Publishing must decolonise

From The Bookseller:

The movement of protests, riots and direct action that has sparked across the globe following the death of George Floyd has now entered the offices of creative industries such as publishing, and been swallowed up by the yawn-inducing language of “diversity and inclusion” that is all too familiar to those of us working within the industry.

While calls for reflection are being made, “anti-racist” reading lists are being circulated and the mantra of “we will do better” rolls of the tongue of our White publishing friends, it is unclear why anyone should expect meaningful change from an industry that has already spent decades bemoaning the diversity problem. It is difficult to view these statements of support as anything but performative zeitgeist from an industry keen to present itself as well-meaning and socially conscious without divesting from its imperial roots.

What does “inclusion” in this industry, as currently conceived, offer people of colour? The publishing industry does not need to be diversified; it needs to be decolonised.

Of all the creative industries, publishing is the most explicitly imperial. An open letter from the Publisher’s Association in 2018 argued without irony or acknowledgement of its own imperial history that “UK publishing is world-leading and a cornerstone of Britain’s cultural and economic influence.” Books have always been an important propaganda tool and the flow of writing and information from West to East has been central to the colonial project.

Little has changed to this day. Multinational publishing companies work in an explicitly colonial framework; they distribute books acquired in the UK wherever they have rights, but rarely would a book published first by a division in South Africa or India, say, be picked up by the UK head office. The few books that do make it over traffic in exploitative tropes, pushing a singular narrative and feeding into a limiting and caricaturish portrayal of people in the global South.

The foundations of the publishing industry are white, male and middle class and a simple look at the demographic of an average mainstream UK white publishing house makes it clear how closely the industry is still tied to these roots, albeit now with more women. A recent survey found that only 13% of respondents identified as BAME, and that a disproportionate number of respondents were from the South East, and had been to fee-paying schools.

This has created an industry that not only caters wholly to that target group but refuses to embrace even the diversity inherent within itself, let alone those it considers external to it. Bookshops judge what books to acquire based on reviews in newspapers, written by similarly white and middle-class reviewers and selected by literary editors who believe that their readers won’t want to read books about Africa because it is too “niche”, as one such editor informed me. As long as the gatekeepers of the industry remain invested in this white supremacist and elitist framing, where only white narratives are mainstream and everything else is ghettoed (with a few miraculous exceptions held up as proof of the publishing industry’s diversity), this will remain the case.

For those books by writers of colour that do make it to publication in mainstream UK publishing, that imagined middle-class white reader is still seen as the target audience. Writers are told that their work is not universal enough, code for “it does not centre whiteness”, which often means narratives about black and brown characters angsting over their identity. Similarly, anthologies abound – about immigrants, Black men, Muslim women – all unwittingly explaining their otherness to an unnamed white audience. These anthologies also prove that there is an abundance of talented writers from the margins, and yet the only way for many of these writers to be published is as part of a collection with 20 other writers, writing about experience of racism or other “isms.”  When writers of colour are championed by the media, they are invariably published by large multinationals or medium-sized publishing houses who are always on the first tiers for reviewing, again as revealed by a book editor at a major newspaper.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Sounds like an industry that deserves to die. PG will formalize the de facto boycott he has been conducting for years.

4 thoughts on “Publishing must decolonise”

  1. Some folks throw off the colonial master. Others ask him for stuff. The really smart ones click the Amazon KDP upload button.

  2. PG, I have no interest in defending the UK publishing industry – though some of the specialists are quite good – but I don’t think that you should judge it by this tosh. The idea that the industry is male dominated is obviously nonsense and talking of “decolonisation” is almost meaningless. The writer’s horror that only 13% of the employees identify as BAME kind of ignores the fact that this is pretty much in line with the population as a whole.

    What is really weird though is the idea that bookshops base their purchases on newspaper reviews: I don’t know how the shops choose new titles but it’s going to be a very small shop if the stock is based on reviews – these always ignored whole swathes of the industry (including most non fiction and compete fiction genres) and this problem is compounded by the fact that the number of reviews appearing has fallen drastically – as has the readership of the papers that still publish reviews.

    • I’m in no position to judge the UK publishing industry, Mike. I haven’t traveled to Britain for a few years and those trips were mostly for pleasure with a handful of short business visits.

      Other than my great appreciation of the Oxford bookstores I visited (pre-ebook), all I know about the British book business is what I read in the Bookseller and similar publications which seem to be clones of US publishing industry news organs (or, perhaps, the US publications are clones of the British).

      Your description of reviews appearing in British publications certainly reflects the American review system (and newspaper industry) in their current declining form.

      • I’m quite sure that you know more about the UK publishing industry than I do, if only because you are much more likely to notice articles in the Bookseller than I am (and maybe even have a subscription and so can see the things they hide behind their paywall).

        On your visits to Britain, I’ve always envisaged you trailing behind Mrs PG as she researched her latest regency romance (with you slipping away to any likely looking bookshops you passed).

        Many years ago when I was studying at Oxford, the bookshops – particularly Blackwell’s – were great and I still have quite a few books from that time sitting on my shelves (mostly textbooks admittedly). However, in the “good old days” an ideal outing was to take a train into London to visit Foyle’s (weird, frustrating and full of serendipitous discoveries), followed by wondering down the Charing Cross Road for all the specialist and second-hand bookshops and then walking into Soho to visit “Dark They Were and Golden Eyed” (in the 1970s this was the best SFF and comic shop in the country, maybe in all Europe). Some of these are still there but the experience is not the same.

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