We talk lot these days about diversity, or lack thereof. “There remains an uncomfortably large number of people in the [publishing] industry called Sophia” The Economist informs us — perhaps an unfortunate slip of the mask in an article pointing out the lack of working-class people employed in book publishing. I guess they imply that Sophia is a solidly middle-class name? Of course, meaning “wisdom”, Sophia is perhaps a very appropriate name for a publisher — in my almost 50 years in the game I did once have a colleague, of Hungarian origin, named Sophia.

There does however seem to be no room for argument, publishing front-office employment does lack diversity. One can see how this might be used as an argument to suggest that publishing’s output also lacks diversity. No doubt it really does.* To a large extent however publishers publish the books they are able to persuade authors to lease to them. Of course some books are written because publishers suggest a subject to an author, and keep on at them to get it done. I’ve no way of knowing how large this percentage is, but I suspect it’s not huge. In academic publishing it’s rather larger, maybe even 10% — many a university press editor has nagged an academic until they finally put on paper their thoughts on their subject — you know the stars in your subject area: all you need to do is make them write! But trade books tend to come via literary agents — maybe they spend time encouraging authors in their stable to write about topics they’d never have thought of. Their clients are however their clients: by and large trade publishers don’t get to choose who’ll be a writer: they are too busy fending off approaches from agents. Now and then they may get to shape the direction a manuscript will take, but usually the publisher isn’t selecting the topic or the author to write about it. If a more diverse body of authors were at work, no doubt a more diverse range of authors would be getting published. If a more diverse group of authors were getting published, then there would doubtless evolve a more diverse employee base in the publishing industry. 

Natasha Carthew, “Cornish working-class writer” as she seems to have to be referred to, is featured in the Economist article. “The entire publishing industry has been colonized by the middle and upper classes. A study last year of literary types found that only 13% came from a working-class background. So Ms Carthew has launched the ‘Nature Writing Prize for Working-Class Writers’, now in its second year, to ‘burst the stereotype of what it means to be a nature writer’ and allow other species to thrive.” She claims apparently that “it is easier to write about the questing vole in the plashy fen if one owns the fen”. I hadn’t been aware of that property ownership link, but one lives and learns. The article tells us that Oxford research has revealed that 60% of Britons self-identify as working class. Funny isn’t it? In America everyone says they are middle class — well 70% of us do. (You kind of have to think the results have to be skewed by the terms of the debate though: upper, middle, working in UK as against upper, middle, lower in America. Who’d self-identify as “lower”?) Lots more nitty gritty to unpick in that quote though: especially who are these “literary types”, writers or publishers or both, and how on earth do we know of the lowly origins of 13% of them? What “should” the percentage be? Just for the record I might suggest that a majority of people working in publishing when I worked there came from a “working class background”. Just as it’s easy to forget that publishing isn’t just trade publishing, so too is it easy to forget than not all publishing workers could be described as “literary types” — think back office and warehouse — the very types who kept the business going during the pandemic.

I’ve suggested before that the lack of diversity in publishing is attributable to low pay rates. I loved (almost) every moment I spent in publishing, and often declared (to people who were not my boss) that I’d have turned up for nothing more than a copy of each book. (I once, for a short time, did have a contract of employment which entitled me to a copy of every book I worked on — but I didn’t renounce my far from princely salary, even when they sweetened the deal to include subscriptions to The Times and The Irish Times. Here I am hard at work on the former, painted by a fellow employee, Jack Bowles, obviously with time on his hands too.)

When it comes to diversity, publishing has actually come a long way. When I started out in the mid-sixties a huge majority of workers in publishing were male. The gender ratio has since then more than reversed. (I don’t put this down to any virtue on the part of publishers. The cynical view, relating to wage rates, is almost certainly the reason. And I do acknowledge that gender ratios are different at the top, but that’s now changing too.)

The Passive Guy, writer of The Passive Voice, came up with this doozy recently: “PG wonders if Authors United and its fellow travelers realize that they support a publishing industry which has long been a cesspool of worker oppression and systemic racial and gender bias. Knowing management treats workers this way, perhaps we can better understand its attitude toward authors.” He’s reporting a piece in The Nation, which suggests that unionization may be the solution to our industry’s perceived lack of diversity.

A cesspool of worker oppression — who’d be in favor of that? And who who has ever worked in publishing would agree with the characterization? Those on the outside, who obviously should know better — ignorance acts as a great basis for objectivity— might say that people who live in the middle of a stink quickly become desensitized and no longer have the ability to detect the smell. Maybe my olfactory sense has been terminally blunted, but book publishing always seemed to me a great place to work. Sure we’d have liked more money, but basically your “literary types” are happy to make the trade-off of money for job satisfaction.

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*For my admission that publishing does indeed suffer from the consequences of a lack of diversity, see my recent post Gatekeeping.