Today the Bookseller published the findings from a survey they conducted asking whether people from Working Class backgrounds felt they had been hindered in starting a publishing career, or whether their progression had been impacted.
Shockingly, the answer was yes.
Particularly noteworthy was that 91% of respondents felt that the London-centric nature of publishing was a barrier to people from working classes. This should come as no surprise – I’ve talked before about how much it costs to start a career in publishing, and also the London-centric nature of the business. That’s not to say there aren’t publishers outside of London (I’ve done my due diligence on that!), but the majority of those based outside of the capital are independents, and much smaller operations. They find it harder to negotiate deals with booksellers (hence the the creation of the Northern Fiction Alliance, to help increase the selling power of these smaller publishers), they can struggle to gain recognition within the industry because of their locations, and they often recruit fewer people because of their smaller manpower.
Meanwhile, people wanting to break into publishing are largely required to travel to London, and support themselves whilst working unpaid, or low-paid internships. Something which just isn’t feasible for people from working class backgrounds, particularly if they live any significant distance outside of London.
Obviously there are other issues to consider with diversity – the running joke of how everyone in publishing went to Oxbridge and is called Emily exists for a reason.
This is even before we take into account any unconscious biases people were subjected to either at interview or once they are in a role. I was disappointed to see that a large number of the responses from senior members of the industry mentioned things like flexible working, and unconscious bias training, which fail to address a large part of the issue for a number of reasons.
Firstly, data analytics organisation Umbrella Data has discussed at length that unconscious bias training actually has very little long-term impact on the culture of a workplace, and at times has been found to even create bias where none existed before. Equally, as a result of the Bookseller‘s findings and the responses, Umbrella published an open letter demonstrating that the talk of unconscious bias training is just that – numbers at courses run by Umbrella have dropped in the last 12 months, to the point that several have been cancelled due to lack interest.
Secondly, the act of addressing unconscious bias in the way that people are treated in the workplace, or even at interview, is not progress – surely it is the very bare minimum that should be expected of every employer. Ground level stuff – be nice to the people who work for you or who want to work for you.
Thirdly, and perhaps my biggest beef with the statements, is that this focus does not address one of the key issues raised in the survey results – that some people just cannot afford to work in publishing, either because of the cost of commuting or the low wages for entry level roles to support living in London.
I was very fortunate when I completed my MA – I had been in full time employment for 8 years, and actively saving to undertake the course for 2 years before it started. I was also married, which meant that even though my salary was dropping, we were able to cover bills because we were a two-income household. But I did continue working during my studies and internships, and I wasn’t able to intern for as long as other students because I also had to complete my paid job. When the course finished, I returned to full time employment again, and the possibility of gaining any further internships vanished – I needed to get a job. But it took me 17 months and 80 applications, and a lot of the feedback I got was what I needed more direct experience. Experience I couldn’t afford to get.
When I finally got a job, it was at a publisher based outside of London, one more willing to take risks on people with transferable skills rather than direct experience. Part of that, I think, is because they are hiring from a completely different demographic. There is a range of different backgrounds – first jobbers, to former teachers and mechanics. People have transferred into the industry at an older age, like me, as opposed to finding the right ‘in’ from University. This life experience brings different voices to the table and means the output can reflect a broader range of society. This is good for the publisher too, expanding their potential market beyond ‘people like us’.
This diversity represents opportunity – it means people who come from different backgrounds are able to gain entry into publishing because it doesn’t cost them a fortune to do so, because it is available to them.
PRH’s announcement that they intend to open a branch in the north of England is promising, but it’s only the beginning. Transparency about wages – fairer wages, for the areas the publishers are based would help too (moving out of London would definitely help with this) – and more jobs outside of London need to be a priority to publishers if they wish to be more accessible. At the moment they’re bunched up in a set corner of the capital, clenched like a fist around their shared stomping grounds. They need to open up and start spreading their fingers across the whole country if change is going to happen. It needs to be more than lip service. It needs to be real action.