Class as a barrier in the publishing industry transcript

HB: Today I'm speaking to Professor Katy Shaw from the University of Northumbria. Her research focuses on 21st century writings exploring working class literature and cultural representations of post-industrial regeneration. Katy authored a recent report, The Common People Report, which identifies pervasive barriers in the way of working-class writers and makes a rallying call for change in the publishing industry and strongly recommends more effective and better funding for collaborative working. 

The common people report aligns with Emerald's Inclusivity Report, which explores global perceptions around inclusion and the UN Sustainable Development Goals which have set 2030 as a target date for achieving a truly inclusive global society. The report found that people within the UK identified class discrimination as the second biggest barrier to achieving an inclusive society by 2030 behind racial discrimination. I wanted to ask Katy how the common people report identified the ways class plays out as a barrier within the publishing industry. You can find the links to Emerald's inclusivity report and the common people report in the show notes.

HB:  So hello Katy and thank you for joining me today and welcome to Emerald's podcast. 

KS: Thank you for having me.

HB: So, why is having diversity of voice in what gets published so important? 

KS: Well having diversity of voice is incredibly important. Now more than ever because you can't really function as a society without everyone's voice being heard and everyone's voice being valued and visible. Representation is a right and it is a good. It is an economic good, a social good and a cultural good. And in terms of class in particular if we're thinking about the current context, being post Brexit, post COVID, and going back a little way even though it feels like a very long way away now, post general election, and the so called fall of the red wall in the traditional working class areas of the UK, there's never really been a more vital point at which we need more diverse voices to be heard in our mainstream culture. The publishing industry in particular has a really crucial role to play in helping to find the country's direction of travel. We've now got a very uncertain future. Industry and government are trying to make strategic interventions and decisions to protect and grow the social and economic impacts created by publishing and also the really vital relationships publishing has with education and the university sector that enables knowledge exchange and talent development. So supporting and developing this real diversity of writers ultimately benefits everybody. And everybody needs to play a part in achieving that and also in promoting new voices for future generations.  

HB: Class is one of those words that we use a lot without thinking about what it means. And it can be easy to skip that first step towards understanding. So, what do we mean by class?  

KS: Social class is a really kind of contentious slippery term, and not just for us but for many generations in years gone by. It's really controversial, it's changed in my lifetime, certainly as society and the economy and the labour market shifted; and what we used to think about as working class professions, so that was kind of heavy industry, manual labour, they've now been replaced with retail and the service sector employment. This in turn has kind of changed the experiences and the expectations and the culture of the working classes in the UK. Certainly over the last decade in particular there's been a real renewal of interest and analysis in social class and inequality. This has really been driven by accumulating evidence about escalating social inequality and notably in respect to things around social and cultural indicators like mortality rates and educational attainment. The way we configure class in the 21st century is possibly more complicated than ever, whatever definition you fall on, one thing is unarguable: social class remains a powerful force in creating the Britain of today and of the future.

HB: How did this conceptualising of class and these changes that we've seen over the last 10 years, how did that motivate the Common People project?

KS: The Common People project really arose out of an ongoing program of work that we at Northumbria University have been working on with New Writing North who are the biggest regional writing development agency in the UK. We'd undertaken a lot of research in recent years thinking about the publishing industry and issues like regionalism, and particularly the North of England, but also class diversity and representation more widely. That really grew alongside a body of work that had been going on in the literary industry with writers like Kit de Waal and publishers like Unbound starting to ask questions about a lack of working class voices in writing today, particularly a lack of working class representation in things like book festivals and events. We came together on the project and tried to position Common People as a piece of research, as a kind of strategic intervention to address this recognised problem. With some funding from Arts Council England, we were able to do a research project alongside a commercial published anthology that was crowd funded.

HB: How do issues around class play out for working class writers? What barriers and challenges did you identify within the report? 

KS: Well the research threw up some really interesting areas, so the project really fell into two areas. The first part was the production of an anthology of new writing which united our new self-identified working class authors with some more established working class writers like Damian Barr, Stuart Maconie, and we produced that anthology commercially, sold it commercially, and the authors we involved in the entire process, self-selecting and self-identifying as working class all the way through to doing book events and launch etc around it. The other part of the project was a research project thinking about writing development and I worked as researcher in residence with writers and publishers and the agents and the original editing development agencies that were involved over the course of 2018-19, to think about the ways in which we could develop the writers, equip them with the skills, and the experiences that they needed and that they'd identified as lacking, before engaging in the work. Some of those barriers that they'd identified were really interesting; one of the major ones actually was confidence. Confidence and so called imposter syndrome, having the confidence to call yourself a writer, and what that meant when you have a perceived lack of cultural capital. Another really important area was peer support networks. Having another writer to read your work or to talk about the process of writing with or to get some feedback on what you've written. But overall I think the thing that came through perhaps most clearly in the research was a sense of a lack of industry knowledge and particularly of the unspoken codes that are created in publishing today; the unspoken conventions, the contacts, and the areas and personal relationships that the authors felt quite distant from and also interestingly didn't see themselves reflected in the publishing industry as a whole. If we look through the industry into those gatekeeper roles, we found lots of literary agents who are predominantly middle class, lots of editors who are middle class and a real lack of diversity in the publishing industry staff more broadly. So these authors were able to give us a real lived experience of their encounters with publishing before and after the research.

HB: And so what are the implications of these barriers for how class is written about and what does and doesn't get published, what are the dangers of these voices being missing?

KS: I think the dangers of having a lack of representation and a lack of diversity in publishing, is that we are only listening to part of a conversation, or worse still we're ultimately listening to a monologue. Because if we have middle class people commissioning middle class voices that relate to their own interest and experience, then we have unconscious bias. Ultimately, this has profound implications both for the quality and the nature and the scope of the written work that we're being offered by contemporary publishing, but also for the commercial viability of publishing as an industry. There's a clear economic imperative here about wanting a more diverse body of writing because obviously if you're a publisher you want to be offering something to everyone who's going to walk into a bookshop or buy a book. If you're only representing a certain experience or a certain part of the country you're not doing that. But also there's a more profound social and wellbeing and cultural effect here which is quite simply, often if you can't see it you can't be it. How are we role modelling or validating the experiences of that silent and underrepresented part of society? How are we acknowledging their experience and making it visible? If we're not, what does that say about how they're perceiving their world that's not perhaps being represented in literature today. 

HB: It's a bit of an echo chamber isn't it?

KS: Yes, and the danger with an echo chamber is that we're already operating in a world increasingly dominated by social media where by following and liking we can craft our own echo chambers. Unconscious bias is effectively doing just that – if you only include certain people in an industry or a conversation you're potentially going to be blinkering yourself to a whole diversity of other perspectives and experiences.

HB: I think we can be a bit guilty thinking about class in isolation but class isn't a discrete category, so how did the contributors to the report place that class identity in context with things like race, gender, religion, disability?

KS: Class, like many of these things, is deeply intersectional and we approached the research with that at the forefront. Intersectionality is all about thin king about the ways in which our social and political identities align and can cross, and they can do that to either enable or disable privilege and advantage. If we're thinking about things like class identity and place them alongside race, gender, religion disability, these are all overlapping and interconnected sources potentially of isolation, potentially of challenge, but they are also interwoven and because of that and they cross over, they can ultimately conspire to prevent people reaching their potential, which is why you get this kind of phrase appearing a lot, ‘doubly disadvantaged' because they have a dual area of intersection. Inequality is nuanced and it's impact is not singular, it has shades and it has layers, I think one thing that the Emerald Global Inclusivity report really highlights well is that if you look at potential sources of discrimination, your report highlights the top ones being ‘recruitment and selection', ‘leadership values', and ‘mentoring'. These things have a really powerful role modelling ability to either open or close doors. If we look at ways we can think about addressing this, you know thinks like unconscious bias training in selection, leadership training to show we don't have a one model fits all size for leadership, and also for the power of mentoring. I've worked for the past two years with Emerald on the Mentor and Me campaign around International Women's Day every year, and we've thought about the ways in which mentoring as a process for men and women can be utterly transformative and a really powerful vehicle for tacking underrepresentation and promoting diversity, but moreover for creating quite sustainable ecosystems, of support and advancement for ensuring that these challenges of diversity aren't something we're still talking about in 20 years' time. If we tackle it in a way that is sustainable then it should create people who are out there and wanting to do the same thing rather than constantly having to reinvent the wheel.  

HB: I think this idea of mentoring and the power of mentoring really came out in the common people report outcomes. It really showed that mentoring made a difference to the people who took part in the project. 

KS: Mentoring was a really important part of the project and when we evaluated the authors' experiences of engaging with it, in the writing development programme, they cited the mentoring as up there with one of the most valuable experiences of the programme. We matched each of our new authors with an established author or industry professional at the beginning of the project and they had that unique one-to-one time I guess and support and validation and listening time. So much of this is about dialogue and the importance of listening but also, really interestingly when you look at the report, the feedback from the mentors who took part in the process was also incredibly positive. 100% of mentors who took part would love to do it again and they really benefited from it and gained something from it too. I think that idea of mentoring as being a one-way street is not the case, I think mentors often feel like they learn as much from their mentees as the mentees do from them.

HB: Did the mentors report ways they were going to change the way they worked? Did they incorporate any of what they've learned into practice?  

KS: I think certainly in terms of awareness and knowledge, it was eye opening. Luckily a lot of our mentors were already very forward thinking; I think that's a self-selection in wanting to take part in the process and a mentoring scheme. Interestingly when we started talking to the wider industry we would get a lot of DMs on Twitter and private messages saying ‘I'm a working class publisher', ‘I'm an agent who came from a working class background', almost as if it was kind of a secret, they had to confess to us. They wanted to be involved in the work and actually what we're seeing now is the people who have taken part in the mentors, some of them have gone back to their organisations and are now mentoring within those organisations, so it's getting back to that idea of mentoring as not just a one-off, it actually creates this gorgeous rolling thing that will evolve and grow as people take those practices and those cultures back into their own organisations.

HB: I think there's something around having to fit in with the identify of publishing that changes how people feel about and display class identity.

KS: I think that's absolutely true. We've had feedback from people who work in publishing and those so called gatekeeper roles who said ‘I felt like if I didn't level out my accent, I would stand out a mile or people would think less of me', ‘if I didn't say I went skiing for my holiday every year I would never have anything to talk about in the office', and there's loads of elements of people just knocking chunks of their lived experience in order to try and streamline themselves into this kind of socially expected norm within the industry. I think that is definitely shifting, as much as we are having these conversations and people are articulating these experiences, I think these people are now really invested in not wanting to be that way for future generations in publishing. Mentoring is a really big part of that and I don't think in a way that's exclusive to publishing, I think if you look at several industries, and I could cite academia as being one, people have still very pronounced cultural stereotypes of what someone in publishing looks like and sounds like, and also in academia  - I'm very aware always that I'm not what you might think a Professor looks like, and also certainly when I was growing up as a little girl I never saw a female professor in my world. So there's that really important element of role modelling as well in terms of broadening participation in industries and that kind of links in for me in to the decentralisation agenda when it comes to publishing – if we have a huge percentage of all of our publishing activity and staff and skill base in London then we can't role model what those roles are to anybody in the regions, we can't make publishing visible or accessible to anybody in an effective way. So I think the decentralisation agenda is really key to that too.

HB: Kit de Waal said that the industry needs to wake up to the world beyond the M25. Emerald is one of a handful of academic publishers in the north and I can confirm that it can feel a bit lonely up here. Why is it more important to have more investment in infrastructure in the North?

KS: It's just essential and I think now we're talking in a post COVID period, I think lots of these things were occurring before COVID. Last year I went to parliament with New Writing North and we gave evidence to the government enquiry. Our message to that enquiry about writing and the industry was: you need to get out of London, because it's deeply unsustainable for many reasons to have an entire industry based in one place. If anything, COVID has really functioned to accelerate some of those debates we were already having. Now I think if you think about having any industry based in one place it's deeply unsustainable and it's not resilient. What COVID has made apparent is that if you decentralise an industry in much the same way that media has decentralised to Manchester and Salford, with the BBC, and Leeds with Channel 4 and Sky, not only are you making your skillset more broad and you're closer to the regions and the people you're trying to represent, but also you're actually diversifying your gatekeeper roles too and you're making your industry more resilient. I think we need to use companies like Emerald and Hachette who are also announcing regional office openings at the moment to think about what regional offices look like, what a strategy for development into the nations and regions look like for publishing, because for too long there's been a so called talent pipeline that runs from the north to London and what we're more interested in is thinking about how we can have a flowing of creative potential across the country as a whole, and how government should look to incentivise publishing to move to the regions in the same way that it has media.

HB: Absolutely. I think COVID-19 has demonstrated that you can work from anywhere. We don't need to be in one place to work effectively.

KS: I think that's true, I think the awful phrase ‘there's opportunity in a crisis', there's opportunity here for thinking about all of those issues that we're trying so hard to highlight before COVID hit and for many of us in the North we were already practising some of these working patterns that people have now been forced to adapt because of COVID. I'm based in Newcastle – for me to go to a meeting in London would be a five hour round train trip that would cost hundreds of pounds, so prior to this I was ‘Zooming in' and I was you know ‘Skyping in' to a lot of meetings in London to reduce that travel and cost, and the environmental impact. Now that everyone has proven through COVID that homeworking is liberating in many ways, of course it's got its downsides, but actually it reduces peoples' commutes, cost, it has profound implications on wellbeing. Also, for me what I'm hearing from authors is it's had a really transformative effect on writing practice. Rather than being stood up on a train for two hours a day or driving a car, people have got time to write and people have got time to think, so I do think there's going to be new practices in writing at work and publishing that will emerge from this period.

HB: There's a real period of disruption to the existing systems isn't it?

KS: Yes, for me as a researcher and as a critic of the practices of working prior to COVID, I can see in a way it's shone a spotlight on the stuff we were already aware of. What we're trying to address; there are many diversity schemes within publishing – now I think it's made it even more essential that we think about quite structural, quite endemic changes to move away from the physicality of needing to go to London, Dick Whittington style, to succeed in publishing, or be willing to live in the capital for two weeks with no money to do an internship at a big publisher for free or on minimum wage. Now I'm in a position today, where if a year ago I wanted to put a literary agents in front of my students here in Newcastle that would have involved putting someone on a train from London. Today, I can go to a regional publishing office and hopefully in a year's time when Hachette are based up here in Newcastle I can go down the road and show them an editor or someone who works in rights, sales, or marketing. These are all really important; because not only are we diversifying the economy and devolving the creative skillset in the regions, but we're also making publishing as an industry more resilient and sustainable.

HB: Thinking about your report, what are the main recommendations the report makes? What needs to change?

KS: The headline report recommendation was for greater decentralisation in publishing at every level. I think that was also made a clear call for literary agents to start basing themselves and their offices outside of London mainly so we get a closer relationship with what's going on in the regions and get a sense that the world does not begin and end within the M25. But also that we change the profile of the gatekeeper roles in publishing as a result of that. Obviously these changes that we are proposing can start in publishing. And publishing is really important to get the changes right because it's a source industry, it goes off and it feeds all the representations you see on TV adaptations and film, it's got an important source role for addressing representational disparity and improving diversity across a whole range of cultural representation. We can't just have it happening here in isolation, the government needs to incentivise the publishing industry to move in the same way that it did media industries. Also, we need to think about model of strategic intervention, like the Common People project can leverage relatively little money to create quite big changes and make us think about some of these challenges facing us as a society today. We need to think about ways in which we can support the regional writing development organisations that we have in the UK, who are best placed to do that grassroots work with new writing and spot new writing talent. The main message from the report is about collaboration. Common People was the first time that all the regional writing development agencies had got together to do a big scale project like this. It was the first time that I'd worked as a writer and researcher in residence on a project like this, that we'd collaborated with agents and Unbound on a big project like this. It was really ambitious but in proving the power and also the leverage potential in collaborative work, you can take a small amount of money and a lot of networks and in kind working and time spent thinking about how we can work across sectors, it's really suggested to us that the way forward with all of this and the publishing industry more broadly, is to think about how we can use what we have, and leverage it to better inform future planning and the policy of government and industry. Working together as academics, as creatives, and governments to try and find and share those new narratives about Britain today, and to ensure that this contribution of having diversity of voices can make a real change to the health and wellbeing of the nation as we continue to develop.

HB: We kind of think of writing as this solo endeavour which your report really shows it's not, that it needs to be collaborative, and it was actually very interesting for me to read it from a publishing perspectives, you know working in the publishing industry, publishers, editors, agents, we are the gate keepers. While publishing houses say they want to sign more diverse authors, it's clear that it's not really happening. It's not good enough to cite a lack of submissions or that we struggle to find diverse authors. I think if there is one word we need to ban from our publishing lexicon it's niche. Niche tends to mean anything that falls outside of our kind of white middle class experience and it shows that there's practices within the publishing industry itself that we can change. Could you speak more to some of those practices?

KS: I'd agree with that and I think niche itself  is an incredibly subjective term because it depends on our own world views and experiences, and our culture and our particular point in time. And if anything I think that any moment or point of disruption where people are forced to change is going to be a pivot point for people thinking about the ways we want to work in the future, the kind of industry we want to see and the changes that are going to be necessary and how we go about those. Taking this as an opportunity to start pushing forward some of the changes we'd identified pre-COVID, I think for publishing it's not only going to be a great commercial imperative for the industry to represent more diverse voices but also it's now essential to its sustainability and it's resilience in a post COVID world.

HB: And I think that the kind of barriers that you found in the report and the recommendations, like you mentioned earlier, they don't just apply to publishing but these are common themes that we see across many industries. 

KS: They are, and I think the common themes across different industries and professions, quite often when you read into the critical literature around them, some of the key headlines are the same. So if you think about for example in higher education, why we have a disparity of women in leadership roles in higher education, well guess what? It's down to mentoring, it's down to unconscious bias, it's down to leadership values. They are the same things that are highlighted by your report. These are things that if you get right they have a trickle down effect. Positive leadership values bleed into the organisation in a great way; effective mentoring creates a sustainable ecosystem that self-propels itself through the company or through the organisation and creates a completely different inclusive diverse culture. Ultimately, effective recruitment and selection and conscious selection to think about the kind of organisation you want to craft, it's like baking a cake and thinking about your ingredients, and how you want soemthing to taste? It's a process and one that we're going to be thinking about and reviewing as we move on, but the very fact that we're having these conversations I think is positive because we're now identifying multiples of intervention that might now be specific to a single industry but could actually form case studies of positive practices that we can then share across our sectors.

HB: Absolutely. Thank you very much for speaking to us today Katy that was a really an interesting conversation. 

KS: Thank you so much.