BAME in Publishing

Sarah Shaffi, online editor and producer at The Bookseller, and Wei Ming Kam, sales and marketing assistant at Oberon Books, have recently set up the BAME in Publishing network “in response to the endless diversity debates and panels that have come and gone in the last few years”. The following blog is from Sarah, giving a bit more of the background behind the network and some next steps we can all take to improve things for everyone in the industry.

BAME in Publishing - correct
sarah shaffi
Let me tell you a story.

I was at a book launch and was introduced to a man working for the publishing company which had released the book in question. We’d not met before but within seconds this man, let’s call him Colin (not his name), said that we had. I told him we hadn’t.

He then named a very specific occasion on which we’d met. Impossible, I said, I wasn’t at that event.

Ah, of course, Colin countered, he’d met me at this other event, he said, naming a place and rough date. Nope, not me either, I said, with frustration probably suffusing my voice.

Luckily he stopped, because I was this close *holds thumb and forefinger apart just enough to slide a piece of paper in between* to snapping at him that he was clearly mixing me up with some other brown girl he’d met at a publishing event.

My story isn’t unusual. Ask any person from a Black, Asian or majority ethnic background in publishing if they’ve ever been mistaken for someone else because of their skin colour, and I guarantee most of them have similar stories to mine.

Which is one of the many reasons it’s time to make sure publishing diversifies its workforce. It’s a selfish reason, but I’d like there to be more brown girls in publishing so the six of us here already (OK, maybe a few more than six) don’t keep getting mistaken for each other.

But on a more serious note, publishing should recruit more people from ethnically diverse backgrounds (and economically and geographically diverse backgrounds) because it will be a good thing for the industry. Why? It kind of boils down to one thing…

The wider the backgrounds of the people working in publishing, the more likely publishers are to come up with new ideas and new books and see new voices. And this means that publishers can reach wider audiences, sell more books, and make more money.

Helping to increase the number of people from BAME backgrounds in publishing, and then hopefully the number of books by BAME people published in the UK, is behind why me and Wei Ming Kam set up BAME in Publishing.

The group, which is for people already in the industry and those aspiring to work in publishing, is a positive, fun space for BAME people, but also a safe one, where people can share experiences, get advice, and make connections and find mentors. It’s time to turn the discussion around diversity in publishing from one where we moan about how terrible it all is to one where we celebrate the BAME talent already in the industry, support them, and make sure they’re visible, to the industry itself and to those wanting to join.

For people from ethnic minority backgrounds wanting to come into publishing, I have the following tips:

  • Don’t be afraid. I know it can seem daunting to be one of the only non-white faces around, but you’re paving the way for future generations, and you should always remember that.
  • Speak up. One of the valuable things about you is that you might look at the world from a slightly different perspective, so if you have an idea or an opinion, share it. (Politely and in an appropriate setting, of course.)
  • Go for paid positions. There are a number of paid internships out there, so make sure you apply for them. Work experience is fine, but working for free should only be done for a week or two absolute maximum.
  • Make connections. Find people who have done the jobs you want to do, and drop them a line to say hello and ask if they would mind you asking their advice. It’s especially easy to do this with Twitter.
  • Join BAME in Publishing!

And for publishers, a few things you could be doing:

  • Look beyond Creative Access. Creative Access is brilliant, but one intern a year in your company probably isn’t going to change anything fast.
  • Reach out to schools. London is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and so many UK publishing firms are based in the capital. It’s not difficult to find schools where the make-up of pupils is diverse, so go out there and talk to them, make sure they know the many different roles and opportunities available to them at a publishing house.
  • Pay. I can’t say this enough – publishers should be paying interns and, if possible, should at least be shouting travel expenses for work experience students.
  • Widen the advertising net. Sure, The Guardian and your own website are great, but are you making an effort to reach new audiences with your job adverts? Are you advertising on Twitter and Tumblr, in publications targeting people of different ethnic backgrounds?

My hope is that, if we all work together, BAME in Publishing will no longer need to exist, and I’ll never be mistaken for that other brown girl in publishing again.

Want to find out more? Go to BAMEinpublishing.tumblr.com/faqs, email bameinpublishing@gmail.com, or leave a comment below.

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