The word ‘diversity’ has been bandied around the publishing sphere so often without any purposeful action that it has slowly been weaned of its meaning. It has become a catch-all phrase to suggest accountability and mask an inability to enact real change—a distraction word amounting to nothing at all. While the push for diversity started as a movement to address the representation (or lack thereof) of marginalised voices in books, this momentum has spilled over to the other side of the publishing paradigm. To diversify the writing landscape, we need to turn our gaze inward to look at the gatekeepers and power structures that dominate these spaces.
As Hella Ibrahim acknowledges in her unflinching essay ‘We Need Diverse Editors’, it is difficult to quantify the number of First Nations editors and editors of colour in Australia. There is no government data I am aware of that is more current than the 2011 ABS statistics cited in Ibrahim’s article, which address only the total number of working editors. In a 2018 survey by Books+Publishing of people employed in the Australian book industry, only 6% of respondents identified as a person of colour and one person (out of 349 respondents) as a First Nations person. Although the survey looked at all roles across publishing, extrapolating the data to assume similar numbers of FNPOC in editorial roles would not be outside the realm of plausibility. A recent spreadsheet of publishing wages, started by Sarah Hollingsworth, further corroborates the whiteness of the publishing industry. To date, out of the 73 respondents, 86% have identified as white. The other 14% have identified as of Asian descent or biracial, five of whom held editorial roles of some capacity. No one has identified as First Nations.
To diversify the writing landscape, we need to turn our gaze inward to look at the gatekeepers and power structures that dominate these spaces.
Historically, more concrete data has come out of the US and UK. The 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS 2.0), by American publisher Lee & Low Books, found that 76% of publishing staff, review journal staff and literary agents are white and that ‘editorial is even more White than before’ with the number of white editorial staff increasing from 82% in 2015 to 85% in 2019. The inference is clear: publishing, and particularly the field of editing, is incredibly homogeneous.
The dominance of whiteness in publishing and the systemic issues that plague the industry and other arts sectors have been pointed out time and again. With these structural factors operating as barriers to entry, the usual trajectory into publishing—which involves a plethora of unpaid internships followed by years of low salary—places FNPOC and other marginalised groups, particularly those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, at an immediate disadvantage. Even if these hurdles are overcome, once involved in the industry there is an emotional toll for FNPOC editors that is not encountered by their white counterparts. Radhiah Chowdhury, Penguin Random House Commissioning Editor, says of her time spent in the publishing industry as a person of colour: ‘There’s the lack of agency and platform to voice our discomfort and fatigue, the erasure of our sensibilities and sensitivities, the inevitable characterisation as difficult, not-team-players, over-reaching, dissatisfied…And without an adequate peer support network, there’s the crushing isolation, the sense that you’re a lone voice screaming into the void.’
Performing your identity in a way that is non-aggressive and fits the model minority mould is tiring—an additional layer of work imposed on you. To have to speak up, explain, defend and then repeat yourself is exhausting work that is rarely acknowledged or appreciated by the very people it is directed at. This burden is often taken on alone by emerging FNPOC editors who, as Chowdhury states, have ‘few peers higher up the career ladder by whom we can be mentored and to whom we can aspire.’ Junior Editor and KYD First Nations editor-in-residence Jasmin McGaughey, who entered the editing world through the black&write! internship for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander editors, attests to the value of having FNPOC in senior or mentor positions, stating: ‘Having a First Nations editor to teach and guide you is an invaluable experience … I’ve definitely felt safe and understood … Having First Nations people in my team has allowed me to trust those gut feelings I may not have felt confident enough to share without them.’
The incisive essay ‘All hole and no plot: fixing Australia’s literary sector’ points to the ‘persistent monoculture’ nature of the publishing industry and suggests that the ‘trend in publishing more diverse Australian voices and stories has outpaced the growth and development of editors, publishers and sensitivity readers with similar (or comparable) experiences.’
But is diversity a trend? Is it a trend to want to read works that you recognise yourself in? Is diversity really on the same plane as vampires, YA dystopia and mainstream erotica?
The publishing sector insists they are reacting to the ‘increased passion and appetite for more diverse voices’, but perhaps the more inconvenient truth is that, as Ibrahim notes, ‘they [editors and publishers] decide who they will publish, who to promote, who “matters” and what is “relatable” and “readable” .’ Thus ensues a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. How can we expect anything other than a white and middle-class way of looking at the world if the key decision-makers are predominately white and middle-class? Diversity isn’t a trend, it’s a lived experience—claiming otherwise reduces FNPOC experiences down to the equivalent of a trending flame icon on Booktopia.
Diversity isn’t a trend, it’s a lived experience—claiming otherwise reduces FNPOC experiences down to the equivalent of a trending flame icon on Booktopia.
For quality diverse stories to be told, the teams working on these stories need to be equally diverse. There is subjectivity in undertaking commissioning and editorial work. We all have certain tastes and sensibilities that colour what we gravitate towards, and so it becomes integral that we recognise where our biases might lie. Further, these biases extend well beyond the scope of deciding who to publish or commission. Editing conventions themselves operate within the context of standard English—but standard for who? (Or should I say whom?) This expectation of conformity is a problem not only for editors but also for authors, particularly when a work doesn’t operate within traditional parameters that expect a familiar, palatable product (again, the question needs to be asked: Familiar to whom? And palatable to whose taste?) After having passed the first obstacle of being commissioned, FNPOC writers are commonly being edited by white editors. This is not to say that white editors can only edit white authors, but rather that the nuance of a particular story might not be brought out to its fullest capacity, or even understood, if it is only ever considered under the white gaze.
Black&write! editor Grace Lucas-Pennington compares the value of FNPOC editors or cultural readers as like ‘having an author who is from a specialist field…When you work with authors who have different lived experience, you would ideally get someone with the same lived experience to edit the work, because they bring a huge amount of insight and experience that your average editor doesn’t have, isn’t even aware they lack sometimes. They can build rapport with the author quickly and effectively because there’s an assumed level of trust and knowledge already. It brings a deeper level of authenticity and creativity in the relationship than a non FNPOC person could attain. It makes the work better.’
The BLM movement has again spurred publishing houses around the country into action, resuming their race to decolonise their lists. This feels somewhat reactionary: is there any deep reflection going on? Or, is this merely smoke and mirrors to avoid facing retribution from today’s so-called cancel culture, which funnily enough only seems to be an issue for those who have historically wielded power? Whether these motivations are genuine still remains to be seen, and any ‘progress’ will continue to be made through a white framework as long as the gatekeepers remain overwhelmingly white.
Still, there are some fantastic initiatives, such as the black&write! editing internship, Magabala publishing cadetship and UQP placement program, which focus on mentoring emerging First Nations editors and publishing professionals. More recently, Allen & Unwin have announced a new imprint, JOAN, to be curated by writer, actor and director Nakkiah Lui. Yet there is a long way to go and much more to do, so much so that Lucas-Pennington believes that the ‘economic and reputational costs of inaction will start to increase’ for publishers. She asks: ‘What makes the arts/literature industry somehow so amazingly humane and special it doesn’t need quotas, benchmarks, accountability like other industries?’
So what can be done to speed up a necessary, albeit crushingly slow, process? Chowdhury states: ‘First and foremost, publish better books from and for POC communities. Build better POC readers and that will ultimately filter into more POC editors.’ This will require more work from publishing houses who point to their one or two FNPOC authors with cries of ‘See! Look at how much we embrace diversity!’, believing that ticking a box speaks for their progressiveness and allyship. In reality diversity is, oddly enough, diverse and the work around it requires an ongoing commitment.
There needs to be an effort to collect data, similar to the First Nations and POC Writers Count, which looks into the number of FNPOC in gatekeeper positions, including editors, publishers, agents and critics—everyone who has a role to play in the manuscript to market pipeline. Lucas-Pennington says gathering such data will ‘create a facts-based solution to the problems of under-representation [which will] allow for clear goal-setting.’
In a time of social reckoning that is not only calling for justice but demanding it, how long can we wait until we call out the lack of change in publishing for what it is—stalling.
More work needs to be done on building a more equitable and sustainable industry through the implementation of fairer wage practices, which will improve access into the industry. This momentum towards greater transparency around salaries can be seen not only through Hollingsworth’s publishing wages spreadsheet, but also Penguin Random House Australia’s enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA), the first union-negotiated EBA in Australia’s publishing history. Hachette’s recently announced paid summer internship program is another positive step towards addressing some of the structural barriers that serve to keep the industry diverse only with respect to its varying shades of white.
Forming a network and space for FNPOC editors and publishing professionals can also assist in developing relationships and providing support. Chowdhury says, ‘Peer support networks like the UK’s BAME in Publishing are essential; there aren’t many of us, but to share the experiences and burdens is such a valuable way to de-stress and develop our skills, and provide a safe space to talk through the challenges we face.’
In a time of social reckoning that is not only calling for justice but demanding it, how long can we wait until we call out the lack of change in publishing for what it is—stalling. As Shirley Le declares in her slicing rebuke of arts institutions, ‘Apologies and empty pledges are no longer enough.’ Declare your wokeness, announce your diversity initiative, but what are you going to do once that flame icon flickers out?