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Rethinking diversity

Statistics show that the representation of writers of colour is still lagging behind, despite many efforts to bring about the necessary change. An academic study (2020) in the UK on diversity in trade fiction and the publishing industry features 113 in-depth interviews with people who work at each stage of publishing and examines the ways in which writers of colour are published. Here you can find the report’s most important conclusions.

The predominance of white audiences

The core audience for publishers in the UK is white and middle-class. ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) and working-class audiences are undervalued by publishers, both economically and culturally. Publishers fear that books by writers of colour are too niche and will not appeal to their core audience. Writers and their books are treated by their publishers in two ways in the hope of increasing their appeal to the mainstream readership. Either they are whitewashed, with the publisher deliberately erasing or not mentioning aspects of diversity in the storyline, characters and covers, or the authors and their books are exoticized, with BAME characters or cultural elements presented as unusual, even romanticized or made to seem glamourous.

Tension between moral and economic imperatives

Publishers do care about diversity. This is especially true of a young generation of publishers, who are looking beyond the traditional places where writers are found in order to discover new talent from underrepresented backgrounds. Throughout their interviews, the researchers found no denial or defensiveness about the inequalities that exist in publishing.

However, publishers also believe their work is ‘fundamentally a business, and therefore [we] need to sell books’. Publishers tend to think there is a tension, or even a dichotomy, between the ethical principle of including the voices of historically marginalized sectors in the books they publish and the economic imperative of making a material profit.

Approaches to diversity in publishing are frequently shaped by this tension, and diversity is advocated as a way of preventing reputational damage, rather than as an attempt to solve structural inequalities. At the same time, social diversity is usually poorly represented for fear of disappointing sales figures.

‘A lack of faith in new audiences is the biggest reason why the publishing industry still struggles to publish more diversely.’

An invitation to rethink diversity

According to the report, the key to a deeper and, at the same time, strategic approach to diversity is to work on reaching new audiences that are now underestimated. If these potential audiences felt that the publishing industry actually cared about them, they would consume more of its content, and more people belonging to minority communities might be inspired to write. This group of researchers therefore invites the publishing industry to rethink diversity.

As well as simply increasing the number of people from minority backgrounds in the publishing workforce and among authors, the publishing industry needs to start recognizing structural inequalities that require critical and systematic interventions. This also means rethinking the universal concept of ‘quality’, by recognizing publishers’ cultural biases about what they consider good or bad. They need therefore to reflect on their perspective and the position from which they are making decisions, and be willing to challenge it.

What can publishers actually do?

- Rethinking audiences. Publishers can invest in audience development and work in partnership with audience engagement organisations to reach and engage diverse audiences. In this regard, the researchers also stress the importance of considering the heterogeneity of potential new audiences, whose interests are just as diverse as those of the white middle-class traditional core audience.

- Rethinking promotional campaigns. Publishers can include more imaginative promotional campaigns using new media channels and new types of partnerships, while booksellers can do more to attract new audiences.

- Rethinking practices. Publishers can hire more people who belong to marginalised communities. That will benefit publishers strongly by helping them tap into new audiences, although only if they are given the resources and freedom to do so.

- Rethinking whom to join forces with. Publishers can work in partnership and support writer development initiatives financially (both non-profit and grassroots organizations) to discover new voices.

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