Enriching the book trade landscape

Isobel Dixon
Opinion - Publishing Thursday, 13 April 2017

Isobel Dixon reports on the Association of Authors' Agents' work in promoting diversity

Every day the news brings us a barrage of words about walls, divisions, barriers and bans. These are strange, fractious and fractured times, and it seems more urgent than ever to tear our eyes away from our Twitter streams and look to the ways in which we are building our small part of the world, here in the publishing industry.

The Association of Authors' Agents (AAA) has been seeking to engage more proactively, vocally and practically with issues of diversity and inclusivity, and as the committee member with this brief I'm heartened by the response from the membership, many of us in small or medium-sized, but growing agencies, often on a steep learning curve. We're all learning from each other - agents, publishers, booksellers, other key players in the media and creative industries - and issues we once saw being brushed off as of little relevance to some are now at least being grappled with more widely and in earnest.

Yes, more should have been done sooner, and I have heard people being sceptical about inclusivity and diversity discussions, but there is more depth to it than just pat-on-the-back panels and for-the-sake-of-it debates. Events like the Building Inclusivity in Publishing Conference (run by the Publishers Association and LBF late last year) have provided a valuable forum for new connections and the sharing of ideas across the book trade, leading not just to more talk, but to positive action.

The AAA plans a summer event focused on inclusivity, bringing our members together with a wide range of players, from those focused on employment like Creative Access and Arts Emergency, to writer development agencies like Spread the Word - founded in 1995 by Bernadine Evaristo and Ruth Borthwick. They have been doing good work in this area for years. A useful shock to the system was Writing the Future, the report by Danuta Kean that Spread the Word commissioned in 2015. In revealing the level of "mono-culture" in UK publishing, it has perhaps helped to spur some of the recent action in the field - action which we will all have to work hard to sustain and grow.

Alert to new voices
A key part of our job as agents is to be alert to new voices, and I believe it's our responsibility to be more proactive, more open, more questioning of our assumptions than ever before as we seek to sign new clients. Of course we are part of a longer chain before our efforts reach readers, and we need publishers and booksellers to want to nurture difference, to publish and sell truly diverse voices, both home-grown and international. So it's good to see projects like Random House's Write Now and 4th Estate's BAME Short Story Prize.

As Ella Kahn of Diamond, Kahn & Woods says: "As more publishers are introducing schemes to address diversity in their workforce and their publishing, so too must agents. We are not just 'gatekeepers' but must actively ensure we are reaching out to authors from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible to ensure that we discover stories that reflect a broad spectrum of influences."

We will all have to keep sharing our experience of the pitfalls and successes in these projects in order to fully "enrich the publishing landscape", to use a phrase from Jamila Ahmed, who also emphasises the importance of diversity in marketing from both the writers' and employees' point of view, not just focusing on editorial.

So much comes down to the people who work hands-on with the stories that we champion, acquire and share: open hiring and training practices are vital. Publishing, like all the creative industries, finds itself with an over-supply of potential staff eager to get a foot on the lower rungs of this fascinating career ladder. It's tempting for busy employers to take the easy way out, to opt to hire based on close acquaintance and personal recommendation, and many do. Whatever has happened in the past, this can't be publishing's future. Drawing on a shallow pool of privilege, a mindset of "people-like-us-ness", and looking for someone who will easily "fit in with the rest", keeps us from growing with the readership - and the potentially much broader readership - we seek to engage with.

Diversity initiatives
Several publishers have recently introduced well-publicised diversity initiatives and adapted their hiring practices; others have been quietly going about these things for a long time. Much of publishing still follows work experience and internship practices that require radical change - for too long there's been wrongful reliance on an unacknowledged, unpaid work force. Employers need to step up and ensure they're following best practice here in terms of offering fair remuneration. Creative Skillset supplies some useful summary guidelines for employers regarding work experience and internships.

We've had a tremendous response to our own Carole Blake Open Doors Project, with an impressive range of applicants from all backgrounds from across the country - with our aim to welcome diversity of socio-economic as well as ethnic background, and to encourage candidates from beyond the London metropolitan area. Other agencies like Kingsford Campbell are also stepping forward with diversity initiatives and we hope to see more exciting approaches from others.

A recent visit to New York suggested that US publishing is some way ahead of us in its inclusiveness, but at book fairs this year I'm interested to find out more, see case studies and also hear about the experiences of publishers and agents from other countries. That's what fairs are all about, after all - hearing multiple voices and the sharing of border-crossing stories, taking us out of our narrow confines.

Isobel Dixon is director and head of books at the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency and a member of the Association of Authors' Agents committee (Twitter: @isobeldixon).

This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch London Show Daily.

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