Publishers failing to improve racial and regional diversity, survey finds

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Despite concentration of publishers in London, only 11% of respondents identified as BAME – significantly lower than average of 40% in the city.

A major survey of the UK’s publishing workforce has found that “significant progress” still needs to be made on both the numbers of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff and improving regional diversity, with the majority of those working in the industry coming from London and the south east.

According to the survey of 6,432 individuals working for 42 organisations, which the Publishers Association described as the most comprehensive ever conducted of the UK industry, 11.6% of respondents identified as BAME – lower than the UK population (14%), and significantly lower than London (40.2%). The results echo those of a 2017 online survey of 1,000 publishers that found 90% of the workforce was white.

The survey also identified that the majority of people working in publishing grew up around the south east of England (19.8%), London (15.1%), and the east of England (12.5%), followed by the Midlands (9.5%), the north west (4.9%), Yorkshire (3.2%) and just in 2% in the north east (2%). Similarly, only 6.8% of publishing staff were Scottish, 1.4% Welsh and 0.9% Northern Irish.

Novelist Ben Myers, who was born in Durham, said that the regional imbalance of publishing meant that the English novel “resolutely remains the preserve of the middle and upper-middle classes”.

“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,” said Myers, who won the Walter Scott prize for his novel set in 18th-century Yorkshire, The Gallows Pole. “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.”

Aberdeen-born novelist Kerry Hudson, who will publish her memoir Lowborn this spring, about growing up poor and working class, said the skewed regional makeup of publishers meant that they “may well have an unconscious bias towards work that reflects their own lives”.

“This can result in fewer representations of marginalised communities and fewer visible authors from those regions, meaning kids like I was will still grow up thinking writing is something other people do,” she said. “Perhaps we miss out on the best thing that British literature has to offer, which is the complexity, depth and spectrum of experiences that embody our small island.”

Myers agreed: “Unfortunately publishing’s London-centric stronghold is at the expense of budding writers who live far from the capital – in my case, in the north of England. With all the major publishers and agents based in London, the practicalities of getting a foot in the door are so much harder – for new writers, editors, designers, anyone.”

But Myers said that change is happening: several northern independent publishers have pooled their resources to form the Northern Fiction Alliance, and he himself recently signed a deal with Bloomsbury after his editor “made the effort to travel to see me, and we had a meeting sitting in a park in west Yorkshire … As far as I am aware, this is practically unheard of,” he said.

The survey also found the numbers of women in senior leadership roles, LGBT+ and disabled staff were all high: 8.2% of individuals identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual – four times the estimate in the wider UK population (2%) – and 54% of senior leadership and executive level roles were held by women. The industry continues to be female-dominated, with almost two-thirds of respondents identifying as women.

The Publishers Association said that significant progress still needed to be made to improve racial and regional diversity, and it has set a target of 15% of employees being BAME by 2022.

“While the data does show some progress is being made, we should not shy away from the fact there are still some key areas where much more needs to be done,” said chief executive Stephen Lotinga. “There is common recognition among publishers of the importance of diversity and inclusion issues and the PA is committed to this work in the longer term, in terms of further developing the survey and our broader work, to help the industry identify and direct their action on inclusivity.”

Claire Malcolm, chief executive of New Writing North, said that while the dominance of the south east was not surprising, the survey revealed how much work was left to do.

“We need to work towards a progressive industry that makes opportunities for talented people whatever their background and wherever they come from … and which publishes books that reflect the diverse range of experiences in this country. Unpaid internships and low starting salaries have made it very difficult for young people from outside London to access the experience and networks that prove so invaluable in entering the industry, although we are seeing some progress from publishers who recognise the need to facilitate change,” she said.

Source – The Guardian 

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