Building Inclusivity in Publishing Conference [event report]

On Monday 13 November, over 120 people came together for the second Building Inclusivity in Publishing conference, organised by The Publishers Association and the London Book Fair. Over the course of 2017, many writers and publishing staff from under-represented communities have expressed their frustration with our industry’s love of a panel discussion, which can often take the place of any actual progress. It’s appropriate, therefore, that the strap line of this conference was Reflecting All: Effecting Change, and that a real sense of ‘But what are you actually going to do about this?’ ran through every session.

The conference provided a packed programme with far more content than I can discuss in one article, so I’ll confine myself to focusing on some of the main themes here. (You can read the whole programme here, and follow the discussion on Twitter at #inclusivityconf17.)

Inclusivity makes financial sense

Aside from our moral obligation to build teams that reflect our diverse population and to produce content that speaks to everyone, there’s also a profound financial incentive. Essentially, by failing to produce diverse books, the publishing industry is missing out on valuable audiences. Author Abir Mukherjee used the British Asian community as an example. In the 2011 census, 5% of the British public described themselves as British Asians. The British Asian community are active library users, but a recent survey showed that approximately 50% had never been inside a bookshop. Another survey showed that 77% of British Asians felt that mainstream advertising had little or no relevance to them.

This is just one example of a community that as an industry we are failing to reach – and this is true not just in terms of the books we produce, but also when it comes to book-related marketing campaigns. Mukherjee described how targeting channels that cater specifically to (for example) the British Asian community leads to far greater success than only focusing on the go-to mainstream channels.

It all starts at school

The theme of inspiring children with the idea of being readers, writers and publishers kept emerging throughout the day. Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Creative Industries, DCMS, acknowledged that it’s the ‘soft networks’ that tend to bring us career success, whether we like it or not, and encouraged anyone who cares about inclusivity to get involved with the Speakers for Schools programme started by Robert Peston.

Monica Parle of First Story described her organisation’s work bringing writers into schools in disadvantaged areas. She explained that the challenge is not only to show children that their lives are represented in books, but also to show them that books are for them. (As Sheila Bounford wrote in a recent BookMachine article, building the next generation of readers is vital, and by no means something that we can take for granted.) The First Story scheme enables children to work with authors, and to realise that, while they may come from different backgrounds, they share the same struggles, and they’re normal people – they show children that writing is a career that’s open to them.

Attracting – and paying – talent is key

The unfairness of the unpaid internship model came up several times during the day. Sharmaine Lovegrove of Dialogue Books took the publishing industry to task for being too opaque and not agile enough to attract the best talent from BAME and working-class backgrounds. Emma Paterson of Rogers, Coleridge & White followed up with a call for publishing companies to be more flexible and open in our hiring practices, and bolder about fast-tracking talented people to senior positions.

CUP’s Heidi Mulvey and Penguin Random House’s Siena Parker described initiatives their organisations have undertaken in order to widen their employment base. CUP runs a successful apprenticeship scheme that recruits school-leavers, a game-changing strategy in an industry that tends to favour university graduates. Parker outlined a number of changes PRH has made to open up their application processes, including putting an end to internal referrals for internship places, paying all their interns, and, in a new initiative called Home Sweet Loan, providing loans to help new employees with the cost of their rental deposits.

We need to talk

Another theme that emerged in session after session was the need for all of us to be braver in talking about issues of diversity and inclusion. Simon Dowson-Collins of HarperCollins, in conversation with his colleague Nancy Adimora, called for us to be ‘colour-brave’, not ‘colour-blind’, and to overcome our reluctance to talk about race – because that’s the only way we’re going to bring about change. Author and broadcaster June Sarpong made the same argument, pointing out the many benefits of bringing more diverse voices to our workplaces. She also encouraged applicants from under-represented backgrounds to see their points of difference as advantageous to potential employers: our differences give us insights that can be very helpful in achieving success.

Every one of us can make a difference

A series of case studies throughout the day gave inspirational examples of inclusivity in practice. Janice Henson of Equal Approach showed us that ‘Return on Inclusion’ can be measured in financial terms, and that inclusion projects can bring clear financial benefits to employers. Jamie Beddard of Diverse City provided us with a powerful reminder of the value of storytelling in helping us to be more understanding and empathetic, and to create communities. He also explained that all of us have a complex and nuanced identity: none of us can be defined by only one aspect of ourselves. Selma Nicholls of talent and casting agency Looks Like Me described the frustration she felt when she realised that her three-year-old daughter wasn’t being shown images of people who looked like her – frustration that become action when she started her own agency, which now provides images to international brands. Nicholls’ message, which we should all make our own, is this: “If you have a thought and you see something that needs to change, you have the power to make that change.”

The day ended with pledges from several delegates about steps they are going to take to make their own projects and working environments more inclusive. Although I didn’t speak up at the event, I am making my own pledge here: I am going to increase my efforts to reach out to under-represented voices, to ensure their stories told here on the BookMachine website. If you have a story to tell about your experiences in publishing, drop me a line, and let’s get this conversation started.

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