Brittany Yost is a student at University College London pursuing her Masters in Publishing. She received her undergraduate degree in English Literature and Communication Studies with an emphasis in Intercultural Communications. She has served on two separate professional diversity committees and has been leading inclusivity and bias training seminars since 2010. She is originally from Seattle but enjoys venturing between her home city and London.
When I tell publishing professionals that I am specialising in inclusive manuscript commissioning for my MA in Publishing degree, I often get quizzical looks. I have had professionals ask me if I think there is a special way to commission manuscripts by authors from diverse backgrounds. Others have asked if there is a particular thing that I believe they have to do with a manuscript once they get it. Will I be creating a 7-step plan to teach people the quantifiable steps to commissioning more manuscripts by BAME authors? The answer to all of these questions is: no, not really.
Each commissioning editor has a process in how they approach acquiring a manuscript. This can be heavily influenced by the publishing house and team they work for or their professional goals. There are few studies on how editors go about this process, yet, it is possible to investigate, inquire, and challenge the editorial process that leads to the creation of our literature. It is, after all, a process and a system of hierarchy. Editors choose some books while they decide to pass on others.
However, recently, we have seen several studies relating to the consequences of a commissioning editor’s system.
What the data shows
This past July saw a study by Dr. Melanie Ramdarshan Bold of University College London indicating that from 2006 to 2016 books with BAME characters and by BAME authors in young adult literature had barely increased. In 2006 25 titles in the UK were published while in 2016, 31 titles were published. During the 10 year period the number fluctuated, as in 2008 14% of books were by authors of colour, while in 2014 it was 5%. Also, in 2017 CLPE published a study to show only 1% of books published for children had a BAME main character and only 4% contained BAME characters at all.
While publishing is intersectional, one thing is clear: the editorial process has not reached a point of inclusivity in regards to character content or authorship. This is in spite of an increase in inclusivity measures relating to hiring such as The PA 10 point plan, Hachette’s Fresh Chapters program, DipNet by the Arts Council, and the Publishers Equality Charter, as referenced in a report by Claire Squires of the University of Stirling. This observation is not to discredit the much needed work of initiatives to increase representation of hiring, but instead to ask whether there is more to the commissioning process than simply the editors themselves. Is it in fact other aspects of the commissioning process that are preventing readers from seeing more inclusive literature? Commissioning is an intersectional process, we must also acknowledge that solutions to any challenges relating to it must be intersectional and multifaceted.
How you can help
As publishers, we know that commissioning is a pillar in our industry. We also know that various pillars, not just editorial, are failing to reflect the demands of our readership. In the spirit of this I must ask the ultimate two questions: why and how? It is my goal to use my dissertation study to investigate the editorial system in relation to why there are not more inclusive books being commissioned and how editors are engaging in a system with this result. At this time the best way for people in the industry to assist in finding answers to these questions is to support any research being conducted. Studies such as the aforementioned CLPE survey and the survey I am conducting have the potential to give insight into publishing’s greatest challenges and possible solutions.
If you are an editor who would like to participate in my study you can find the survey here: https://opinio.ucl.ac.uk/s?s=56853. The deadline for last respondents is 23 August 2018 at 23:59.