Diversity in Publishing: Why is it Important?

With #BlackLivesMatter protests flaring up all over the world I found myself wanting to know more about systemic racism and how it affects my industry of choice – publishing – in both the UK and the US.

Historically, the publishing industry was predominantly run by white middle-class men, but now sees a much more balanced male-to-female ratio of workers. Whilst the gender imbalance is largely leveled (at least in low- and mid-level positions), the industry as a whole is still largely whitewashed.

With anti-racism movements grabbing attention, I wanted to share my research into the state and effects of systematic racism in the publishing industry and explore how diversity in the authors and books we publish is important in helping to combat racism. 

Diversity in US Publishers

In 2015, the children’s publisher Lee & Low Books undertook the Diversity Baseline Survey in the US, to investigate the diversity of publishing house employees across the country, finding that 79% of staff identified as white, while a mere 4% identified as black. This is pretty shocking when you consider that only 60.4% of the US population is white and 13.4% black (source: U.S. Census).

Following up four years later by repeating the study in 2019, there was only a 3% decrease in the proportion of white staff and a 1% increase in the proportion of black staff – neither of which were statistically significant changes.

However, there was a small glow of hope for diversity was seen at the internship level, with 49% of interns identifying as BIPOC, but in its report, Lee & Low raised questions of whether these interns will be retained and promoted, and whether they’ll feel welcome in such a predominantly-white industry?

Diversity in the UK Publishers

A 2015 report by Spread the Word, Writing the Future: Black and Asian Authors Publishers in the Market Place brought UK publishers into the line of fire when it came to their commitment to diversity. A survey of publishers and literary agents found that 56% described the industry as “not diverse at all”.

When it comes to the ethnic makeup of the publishing workforce, the situation isn’t looking great:  a survey by the Publisher Association in 2017 found that only 13% of the workforce was BAME. This wouldn’t be so bad if it hadn’t decreased the following year to 11.6%, to thankfully rise back to 13% in 2018 – still shy of the 15% target set by the PA for 2022.

Whilst the situation on diversity in the UK Publishing sector may not appear quite so stark as in the US, it is clear that there is still work to be done.

Why the disparity?

These discrepancies in the ethnic demography of publishing houses are (at least hopefully) not down to individual racism, but the result of a two-edged sword: deeply ingrained systemic racism and unconscious bias.

Systemic Racsim

Publishing is a fiercely competitive industry so people who’ve achieved good degrees or acquired significant work experience have a distinct advantage over those who don’t. This means the hiring process, especially for the most basic entry-level positions, is skewed towards people with the benefit of a strong financial background, which enables them to take on unpaid work experience and internships.

The UK 2011 Census revealed that Black households were 14% more likely to have a weekly income below £400 than White British households, and 7% less likely to have a weekly income above £1000.

Ben Myers, author of The Gallows Pole, is often quoted saying “For someone seeking a job in publishing, an internship involves having to find accommodation in London for several weeks, or having contacts in the city. It becomes an impossibility for someone from a working class background with no family connections. The trickle-down effect is that the publishing business is run by employees from the south east, or from privileged backgrounds, [who are] then therefore, broadly speaking, less able to relate to creative content that differs wildly from their lived experience – a novel set in an obscure northern town, for example.”

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious biases are formed throughout our lives and live within our subconscious. They are primarily acquired from our environment, such as through social and parental conditioning. Our brains collect information and search for patterns to help it store data in a logical manner and are retrieved when our brains make subconscious analyses, using factors such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality and disability.

Search engines are programmed in a similar way to our brains and can be a great way of demonstrating the effects of unconscious bias. If you google “CEO” and look at the images which come up, you’ll probably see a lot of images of middle-age white men. The search engine hasn’t been told to show such a non-diverse range of CEOs, it has learnt to, by associating the two objects together.

A 2003 study has clearly shown how unconscious bias disadvantages BAME applicants. Thousands of identical CVs – some with stereotypically white names and some with stereotypically African-American names – were used to apply for many different but similar jobs. The senders then analysed what proportion of the applications got invited for interview and found that CVs with stereotypical white names were 50% more likely to be invited for interview.

Whilst the hiring teams may not have been aware of there bias, this clearly shows the enormous disadvantage that BAME applicants face when applying for roles in a predominantly white industry (Source: Forbes).

What About the Books?

Diversity issues are not just rife in the publishing houses themselves, but also impact which authors and what books get published. According to the 2015 Spread the Word report, BAME authors have said they often feel pressurised into writing books that fulfil racial and ethnic stereotypes, and that publishers often see BAME authors as riskier investments than white authors.

There are also enormous discrepancies in the ethnic mix of publishing across genres. 42% of BAME authors wrote literary fiction, YA was 26%, commercial fiction 8% and crime – one of the highest selling genres – accounted for a mere 4%. The report writes that “The propensity of the industry to publish writers of colour under the ‘literary’ banner, respondents felt, effectively distanced them from the mainstream, a finding also confirmed by the qualitative research undertaken for this report.”

It is not just the adult publishing sector that faces a lack of diversity. In 2017, the Centre for Literacy and Primary Education reported that of 9,115 children’s books published, only 4% featured minority ethnicity characters, despite almost a third of school-children being from these background. To add insult to injury, of this 4% minority ethnicity characters took the lead role in only 100 and these titles largely focused on social justice issues such as war and conflict. A 2018 study by Melanie Ramdarshan found the number of books published by BAME authors in YA fiction has been falling since 2010.

Crystal Swain-Bates, a self-published children’s author, wrote that she is often faced by the misconception that books with black characters are only for black children, saying “When a white character is the star of a children’s book, it’s universally accepted and deemed appropriate for children of all races. But when a black character is the star of the book, it’s considered to be only appropriate for black children.” She goes on to describe how diverse books help “bridge cultural understanding, promote tolerance and normalise identities.”

How does it all come together?

Whilst social media movements such as #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks have brought diversity issues to the attention of publishers minds, there is still a long way to go. Publishers are often described as “gatekeepers”, presiding over which voices get amplified and widely distributed, at least through books, and as such can play an important role in taking on racism.

Many major non-fiction title taking on race issues have seen huge success in the last couple of years, such as Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Slay in Your Lane, How to be an Anti-Racist and White Fragility. These books provided a great way for people to educate themselves and can be read by a wide audience.

However, books that take on race issues shouldn’t be the only books getting published by BAME authors. Publishers and agents need to consider why there are such great discrepancies into the proportion of BAME authors published in each genres. Until BAME characters become the protagonists or books where race isn’t the USP or focus of the story, we won’t be able to say that systemic racism in publishing has been quashed.

Lastly a little bit of science to demonstrate why the normalisation of diversity in books is so important. The ‘familiarity principle’ is a psychological principle which describes how individuals develop a preference for things which are more familiar to them. For example, in dating, it has been shown that the more times someone has seen another person, the more attracted they tend to be to them. Several studies have shown that participants who are exposed to other race or own-race faces increased the liking for those faces, but the effect isn’t exclusive to visual stimuli.

Unconscious bias is one of the hardest aspects of racism to take on, due to its subconscious nature. Based on the theory behind the familiarity principle, exposing people to a more diverse range of content could be key to deconstructing unconscious bias, and the downfall of systemic racism. Publishers have a responsibility therefore to normalise the representation of BAME groups in literature and mass media in a bit towards creating a more equal world in the future.

“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”

Maya Angelou

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