Publishing: open to all?
24 April 2007

baby book

A recent survey in The Bookseller confirmed that publishing remains an overwhelmingly white industry. Tim Ryder looks at some of the work being done to redress the balance. This article was first published in Connections Magazine, summer 2004.

The finding of a recent survey of cultural diversity in publishing that the industry is disproportionately white will not surprise many who have worked in it. It also won’t surprise many of the respondents to the survey, nearly half of whom felt publishing was not culturally diverse, and only a third of whom felt there was even moderate diversity in the industry.

40 per cent of respondents got their first job in publishing through a personal contact or network

The survey, published in The Bookseller, also found that 40 per cent of respondents got their first job in publishing through a personal contact or network of some kind. The unusually high proportion of publishing recruitment that takes place in this way favours those who know people already working in the industry, perpetuating the under-representation of people from ethnic minorities.

Private sector progress?

The survey comes at the same time as several reports on progress towards racial equality in the private sector. The government’s business-led task force on racial equality and diversity recently concluded that many business leaders still don’t believe that racial equality is relevant to them, and argued that if private companies don’t make significant progress in reducing racial inequality over the next three years, they should be forced by law to tackle the problem. However, the 2004 benchmarking report from Race for Opportunity (RfO) reveals some grounds for optimism. Although its list of the top ten performers in the private sector doesn’t include any media or publishing companies, its list of the most improved private companies places Pearson and Guardian Newspapers in first and third place. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development also suggests that, as competition for skilled workers intensifies, the private sector is making progress in encouraging diversity.

A strong business case

The progress being made reflects the growing awareness of the strong economic case for promoting diversity, and making the most of the available pool of workers, irrespective of their ethnic background. Six of the organisations in the RfO’s private sector top 10 are banks and other financial businesses, reflecting the fact that this sector has already recognised the need for the ethnic composition of its staff to reflect that of the communities it serves. There is a similarly strong economic incentive for publishers to ensure that their workforce is as diverse as possible. As we reported in our winter 2003-4 issue, Britain’s ethnic minority communities have an estimated disposable income of £32 billion. Publishers with a more ethnically diverse workforce are better placed to establish links with authors from ethnic minorities, and to identify opportunities in the market. Pursuing these opportunities is one of the main ways open to publishers for increasing their market share and profitability in an increasingly competitive industry.

However, publishers generally don’t spend large amounts of money on market research. Pearson, which recently commissioned a survey of the book-buying habits of African Caribbean and Indian readers, is a notable exception – most publishers don’t have the resources available for such systematic research.

Nonetheless, Alison Morrison, head of marketing at Walker Books, a small independent publisher of children’s books, believes that publishers’ plans are increasingly going to acknowledge the importance of the ‘ethnic minority market’, as the increasing size of this market means that doing so will become an economic necessity. ‘I think the mindset at the moment is, ‘if we have a book by a black author, then we must send it off to New Nation and The Voice and we’re covered’. I think there’s a lot more that can be done.’ She mentions recent research suggesting that the number of books bought by people from African Caribbean families is higher than the national average: ‘It’s that kind of statistic that is going to make publishers think about ‘widening the market’ and selling more books.’

A long-term proposition

Pearson’s ranking in RfO’s report as the most improved private company will not come as a surprise to many in publishing, where its diversity work has already attracted considerable attention. Pearson is the world’s largest book publisher, owning Penguin and Pearson Education, and employs about 5,500 people in the UK.

Pearson’s diversity manager, Raphael Mokades, recognises that increasing diversity is not a short-term proposition: ‘We are reluctant to call [our diversity work] a programme, because that implies that it will come to an end at some point.’ Although some of Pearson’s most senior staff – one of the 11 directors (9%) and two of the 50 senior managers (4%) – are from ethnic minorities, there is still some way to go to achieving proportions of ethnic minority staff that reflect society. Arguably one weakness is that although its current diversity work has been running for 18 months, the company does not disclose data on the proportion of employees from ethnic minorities at lower levels.

However, it has made significant progress in encouraging diversity in its recruitment, by instructing recruitment agencies to put forward more ethnically diverse selections of candidates for vacancies. The agencies seem to have risen to the challenge, providing encouraging evidence of what a company can achieve when it makes achieving progress in increasing diversity a condition of being on its list of preferred suppliers. In the third quarter of 2003, the proportion of candidates from ethnic minorities was 12%; by the first quarter of 2004, this had risen to 30%. Vitally, this positive shift seems to have borne fruit in the proportion of people from ethnic minorities getting jobs: the proportions for the same periods were 11% and 26%.

Unfortunately, very few publishers dedicate resources to recruitment programmes that would provide an opportunity for trying to increase the number of graduates from ethnic minorities that apply, and the limited resources available for recruitment perpetuate the reliance on the relatively informal ways of finding staff that tend to favour white, middle-class graduates.

However, like many FTSE 100 companies, Pearson does run a graduate programme, and takes on a number of trainees each year. In an attempt to attract more applicants from ethnic minorities for the programme, it held an open day at its London headquarters in autumn 2002. That year four of the nine people Pearson hired came from ethnic minorities, three whom had attended the open day.

A burning need

At the other end of the spectrum, there are a huge number of smaller publishers without the resources for such extensive recruitment work. One of these is Walker Books, which has a staff of 120, 7% of whom come from an ethnic minority. While none of its five board directors are from an ethnic minority, two out of the 11 associate directors (18%) are.

there is a burning need for a network for people from ethnic minorities who want to get into publishing

Alison Morrison, one of the associate directors, believes that there is a burning need for a network for people from ethnic minorities who want to get into publishing, but are unsure how to proceed. This would provide a means of directing an enquiry to an appropriate contact in the industry, or of obtaining information and advice from someone already working in publishing. It would also provide vital encouragement to people from ethnic minorities who were encountering problems in their careers, and a sounding board for ideas. Morrison points out: ‘There are actually lots of people from ethnic minorities working in many fields of publishing, but as there is no central focal point for them to get in touch, they often don’t know about each other, and so can’t make contact and share experiences, advice and information. If you do feel isolated, it can make you think that this isn’t what you want to do, and perhaps leave the industry.’ It’s a point echoed by Mokades: ‘If you’re from an ethnic minority, and you never see or hear about anyone [in your workplace] who looks like you, you feel like you’re ploughing a lonely furrow, and to hear and see other people [from your ethnic group] is inspiring.’

This belief has led Morrison to co-found Diversity in Publishing (DiP) with Elise Dillsworth, an editor at Virago Press. Although they are still planning how DiP will operate, they hope it will provide a forum for discussion and the sharing of information and expertise, and encourage mutual support among people from ethnic minorities working in publishing. Its website will provide an important focal point. They also hope to carry out a range of activities to inspire those who want to get into publishing. What they don’t want it to be is a lobbying group for ethnic minorities – anyone who is in agreement with the aims and objectives will be welcome. ‘Hopefully,’ says Morrison, ‘once it’s been operating for a while, and people see that it doesn’t have a confrontational approach, all people in publishing will value it as a useful resource.’

A foot in the door

In an industry where competition for vacancies is as intense as it is in publishing, getting work experience can be a decisive advantage. Morrison entered the industry as a result of a one-year Arts Council traineeship she saw advertised in The Guardian. It was designed to encourage cultural diversity in the industry, and provided her with invaluable work experience at two leading publishers. The year included structured training courses, and also helped her develop some initial contacts. Crucially, it was paid, allowing her to bypass the problem of not being able to afford to work unpaid (or at a very low rate) to get all-important experience. This problem can affect many people keen to get into publishing, and especially students and recent graduates, whatever their ethnic background, who increasingly need to earn money to keep their debts under control. The scheme no longer exists, but Morrison would like to see something similar reinstated.

Pearson’s recently introduced summer internship programme for people from ethnic minorities has attracted a lot of attention, partly as a result of such schemes being so rare, even in the larger publishing houses. There are currently four interns at Penguin, and five at Pearson Education. Again, the internships are paid, and although there is no guarantee of a job afterwards, the interns are obviously in a strong position when applying for jobs later on, whether at Pearson or elsewhere. ‘If there’s a job available, we would encourage them to apply for it,’ says Mokades, ‘but if there’s a better candidate available, we will take them.’

Time Warner Books has recently demonstrated what a medium-sized publisher can achieve, by launching an internship scheme for ethnic minorities. Mokades is sceptical about the claims of some other publishers that they lack the resources to promote diversity through similar schemes. ‘The truth is,’ he says, ‘that if you care about this issue enough, you’re going to do something about it.’ He believes that much more could be done, and argues that the costs of setting up an unpaid summer internship scheme, for example, and attracting applicants from ethnic minorities through university careers services, should not be prohibitive.

Another approach for publishers is to develop relationships with careers departments in schools, colleges and universities, particularly those with high proportions of students from ethnic minorities, to encourage more of these students to apply for work experience, or to consider publishing as a career. Pearson, for example, sponsors a number of university societies. This approach seems to be generating significant interest among students from ethnic minorities: following a recent open day that targeted those interested in working for Penguin, 75 per cent of the attendees who applied for jobs were from ethnic minorities. Morrison believes that careers offices should be more aware of publishing as a career route, and do more to encourage people to consider it seriously.

Setting targets

Many organisations that make a commitment to promoting diversity set targets for the proportion of staff from ethnic minorities at various levels. The BBC is one of the best known proponents of this approach, and earlier in the year announced that it had reached its targets of having 10% of its staff, and 4% of senior managers, from an ethnic minority background by the end of 2003. At the same time it set new, higher targets, to be reached by the end of 2007. Its then director-general, Greg Dyke, stated his belief that ‘abstract commitments to diversity don’t, in my experience, actually change much in large organisations. You only do that by real figures and regular monitoring.’

The BBC’s approach contrasts markedly with that of Pearson, which is strongly opposed to the setting of targets. Mokades argues that a manager who has been told that a certain proportion of his staff have to come from ethnic minorities can be placed in an invidious position if he interviews two candidates for a job – one white and one from an ethnic minority – and the white candidate is better. Pearson prefers to take a longer-term approach based on increasing the number of applications from people from ethnic minorities. ‘Ultimately people aren’t going to reach the top unless they’re accepted by everyone as being the best, and I think [a targets system] may prevent this from happening.’

The road ahead

Clearly a number of obstacles need to be negotiated if the publishing industry is going to make progress in increasing its racial diversity.

One of the priorities is getting more people from ethnic minorities to apply for jobs. ‘We need to look more at why people from ethnic minorities aren’t applying,’ says Alison Morrison. ‘In the 13 years that I’ve been in publishing, I’ve interviewed one person from an ethnic minority.’ An important aspect of this is how effectively publishers, careers services, professional associations and industry forums market publishing to ethnic minorities as a career choice. David Young, CEO of Time Warner Books, believes that graduates from ethnic minorities need to be encouraged more to consider publishing as a profession: ‘It is up to the publishing industry to emerge from being ‘hidden’, as one of my colleagues put it, and into the mainstream.’

not every publisher can deploy the resources of a FTSE 100 company to promote ethnic diversity

The importance of gaining work experience will remain high for those wanting to get into the industry, as will the value of the very limited number of traineeships and internships that are available. While not every publisher can deploy the resources of a FTSE 100 company to promote ethnic diversity in its recruitment, more should be able to follow the lead of those publishers that are making progress with internship programmes. Ultimately, publishers need to bite the bullet and do more.

There are some grounds for optimism. As publishers continue to become more coldly commercial, and the industry more competitive, the reliance on networks and personal contacts, and the limited access to quality candidates that these avenues afford, will be increasingly inadequate on business grounds, pushing publishers towards accessing wider pools of talent. David Young suggests that the key to increasing diversity in the industry may be relatively simple: ‘I feel that the tide will turn when more ethnic minority candidates apply for jobs – it could be as simple as that.’


Before the birth of Catalyst Magazine at the beginning of 2005, the Commission for Racial Equality published Connections, a magazine covering many of the same issues now tackled by Catalyst. We are republishing some of the best articles from Connections on the Catalyst website - you can browse the complete set on our Connections archive page.

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