Updated: Apr 5
To start the Ctrl Alt Refresh conference with a bang, Sharmaine Lovegrove, Publisher at Dialogue Books and patron of Hachette UK’s Changing the Story Programme, spoke to young publishers about her life and career as the Keynote Speaker.
First, the 2020/21 Co-chairs, Sonali Misra and Sarah Barnard, spoke of last year’s conference, which was sadly cancelled due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. But this year, SYP Scotland returned better than ever with its first digital conference! Entitled ‘Ctrl Alt Refresh’, they emphasised that even after all this is over, change is still needed: ‘We shouldn’t delete, but refresh. Refresh the tired parts of the industry and make new things and do better.’ Accessibility was key to the conference with every panel having captions and physical descriptions of panellists to start, blog posts, and recordings that will be available until 31 May 2021. There were also free tickets offered before the event for those from a low socio-economic status or whose income had been adversely affected by the pandemic.
Then it was time for Sharmaine Lovegrove to take the floor (or screen, as it were). She’s been working in publishing for two decades now, starting as a bookseller in London. which was like ‘doing a PhD in literature’. She got to meet people and readers, leading her to do a degree in Politics and Anthropology. Working in a bookshop sparked her interest beyond literature, but in the world, in people and why we live the way we live.
During her career, Sharmaine emphasised how much she has followed what her values and instincts told her to do – even leading her to move to Edinburgh for a year where she worked for Waterstones, but also spending a lot of time at what is now known as Lighthouse Books. She then moved back to London to FMCM, where she was a publicist. But she missed being a bookseller and selling books to readers, so she moved to Berlin to start a bookshop. She missed ‘people thinking you’re one thing but showing yourself as something else through a shared love of books – people always surprise you.’
Touching upon how the UK leaving the Net Book Agreement pushed her move to Berlin, she spoke about again being led by her morals and instincts, to see ‘what is wrong about the system that you’re in and how can you change that?’ Her shop, Dialogue Books, opened and it created a community of English speakers, beyond just those who had English as a first language, but second or third language too. Through this, Sharmaine met film producers and started to find stories and ideas to develop into films and TV shows, using the books in her shop. She had started literature scouting. So, Sharmaine felt compelled to move back to London to reconnect with her family and with what she’d learnt in Berlin by starting Dialogue Scouting, a literature scouting company, the very first of its kind. She also became the Literature Editor at Elle magazine at this time.
After a meeting with Charlie King, MD of Little, Brown, Sharmaine realised people of colour needed the same thing in the industry that Virago did for females by opening doors. So, she came up with a template for an imprint named Dialogue Books and became a publisher. She described it as the hardest thing she’s ever done due to the ‘incredibly hostile community’. Despite everything she’d done, she was expected to fail because she’d never worked in a publishing house. This is something that goes beyond race or class but is intrinsic within the publishing system. Starting from the bottom and working your way up, the toxic corporate culture is absorbed by those working there. But there is hope. Within four years, Dialogue is up for Imprint of the Year, as they’ve created a safe space for marginalised voices. Sharmaine credits this to her amazing team, who constantly call out and fly the flag of support against discrimination.
But due to this negative community and the political changes that were happening in the UK after the Brexit referendum, Sharmaine decided to move back to Berlin, where she’s been able to continue her work successfully with Dialogue (a good example of distance-working if ever we saw one). She again credits her team for making this such a successful working situation. Sharmaine is proud to be part of the first generation to say ‘No. You do not get to decide my rights’ to the government after 400 years of slavery and 250 years of colonialisation, and after ten years of austerity and a future that looks no better, she’s taking her opportunity to assert that right.
She then spoke about the publishing culture, and it’s slightly brighter future, especially after the positive support that the Black Writer’s Guild’s (of which Sharmaine is one of the founding members) letter to the ‘Big Five’ in the Guardian received. Movements like Hachette’s establishment of new regional offices throughout the UK are making changes to the culture of publishing that she’s proud of. Opening up publishing beyond the white, middle-class homogenous makeup is only going to benefit the industry, and therefore the books we make for the readers. People should not have less access to the transformative power of books simply because they have different lived experiences, and it’s the same in the industry. There are so many new initiatives opening up throughout the Big Five publishers and each publisher is putting their own ‘flavour’ to what needs to be done. They are making changes – 2020 did not make those changes come about, but simply accelerated what was already happening.
Her piece of advice for aspiring publishers? Centre your readers above everything else. When choosing books to publish, think about the vast variety of readers out there. Throughout her career, Sharmaine attests that the thing she’s most proud of is being a bookseller and thinks every publisher should work in a bookshop at some point. If you’ve never sold a book, then how do you know how to create books that readers want? Stop publishing books for publishers and publish books for readers. Find people who are bold and recalibrating what good looks like in publishing and support them in whatever way you can. Change can come from anywhere. Put your own self-worth and self-values first. A job is a job, but you have to live with yourself and your career choices. Working hard and being true to your values is the greatest gift you can give yourself.