A call to action for truthful inclusivity in editorial and publishing

Tech in Publishing

Francesca Zunino Harper is a linguist, translator, and publishing professional. She worked in the British and international academia researching on comparative literatures,  translation, and women’s and environmental humanities for several years. She now works in the Humanities and Social Sciences area of publishing. You can follow her @ZuninoFrancesca.

Is there an intrinsic imbalance at the heart of the publishing industry? How do we make the over-represented, monocultural community truthfully care about difference? Haven’t we discussed diversity, inclusivity, and equality enough? Does the youth need this? And most of all, what are we actively doing to open doors to under-represented communities?

Inclusivity is becoming both a hot topic and a tick-the-box exercise in our society, and more so in a currently and proudly self-analysing industry like UK publishing. Yesterday’s BookMachine Unplugged: Talking Editorial event saw Abbie Headon, a commissioning editor and writer, gather a committed, critical, and constructive panel of editors from small and big presses to discuss issues of privilege, class, meritocracy, socio-economic background, disability, prejudice, ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ+, BAME, racism, linguistic assimilation, marginalisation, representation, basic human rights and their various intersections.

Abbie introduced the topic by giving a clear, heartfelt, softly spoken but highly passionate call for action for publishing to start truthfully recognising difference and realistically reflecting our society. Inclusivity is also a commercially viable strategy, she reminded us. If we do not wish the current path to lead the industry to one day become irrelevant, completely alienated from its reality-inhabiting audience, we must act now. After this inspirational start, both with their personal and professional trajectories each panel member highlighted how difficult – but not impossible – it is to disrupt structural inequality and smash from within the establishment the many glass ceilings that are still very much in place today. The four-strong panel was full of knowledge, experience, data and positive outrage for change.

Nathan Connolly, Publishing Director at Liverpudlian independent Dead Ink Books, discussed London-centrism vs the Northern divide and inspiring initiatives like the Northern Fiction Alliance, Kit de Waal’s focus on non-middle-class writers and publishing professionals, and the way that working class stories, readers, and perhaps even publishers can be somehow marginalised in the eyes of the dominating inside networks. He told us how in spite of still living in a class- and socioeconomically-defined society we should definitely not ‘know our place’, especially when coming from a working-class background.

Sarah Shaffi, literary journalist and co-founder of BAME in Publishing, gave us many real-life examples she collected of people working in publishing, mostly young and in junior positions, that made us shiver with frustration. She exposed the often subtle micro-aggressions and culturally-insensitive assumptions that exacerbate exclusion and the perpetuation of a white, straight, middle-class, able-bodied monolithic status quo – often also male-only in the upper power spheres.

Pride in Publishing Co-Chairs Zainab Juma, Creative Manager at Penguin Random House UK and Nick Coveney, Digital Innovation Director at HarperCollins Publishers, talked about excuses. Editorial excuses such as ‘we published it last year’, ‘we’re just not getting the submissions’, ‘do we need this?’, ‘I just don’t now how to publish/market this book’, and the attitude of going for what’s easy instead of what’s brave are part of a publishing culture that repeatedly choses to hold up a distorted mirror to a world that does not actually exist.

Not allowing others to be there, to speak, to be listened to, not recruiting enough diverse members of staff, not taking new inclusivity recruitment schemes to the next level, not commissioning enough books that reflect social diversity, not reading submissions by under-represented writers about diverse stories that are outside the usual, repetitive, formulaic box, erasing comments about diversity in editorial and marketing content, conforming, not daring, not investing… all this is the ultimate commercially unsound path that can lead to oblivion. Alienating huge sectors of the population by not representing the people that read or can read your books is the perfect road to disaster.

From its very beginning, this fruitful discussion mentally and practically opened doors for the audience, who in spite of being quite the reflection of the white, middle-class, over-represented community that was being analysed, was attentive, indignant, hopeful, and ready for positive action. So what can be some of the solutions? The panel highlighted the need for editors, publishers, and people in general, to listen, don’t assume, don’t dismiss, don’t make excuses, don’t tokenise, and to treat everyone the same. Listening to other people and treating your neighbour like you wish to be treated by him or her is still the magic formula. Publishers, editors, writers, readers, it’s 2018. Have we discussed diversity, inclusivity, and equality enough? Let’s not just increase the conversation, let’s start making truthful positive changes.

The next BookMachine event is programmed by The Times Literary Supplement and takes place on Wednesday 16th May. For details and tickets click here.

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