR campaign: www.wordsofcolour.co.uk