Diversity study: publishing industry ‘must reimagine its audience’

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The UK’s first academic research on diversity in publishing has found prevailing assumptions in the industry that the core audience are white and middle-class, causing writers of colour to be seen by publishers as a commercial risk.

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Written by Dr Anamik Saha and Dr Sandra van Lente at Goldsmiths, University of London, Rethinking Diversity in Publishing calls for the industry to radically reimagine its audience and rethink diversity for the 21st Century. 

The report is a partnership between Goldsmiths, Spread the Word and The Bookseller, and is based on interviews with 113 authors, agents, booksellers and representatives from all of the major publishing houses, including CEOs, managing directors, editors, designers and marketing, PR and sales staff. 

The report found that:

  • The big publishers are essentially only interested in white and middle-class audiences
  • Publishers still see writers of colour as a ‘commercial risk’
  • Black, Asian and minority ethnic and working-class audiences are undervalued by publishers, economically and culturally, impacting on the acquisition, promotion and selling of writers of colour
  • Comping practices (when books deemed similar are compared to others as a predictor of sales) are an obstacle that privileges established authors and restricts ‘new voices’
  • There is a continued ambiguity of ‘diversity’ as both a moral and economic imperative. Despite claims to the contrary, publishers are not convinced by the economic value of diversity.

Among its wide-ranging recommendations, the report calls on publishers, agents and booksellers to reflect on and challenge their practices, behaviour and cultural biases. It also asks that they develop strategic alliances with, and invest in, writing agencies and audience engagement practitioners to help identify and develop talented writers of colour.

Dr Anamik Saha, AHRC Leadership Fellow for the study and Co-Convenor of MA Race, Media and Social Justice at Goldsmiths, said: “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.” 

Phillip Jones, Editor of the Bookseller, argues that the lack of transparency for online retailers is a significant issue, as these retailers can change the parameters which affect the algorithms on book trends and readership. Many of these retailers declined to take part in the Rethinking ‘Diversity’ research. 

He said: “Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing isn’t just another report into publishing’s poor record on diversity. It scratches beneath the surface and digs into why publishing, for all of its fine words and initiatives, is changing very slowly, and why much of the good work is now being done by new presses (outside the corporates) and by individuals who did not find publishing willing to change.

The foreword to Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing was written by the 2019 Booker Prize winner and Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London, Bernardine Evaristo, who graduated from Goldsmiths’ Department of English and Comparative Literature with a PhD in Creative Writing in 2013. 

Professor Evaristo said: “Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing arrives as another clarion call to an industry which, with all the apparent goodwill in the world, hasn’t changed fast enough to become more inclusive. There is also the misguided belief, still in the 21st century, that Black and Asian people are not considered to be a substantial readership, or to even be readers. I hope that those who need to read this report pay attention to its recommendations on target audiences, notions of quality and partnerships for change.” 

June 2020 saw the launch of a number of online campaigns which raise awareness of disparities in pay writers and help close the gap on racial inequality in publishing. More than 100 authors, including Professor Evaristo, have this month formed a new body, the Black Writers’ Guild, to call for change in UK publishing.

Award-winning author Alex Wheatle MBE said: “We have a wonderful opportunity to address the disparities in the publishing industry now that we have everyone’s attention. 

“We want to work with partners to address all of these inequities, and publishers now need to invest in the value of Black writing. Publishers need to understand the value of Black narratives and not be seen, in their minds, as of lesser value commercially. Publishers need to see these narratives on their own terms, as great storytelling, and to market and support them in the way they deserve.” 

Rishi Dastidar, Chair, Spread the Word, said: “The need to rethink diversity shouldn’t be viewed as a negative, far from it. The report clearly shows that there are untapped audiences that can be reached and sold to. #PublishingPaidMe and the launch of the Black Writers Guild show that publishing absolutely has a role to play in changing the unequal landscape. 

“Through fiction and non-fiction, the industry is in a prime position to tell the stories that we all need to know and hear. So we must do all we can to start to dismantle the structures, and assumptions, that hold writers of colour back.”

Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing, published by Goldsmiths Press, launched on Tuesday 23 June as part of a virtual #RethinkingDiversityWeek running from 23 – 26 June 2020. Read the full report online.

This story is based on an original press release from Words of Colour