Rethinking Diversity in Publishing: A Cultural Industries Perspective

Lead Research Organisation: Goldsmiths College
Department Name: Media and Communications


The issue of (the lack of) cultural diversity is perhaps the most pressing issue in the creative industries today. Media organisations across different cultural sectors have conceded that they have a problem with diversity, with minorities disproportionately underrepresented. In 2015, the writer development agency Spread the Word produced the report Writing the Future that exposed the challenges people of colour are facing in publishing. One part of the report discussed how minority writers feel pressurised into using cultural stereotypes, which, it is explained, is a consequence of a predominantly white editorial staff that judge work through a Eurocentric lens. This is an important intervention as policy tends to approach issues of diversity in terms of access, training and retention with less attention paid to how a lack of diversity in the cultural industries impacts upon the representation of minorities in the media. Yet this is only one part of the story. In my doctoral research on British Asian cultural production I found evidence that suggests that it is the very processes of production (rather than institutional whiteness by itself) that steer workers - both white and nonwhite - into reproducing reductive representations of race. These findings were gathered mostly from interviews with writers and some publishers. With this project I want to conduct a more in-depth study of the publishing industry, focused almost entirely on publishing personnel, to unpack the ways that writers of colour are constrained, or at times enabled, by the publishing process.

Production studies of commercial media organisations are notoriously difficult since access is so hard to obtain. To overcome this difficulty the project will involve a partnership with Spread the Word alongside the trade magazine The Bookseller who both have strong links with the publishing industry and will facilitate my entry. One of the main research outcomes will be a co-produced report that acts as a follow-up to Writing the Future. The research will involve interviewing people who have worked on books by writers of colour at different stages of production: acquisition, editorial, design, marketing, publicity, sales and retail. The aim is unpack how the respondents' understandings of the author, the book and target audience (and the assumptions about race and ethnicity that these understandings entail) and their experience of the processes and operations of each stage of production intersect to shape how the books of black and Asian writers appear in the marketplace. The study will incorporate different genres that have their own conventions, markets and distinct audiences. For this purpose I adopt a 'cultural industries' approach that pays attention to the distinctiveness of industrial cultural production, specifically in relation to the dynamics between commerce and creativity. This will be combined with a postcolonial studies approach interested in texts, representation and how imperial pasts shape the present. The overall objective is to see how cultural industries work to produce particular representations of race.

In this way the research hopes to make two interventions. Firstly, in partnership with Spread the Word and The Bookseller, it will shift public debate towards a new framing of issues of cultural diversity in the media that focuses on the production process itself and encourages an approach that tackles issues of diversity in the workforce and media content in a more interconnected way. Secondly, it will intervene in academic debates, and three fields in particular: critical race studies, publishing studies and cultural industries/media production research. Production studies of race like this are rare, and as such this study can make a major contribution to academic research, providing a unique insight into the production of representations of race in publishing and the media at large, while also inspiring future research in this area.

Planned Impact

There are three groups of non-academic users who can benefit from this research

1) The publishing industry can benefit from understanding how the production process itself can disadvantage writers of colour. Policy approaches to the issue of diversity often assume that having more minorities in the workforce will lead to 'better' representations of those minorities. As such publishing houses tend to focus on how to remove obstacles to access. The Writing the Future report had a big impact in this regard, forcing publishing houses to critically reflect upon their hiring practices, the dominance of Oxbridge graduates, use of unpaid internships and so on. Yet the report also touched on issues of textual representation and how writers of colour feel steered into reproducing recognisable and reductive tropes around race. This research project intends to build on this point in much more depth, focusing directly on the publishing process to help explain why particular racial and ethnic tropes are constantly recycled (and at times, subverted). It is anticipated that the focus on production will have an impact in shifting the terms of debate, forcing publishing houses to look at production itself, as well as urgent issues of access, and how they can better open up representational practices for writers of colour.

2) Writers of colour will benefit from understanding how the production process works and how it affects their texts in particular. For most writers, particularly those from minority backgrounds, the publishing process remains opaque. The purpose of the research is to shed light on production and the moments where writers of colour experience forms of tight control - arguably more so than their white counterparts - that can hinder their aesthetic/political ambitions. As such this project can have an impact in terms of illuminating the production process for writers of colour, enabling them to critically reflect on their practice and make informed choices when dealing with publishers.

3) Policy-makers will benefit from thinking about the 'problem' of diversity from a new angle that is focused more on the production process itself. This project is focused specifically on publishing but it has wider implications for cultural and media policy. The lack of diversity in the creative workforce is recognised by policy-makers as a major issue across the creative industries. Yet, as with publishing, the issue is framed predominantly in terms of human resources - that is, problems of access, lack of training, glass ceilings, poor retention and so on. Where this research intervenes is in drawing attention to the racial inequalities experienced within cultural production itself. As the Writing the Future report briefly alluded to, in an increasingly competitive and risk-adverse industry, minority producers find their artistic and creative practice much more constrained than their white counterparts. This is an issue that applies to other media industries, too. Thus a key aim of this project is to inspire parallel policy research and interventions beyond the publishing industries. A major impact of the research would potentially be in the creation of new types of diversity initiatives more focused on the production process itself.
Description This project explored the obstacles that writers of colour face in trade publishing. The aim was to shift the debate on diversity from a sole focus on the quantity of minorities who work in publishing (which is how diversity is usually approached and measured) to the quality of the experience, particularly for writers of colour. The project's aim was to examine the ways in which writers of colour are published and to reflect the findings back to the industry to make visible where the structural problems are. There were three main findings:

1) Assumptions about audiences: The core audience for publishers is white and middle-class. The whole industry is essentially set up to cater for this one audience. This affects how writers of colour and their books are treated, which are either whitewashed or exoticised in order to appeal to this segment.
2) Inability to reach diverse audiences: Publishers claim that they would like to reach more diverse audiences but do not know how to, or are reluctant to expend resources on doing so.
3) We find that 'BAME' (black, Asian and minority ethnic)/working-class audiences are undervalued by publishers, both economically and culturally: This in turn affects the acquisition, promotion, and selling of writers of colour.
Exploitation Route The report highlights the challenges facing writers of colour in getting their books published. In doing so it highlights how publishers are failing to reach audiences beyond a particular white, middle-class constituency. The findings of the project, as published in the report 'Rethinking 'Diversity' in Publishing', will help literary agents, publishers and booksellers rethink and reflect upon the assumptions that they hold about black and Asian writers and audiences. It also provides practical recommendations about how they can better engage more diverse communities - that goes beyond calls for better ethnic/racial representation in the publishing workforce, as it focuses on how established practices and industry logics reproduce inequalities. Moreover the way that the report is structured around three key stages in the publishing process - 1) acquisition, 2) promotion and 3) sales - will benefit the industry in terms of providing particular insights and practical guidance for personnel who work at each of these stages.
Sectors Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Following the success of the 'Rethinking "Diversity" in Publishing Week' which involved four sessions including panel discussions and interviews with authors and industry figures, the PI has been invited to give further talks and deliver bespoke sessions for a number of stakeholders including publishing houses such as Penguin Random House and Bonnier, the Arts Council, and industry organisations such as the Publishers' Publicity Circle. The various sessions have allowed the PI to report key findings and insights directly to senior executives, leading to discussions around how publishers can better engage diverse audiences.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal