Academic study on diversity urges publishing to ‘reflect’, ‘challenge’ and ‘change’

26 June 2020

We welcome the publication of the UK’s first academic study on diversity in trade fiction and publishing. Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing throws down a broad set of critical challenges to industry, and could not have come at a more apt time.

Written by Dr Anamik Saha and Dr Sandra van Lente, as a partnership between Goldsmiths, University of London, Spread the Word, and The Bookseller, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, it reviews the publishing process from multiple angles, including the selection of writers of colour, how their work is packaged, promoted and sold, as well as the ingrained risk-aversion and assumptions across industry that appear to be holding back change.

In her foreword to the study Bernardine Evaristo, winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, writes about ‘the misguided belief, still in the twenty-first century, that black and Asian people are not considered to be a substantial readership, or to even be readers’.

She continues: ‘All of this is ridiculous, but wait, it gets worse, unfortunately, for too many in the industry, books by writers of colour are still considered niche rather than having universal appeal, even when there are so many exceptions to prove otherwise.’

The report highlights the assumptions made about reading audiences, publishers’ inexperience to reach more diverse audiences, the lack of creativity in looking for authors and promotion, the centralised nature of book-buying decisions in retail, and a general complacency when it comes to engaging with new audiences – among many other systemic challenges that can only be overcome with a less risk-averse approach.

Commenting on the report, the SoA’s Chief Executive Nicola Solomon said:

We have said for a long time that publishers have become more averse to perceived risks. Such an approach has a negative impact right across industry, but Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing offers stark evidence of just how damaging this can be to the careers of authors from underrepresented communities – and as a result for their potential readers. If publishers continue to treat non-white, non-middle-class books as niche, and fail to reach out creatively to wider audiences, they are inviting their own slow decline.

The report’s authors urge publishers, agents and booksellers to:

  • Value and engage directly with ‘BAME’ audiences: To make publishing more diverse, publishers need to learn to value non-white, non-middle-class audiences.
  • Hire more diversely: Hiring more people who belong to marginalised communities will help publishers to tap into new audiences – but only if staff are given the resources and freedom to do this work without being burdened to speak for these communities.
  • Develop strategic alliances: There is already a network of writing agencies and audience engagement practitioners that publishers can use to reach new audiences. Publishers need to invest in establishing long-term partnerships with these organisations to find and develop talented writers of colour, bringing them to publication and to audiences.

As we work to strengthen our own organisational approach to inclusivity across the SoA, we look forward to working with our partners across publishing and the wider creative industries as they plan their practical responses to this important study.