Rethinking “Diversity”: Lasting Change

Posted on October 8, 2021 in News & Reviews, Scotland

In August we had the pleasure of working alongside the Edinburgh International Book Festival on one of their Business of Books events, Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing: Lasting Change, inspired by the 2020 report of the same name which looks at how cultural production itself might disadvantage writers of colour.


Our very own co-chairs, Sonali Misra and Grace Balfour-Harle, introduced the event and the panel chair Ellah P. Wakatama who was joined by one of the report’s authors Dr Anamik Saha, Margaret Busby, Crystal Mahey-Morgan, and Samantha Williams.


The discussion started with Anamik Saha introducing the report and asking why it matters, given the kind of world events that we have witnessed over the last year, writing, making, and selling books could be seen as being a bit trivial; what role can books play in any social justice program? He then explained that if we think of racism as the dehumanisation of people of colour, one of the powerful things about books is how they can restore the humanity of people whose lives have been devalued.


The questions that the report asks are where are the stories by writers of colour and if they are published are they afforded the same freedom to write the stories they want to tell in the way that they want to tell them, including how they are packaged and marketed? The report found that writers of colour were not given the same freedoms, there were fears over quality, over authenticity, and that the stories would be too niche. Writers of colour are considered a riskier investment which is why publishers are not keen to invest in too many of them because the industry sees its core audience as white and middle class and the entire industry is set up to cater to that demographic. Writers of colour need to be seen to have value to that demographic, which affords some writers of colour opportunities but doesn’t account for those that want to write for their own communities.


The publishers of the report believe that the publishing industry sees the moral value of diversity but not the economic value of it otherwise they would be doing more to attract minority audiences. Diversity is not gained just by inserting people of colour into the industry and only at junior levels, it is looking at how the industry can be transformed so that the publishing process affords the same creative freedoms to writers of colour to tell the stories they want to tell.


Anamik discussed needing to replace the benign language of diversity and instead frame it as reparative justice, with the understanding that minority communities have been exploited and on the receiving end of forms of oppression, and as a way of addressing that giving these communities a platform to tell their own story; to what extent can diversity be replaced with a more radical gesture.


Crystal felt that in mainstream publishing, the findings of reports like this one are things that she felt as a reality of her day to day, assumptions made about her and what she could and could not do, assumptions about audiences and authors. She felt like the only way to make proactive long-lasting change rather than passive change was to step outside mainstream publishing and build something alternative, to build something that was leading the industry rather than outside the industry but to do it on their own terms, which is why she started up her own company so that they could cater to the audiences and authors that weren’t being targeted by the wider industry.


Margaret added to this point that people of colour must try and make sure that the industry doesn’t do them a favour because what they are arguing for is to make literature better for everyone. The goal should be to make the country’s literature more relevant, dynamic, and interesting for everyone involved and diversity should not only mean ethnicity but class, region, all sorts of different things that have to infuse the industry to make it more relevant to any reader. Independent publishers are usually a lot more inclusive and will publish a diverse range of books that go on to win prizes, but that culture needs to permeate the larger publishers.


In response to Ellah’s question about whether linking the cultural and moral value to the commercial value is the way forward, Anamik told the panel that in the research for the report publishers seemed to suggest that the moral and economic value of diversity were aligned but they weren’t persuaded that publishers did believe in the economic value. The challenge is therefore to show publishers that they can make money from writers of colour. Publishers are in the business of selling commodities, books and what derives from them can make publishers a lot of money, but they can also enrich our lives through what they symbolize, so to what extent does a system that is purely driven by profit able to deliver on the potential of the symbolic value of these commodities. He then wondered what it would look like to have government policy that takes seriously the symbolic cultural specificity of books and to what extent could that policy intervene and arrange production so that the potential can be realized. The fundamental tension publishers face is wanting to produce these powerful forms of culture but also, they are a business and need to make money and until it’s unlocked these problems will keep coming back around.


When discussing the difference it makes in having diverse books accessible to younger readers Samantha told the panel that she felt she was constantly facing battles; as a bookseller that takes the books into the community through public events; having to engage in discussions about diversity can be draining and that she would like not to have the tensions that come with being a diverse bookseller.


In response to Samantha’s statement that people of colour are not seen, heard or listened to, Ellah put forward the suggestion that it came back to the idea of somebody else having to restore their humanity, and wondered after the last year if there was a moment of change coming and whether the five year cycle of people looking into diversity and giving more suggestions of what should be done will become obsolete. Margaret agreed that the same mistakes can’t keep being repeated with a new report every decade and expecting things to change unless something is done to make things change. People of colour can’t always be the ones to tell the mainstream industry what to do or do all the work themselves, the wider publishing community has to build on the lessons and hope that another report won’t be needed and that those who know they should be taking action will do so.


The audience questions also added some brilliant insight, when asked whether works by authors of colour are more heavily scrutinized than others Crystal replied that this is the case on several levels and usually because of wrong assumptions made by the industry. Creatively, culturally, and commercially there is so much scrutiny that people who are not “traditional” writers in the eyes of mainstream publishers have to battle against things that others don’t. Authors of colour don’t get the chances that white authors do, if a white author’s book doesn’t do well, they can generally get a second chance, but authors from minoritized communities have got to get it right the first time or the opportunity is gone. Or worse if a book by another author of colour hasn’t done well there is an assumption that no book from someone from the same background will work; they are already coming up against so many barriers that other authors are not.


The panel were then asked about issues in the UK that could be addressed, as a lot of current narratives on the state of inclusion in the publishing industry are US-centric,   Margaret replied that there are many UK issues that could be addressed as long as people will allow them to be aired, it could be publishers that involve minoritized communities doing it themselves or other people recognising that they need to engage with these issues. It is not simply that if an author of colour writes a book, they are only going to write about things that will interest their community which will be small, they may write a good book that will interest millions of people. People’s worlds become bigger, not smaller if the issues that are included in books are not the old “normal” but the new “normal”.


In terms of the alternative markets that can be used to sell books when asked if she felt there were different responses, Samantha told the panel that the book carnival is nonprescriptive and it is dictated from a place of activism and inclusion and making sure that the products that are sold talk to everyone in the community but particularly people of colour. People enjoy it because they can be themselves, bookshops don’t always speak to all communities they can feel like alien spaces, bringing books to people in different ways means that you can break down the barriers in getting books to readers. The literary world almost enjoys the alienation because they like to feel important, but spaces should be created for everyone.


A lot of the audience wanted to know about the opportunities and limits of the use of sensitivity readers, Crystal replied that her worry about sensitivity readers, although helpful, is it offloads the burden from the publisher onto someone else and that there isn’t the staff in house that have an understanding of what the author is trying to convey. There isn’t a right or wrong way to approach this, but the question should be asked as to why publishers need sensitivity readers. Books go through a lot of people before making it onto shelves and if it has managed to get through the process without anyone picking up on problems that only a sensitivity reader will think to look for then that points to a wider issue with the industry that needs to be tackled.


Anamik followed this response with the idea that the use of sensitivity readers shows that publishers are scared. There is no right or wrong way to represent everyone and sensitivity readers will not solve that problem, because now audiences can talk back to publishers there is a possibility of being “cancelled”. Sensitivity readers kind of deal with that fear factor which is transforming publishers and their attitudes to writers of colour in both good and bad ways.


To round off the discussion Ellah asked the panel to look to the future, the positive changes that have been seen so far are being powered by people who are creating spaces for discussion and support, and she asked each of the panel to mention an organisation or an initiative that they felt is heralding a future that is going to benefit us all. Samantha wanted to highlight her own organisation Booklove because there is something beautiful in playing a part in giving families and children content that they can’t find easily and empowering their education. Crystal mentioned Influx Press, who she wanted to highlight because it is run by two white men and when thinking about systematic change we can’t be siloed in our thinking, it is about collectively finding likeminded people who care about humanity and stories and the change that they can make in the world. Margaret decided not to pick one organisation as she applauds all the work being done by the younger generation and hopes that they can build on the lessons of the past. Anamik finished off the discussion by mentioning the networks that exist within the bigger publishing houses of people from minoritized backgrounds who are trying to shape the agendas of those publishing houses.


There was so much wonderful and insightful content within this discussion, and we hope that this will be something that will promote change within the publishing industry. If you wish to see the event then it is still available on the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s Youtube channel and if you would like some more information on literary and publishing projects doing great work for writers of colour in the UK then click here and check out the end of the event Twitter thread.