By now, it should shock no one to hear that Australian publishing has a diversity problem. In 2016, as Yassmin Abdel-Magied walked out of a festival keynote, and writers festival panellists were asked for the umpteenth time about diversity in their works, one key message floated above the rest: editors and publishers are more and more interested in a diversity of perspectives. This coincides with the growth of Own Voices storytelling, a useful term a coined by Corinne Duyvis that has developed into an international movement. Earlier this year, Fremantle Press published Meet Me at the Intersection, an anthology featuring Own Voices stories from Australian authors who want to write their own stories to wide distribution and recognition. And readers want to access those stories – there is a growing hunger for both mirror stories (which reflect one’s own culture, language, lived experience) and window stories, that give readers an insight into a lived experience outside of their own.
While publishers in Australia have taken steps to redress this issue, those books reflecting a lived experience outside of an ableist, heteronormative, white Australia nonetheless still struggle to find a foothold at the acquisitions stage and space on bookseller shelves. While everyone agrees that it needs to happen, the progress is slow, halting, and fraught with criticism.
As a reader and an editor, I wanted to help. There’s a lot of inherent privilege in even this very small phrase – working to put this project together has thrown this into sharp relief. But at the time I began, all I knew was this: I wanted to help. So in 2016, I began to develop a pilot project, titled Write Across Identity.
But where to even begin addressing an issue of this historical and cultural magnitude?
I started, as I think we all have to, with my abilities, what I could do. I’ve been working in the Australian publishing industry for about 10 years. How could I put my skills, experience, access, and networks to good use?
First, it’s important to recognise the barriers to entry inherent to the publishing system as it exists today. The submissions process is opaque and relies on a familiarity of the conventions of query letters or synopses, on knowing how and to whom to submit. Commissioning editors constantly struggle with a lack of time and an overwhelming workload – so much so that developing a project not already at the expected publishing standard becomes a luxury and a passion project. If a manuscript doesn’t conform, it’s unlikely to be taken on.
But where to even begin addressing an issue of this historical and cultural magnitude? How could I put my skills, experience, access, and networks to good use?
It’s one thing to learn the processes of submission and the traditions of Western storytelling, in particular, the way editors and publishers expect stories to be constructed and framed – writing centres, organisations and groups exist to teach new writers the ropes of craft, style, and the realities of the industry. However, even the subsidised cost of a membership or workshop or online course can be out of reach for many writers, and distance from urban or regional centres and poor internet access can make even free workshops an impossibility. There are many stories that are simply not being published. It must be said that many writers of colour and diverse lived backgrounds I’ve spoken to don’t necessarily want to conform to these traditions and thus are finding alternate paths to publication; though worthy of further discussion, this is outside the scope of my project, which exists to create opportunities for diverse voices ‘in house’ – to the mainstream publishers and their ‘mainstream’ (white, heterosexual, middle class) readership.
I imagined a mentorship program that paired trained editors with new and emerging writers, especially Indigenous writers, writers of colour, neuro-atypical writers, LGTBQI+ writers, writers with diverse bodies, or writers from different cultural, linguistic or socio-economic backgrounds – writers whose voices had been marginalised – to hone their craft and navigate the publishing landscape.
This was the first time, but not the last, that my privilege was pointed out to me. Working editors in the Australian publishing industry are predominantly white, cisgender and middle class. In a discussion with Meg Vann, former CEO of the Queensland Writers Centre, who would later become my partner in this program, she very kindly but very firmly pointed out that neither of us were from the marginalised groups for whom this project was being created – and as such, we had to be very careful that we were not going to do harm as we tramped our feet into this particular area.
There are a number of truly fantastic organisations and programs already in place around Australia that work to support writers with different lived experiences. We were very lucky to speak with and gain advice from Writers Victoria and Queensland Writers Centre, the State Library of Queensland and their black&write! program, Sweatshop, and Austlit, as well as a number of authors and industry professionals. Through consultation, we started to fill in the gaps, discovering more and more things we didn’t know we didn’t know. We also received some solid advice on practical issues like outreach, targeting the right audience, fundraising, grant writing – and, crucially, not overstepping or inadvertently disadvantaging anyone in the process.
Through consultation, we started to fill in the gaps, discovering more and more things we didn’t know we didn’t know.
These discussions highlighted the gap that we seek to fill – the practical and valuable role that editors can play as mentors to writers, applying their extensive craft and industry knowledge to writers across all levels. But it also provides valuable experience to the editors, on two fronts. First, it provides a cultural exchange experience for editors who may not have worked with authors of diverse background before; not only is this a valuable career skill but it has tangible follow-on effects for editorial issues in the future, such as recognising representation issues early on. Second, the mentorships can be used to provide on-the-page experience for developing editors of diverse backgrounds, building and developing skills and experience to be included on CVs and potentially changing the face of in-house editorial departments of the future.
These editorial mentorships have the potential to diversify and redefine what Australian literature looks like, providing solid, practical, informed support from the earliest stages of a new writer’s career. Multicultural representation (both on the page and behind the scenes) is a crucial step forward in publishing, and the most valuable addition to the Australian literary landscape is a chorus of Own Voices providing lived experiences through fiction, non-fiction and memoir, made available and visible in the publishing marketplace.
After contacting a number of my editorial colleagues to test the value of the idea, I reached out to Meg, who was working on a related project of her own – an authenticity reader database that would provide trained manuscript assessments and develop best practice for authors wishing to access authenticity reads as part of their research. Though the two ideas might seem disparate at first glance, with widely different target demographics, they address two prongs of the same problem: diverse representation in Australian literature. An authenticity database is not something for authors to use in order to appropriate stories that don’t belong to them, but to allow writers to populate their fictional universes to better match reality and create a more diverse literary landscape both in and out of their novels. The editorial mentorships provide support and education of writers whose lived experience is underrepresented, promoting Own Voices and creating stronger opportunities for authentic voices to tell their own stories.
I want to divert for a moment from how we built this project, because laying it out in a narrative like this makes the process seem smooth and linear – it has been anything but. I have consulted with many institutions and people about this project, and while the editorial mentorships have received widespread support, this second prong, the authenticity databases, have led to some institutions withdrawing their support and many authors not wishing to be involved.
The arguments against authenticity readers are compelling and robust, and recognise that regardless of good intentions, they can be used to harm.
Don’t get me wrong; there were many authors and readers who were incredibly excited about the opportunities provided, not only for greater inclusion in literature, but also as a potential secondary source of income; and the arguments for authenticity readers remain persuasive, particularly when accessed to create a vibrant world and used collaboratively to improve representation and diminish stereotypes.
But arguments against authenticity readers are compelling and robust too, recognising that regardless of good intentions, they can be used to harm. While anecdotally we knew that the cultural consultation process could be hugely productive, and robust resources exist for non-fiction writers and journalists we could find few professional standards guiding the process of locating and engaging authenticity readers for fiction consultation. Engaging in authenticity assessments relies on emotional and intellectual labour that is all too often requested for free. Further, it can also be a dangerous and demoralising task for authenticity readers, who are presented over and over again with works reliant on damaging stereotypes and negative portrayals. Creating a database that includes best practice guidelines, including pay rates, parameters around expectations, and crucially what authenticity readers do not do – namely immunise a manuscript against criticism – could work to mitigate some of the issues, but cannot eliminate them completely.
The answers are not clear, and the process of finding an ethical way to build and use an authenticity database – if indeed such a thing exists – is still in its infancy. So as of this moment, our project, now titled On The Page, is putting the authenticity database on hold, and moving forward with the editorial mentorships until we reach a point where a direction becomes more clear.
The mentorships still face one challenge that we can’t account for: we can’t create new economic realities. Editors and publishers of all the major and small houses in Australia claim to want diverse voices, and we have seen growth in the acquisition and publication of authors from across the spectrum of identity, particularly in 2018. However, we don’t know if there is still an active search – and further, we don’t know if these books will sell if they’re put into the market.
At the moment, white men are published more than women and people of colour; the latter are often published (and marketed) as special interest rather than mainstream. Booksellers are increasingly few and far between, struggling with the realities of the digital economy and an increasingly crowded leisure market. Certainly, there will always be readers looking to experience a life they can know nothing about by immersing themselves in stories. Do publishers know how to publish and market these books so they find readers? And are readers genuinely open to stories that challenge assumed norms and open up a vista of human experiences?
Do publishers know how to publish and market these books so they find readers? And are readers genuinely open to stories that challenge assumed norms?
We certainly hope so. Publishing is a game of risk, and risks that don’t pay off can mean that a risk isn’t taken again for years, even decades. So publishers do have the responsibility of taking the risk of publishing more diverse stories, but booksellers and readers have responsibilities as well. Make those risks pay off – shelve diverse books prominently. Read them and hand-sell them. Review them and promote them on a grassroots level. And readers, buy outside your comfort zone. There is so much in this world that ties us all together, much more than divides us, and storytelling is perhaps the most potent tool for developing empathy.
Australian literature has a history of stimulating conversations for positive change and cultural growth. Improving the representation of diversity in Australian stories is a vital step in our national culture: the conversations that are going on around this issue are just as important as the brilliant new stories being told.