When I was young, my favourite books often featured female protagonists. I related to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Sara Crowe in A Little Princess, mainly because her name was Sara (it’s spelt a bit different, but I like to think it’s pronounced the same), and to Anne of Green Gables because she was a bit clumsy (although I never accidentally fed a friend wine instead of cordial), and I loved Roald Dahl’s Matilda because she was a reader, just like me. But what all of these protagonists have in common is the fact that they are a little bit different. Because, in the absence of books with people who looked like me and my family, I had to seek out differences where I could.
It wasn’t until I was about 10 that I finally found a book that featured a young Muslim girl as the main character – and I still treasure that copy of Anita Desai’s The Peacock Garden. But while the character shared an ethnic and religious background with me, she still wasn’t like me – a young British Muslim. Plus, the book was written in 1974, so it was hardly contemporary even when I was a child, as long ago as that seems.
I explain about my childhood reading because I think we’re still largely asking the questions that I unconsciously asked myself as a voracious young reader – where are the books about people like me? Why is no one writing them? Is it because no one cares? Is it because I’m not important?
Since I was a child, many moons ago, publishing has taken great strides, and young people now can, if they know where to look or have someone to guide them, find books about people like them. Malorie Blackman writes fantastic books with characters from a variety of backgrounds, Keren David’s Salvage, about siblings adopted into different families, recently made the YA Book Prize shortlist, and Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal has been a hit among reviewers and bloggers. But, walk into a bookshop or a library, or look online, and you can see that the number of books with diverse characters are still vastly outnumbered.
So how do we get more of these books? What are the barriers to getting more of these books? And what are publishers doing about it?
I’m happy to say that publishers are doing a number of things. Look at us now, discussing this issue. Would publishing have done this 20 years ago? Probably not. The first stage to change is self-awareness, and publishing is definitely aware of its shortcomings when it comes to diversity.
At the beginning of this year Inclusive Minds held an event called A Place at the Table, bringing together children’s publishers to have honest discussions about the barriers to diversity, and to try and work out ways to break those barriers down. The day resulted in the Everybody In charters, one for booksellers and one for publishers, each containing a list of practical guidelines to make books more inclusive and diverse. The charters recognise all facets of diversity, from race and heritage, disability, and gender identity to sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, religion and culture.
Another key to diversity in content is diversity in workforce. If your staff is largely white, middle-class and Oxbridge educated, with the best will in the world you’re not going to relate enough to some content to see its value to different sectors of your current and, this is really important, potential, readership. But if your workforce is diverse – from North, South, East and West, university educated and not, from different socio-economic backgrounds, and of different political and religious beliefs, to mention just a few – your content is more likely to be diverse.
When it comes to gender publishing is super diverse – the majority of people working in publishing are women, and the majority of people who buy books are women. But what about other kinds of diversity? Can you walk into a major publishing house in London, and see the staff inside reflecting the make up of the people on the streets outside? Probably not. Last year, The Bookseller looked at diversity across the trade, and found that many still feel there is more to be done, and just today, the writer development agency Spread the Word released a study showing that 84% of publishers and 97% of agents think that publishing is only “a little diverse” or “not diverse at all”, with this of course having an affect on the way authors from diverse backgrounds think they are perceived.
But, it’s not all doom and gloom. Things are changing when it comes to workforce diversity.
The Publishers Association and the Independent Publishers Guild have revived Equality in Publishing, commonly known as EQUIP, to guide and help publishers when it comes to diversity. Publishers including Penguin Random House, Pan Macmillan and Carcanet Press have signed up, and by doing so, it means they can be held to their commitment to diversity.
Traditionally, publishing is a career that, a bit like journalism, can sometimes depend on who you know and how wealthy you are. Unpaid work experience has, in past years, been a key way to get into the industry, but if you’re from a low economic background, your parents probably can’t afford to support you while you do unpaid internships, and you’ll find it difficult to hold down a job and work for a publisher for free at the same time. This is an easily solvable problem, and publishers have stepped up to the plate – Profile, for example, pays all interns the London Living Wage so that they can get the experience in the industry they need, while also not being out of pocket.
Publishing isn’t a career that young people necessarily think of when they’re at school or even university, so it’s important to reach out to children and students and make them aware that publishing is an industry for them, and that will welcome them. Hachette UK regularly holds what it calls Insight Into Publishing days for university students. The events are open to all students, regardless of university or degree subject, and the aim is to show the range of jobs available at a publishing house, from editor to rights professional, from sales rep to accountant.
One argument brought up is that there isn’t the audience out there for publishers to worry about investing in diverse books, but what if the audience is there, and publishers just aren’t speaking to them when it comes to publicity and marketing? That’s something being looked at by Penguin Random House, the biggest publisher in the UK (and the world), which has just launched The Scheme, a programme to find what it is calling the ‘marketers of tomorrow’. As their HR director put it, “The Scheme is about breaking down perceived barriers and getting creative people who might never have thought about working in publishing to think again”. He added that Penguin Random House wants to “hear new voices, see different perspectives, and find fresh ways to tell our stories”. By finding people who wouldn’t traditionally have considered a career in publishing, and finding them in the spaces they already are – The Scheme recruits via Tumblr – Penguin Random House is showing that it is willing to diversify its workforce, and also its content.
It’s disappointing to think that in 2015 we need to have measures in place to make sure publishing reflects society, but we must look at the various steps being taken, like EQUIP and A Place at the Table, and see them positively. It’s great that this discourse is happening, that it’s happening honestly, that’s it happening because people are working together, and that it’s happening because people are committed to more diverse books, because publishers have a responsibility to produce great books about the world. That responsibility means children, and adults, should be able to pick up books that reflect society, whether that means stories featuring one-parent families, refugee children from Syria, a boy with two mums, or a girl in a wheelchair. With the steps being taken today, more of those books shouldn’t be far off.
-a speech I gave on April 14, 2015 at Including the Excluded: Diversity and Inclusion in Action!, a seminar at London Book Fair.