Chaired by Anamik Saha, who co-authored ‘Rethinking ‘Diversity’ In Publishing’ (2020), this panel discussed the lack of representation in publishing and comprised Nels Abbey, author and Co-founder of The Black Writers' Guild; Julie Farrell, author; Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, Associate Professor at UCL; and James Spackman, Founder of The Spare Room Project.
The pandemic has ‘only exacerbated and compounded social and cultural inequalities that characterise publishing in the UK’ but, as Anamik added, there have been ‘profound interventions’ in this time. The pivot to digital and the adaptations made in response to Covid restrictions have demonstrated what has been long possible for improving access to the book industry – and we don’t want to lose this momentum. As stated by Nels, we already have the data; now is the time for action.
The key questions for this panel were: how can the UK publishing industry do better to represent these underrepresented voices and what does better representation mean to the industry as a whole?
Julie Farrell provided a perspective on issues relevant to the disabled and chronically ill – she speaks from her own experience and what she has discussed with and learnt from others. I first saw her speak on these issues at a panel at Paisley Book Festival 2020, pre-pandemic, and the only thing that has changed in that time is the acceptance by the mainstream that online is fine! Often better! So, now we know that we can integrate access, let’s do it from the planning stage rather than ‘as an afterthought’, as Julie stated. Something that stood out to me that Julie asked was: ‘is our ability to earn really our singular worth?’ Our perception of productivity has changed dramatically and we have seen the light – the 9–5 Monday to Friday system isn’t always the best way to live. A large part of illness and disability is the management of conditions. This new way of working allows for flexibility for all, but especially for those who have to carefully consider how they will accomplish and approach each task to align with what their brain and body are doing that day.
Melanie Ramdarshan Bold considered diversity and contemporary book culture. How often is diversity shoehorned in, provided as a call-out or just used as a marketing ploy? She gave a few examples, like the infamous cover rebrand of classics, classics that contained problematic representations of Black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), but now were contained within covers depicting BIPOC. This is just one of the many times where it appears as though no attempts at consultation or conversations with marginalised voices was made. We need more than a rebrand, we need ‘the actual structural changes’, as Melanie said – historically, ‘these voices have been omitted, distorted and appropriated’.
Nels Abbey added to this idea – why are there all-white editorial boards? How is Black readership being understood and approached? How are authors’ actual needs being addressed? ‘The temperature has reached the point where we can mould’, Nels said. We cannot separate the movement surrounding the murder of George Floyd from the tensions of a global pandemic. As well as a surge in digital offerings, the pandemic has created the conditions for us to take a closer look at the structural issues within the industry. Others also brought in the point that the key to non-tokenistic diversity would be to include underrepresented voices at every level and in every role.
Another salient barrier to the publishing industry is income. As James Spackman pointed out, the dominant entry point is unpaid or low-paid internships. He acknowledged he had the benefit of growing up with people around him in the arts industry and a place to live for free with his father in London, where he gained his start. It is both economic and cultural barriers we must consider, as well as geographical. The pandemic has opened up digital and remote learning and internships – what can we do to continue these? What programmes and initiatives can we put in place that support the needs of marginalised voices?
Publishing is an industry that is both commercial and cultural. Publishers must make genuine efforts to engage and support the lesser-heard voices – actually listen to their needs rather than assuming. Every person on this panel is contributing to the development of these voices in very real and tangible ways. Seek them out online and learn from what they are doing and see what you can do too.