Quick question…

I don’t have much to say (actually I have loads though i’m attempting to be good and upset as few people as I can this year as last year was such a disaster for anyone under 50).

It surely can’t only be me who is baffled by the idea that “diversity” seems only to be tackled by the middle-aged, middle-class (or worse, Tory) white (typically males) out there. This seems to particularly be the case in the publishing industry (though I have seen it elsewhere and welcome your observations where you have too).

I am often baffled – in fact so much so that I consider it worthy of a Phd – by the idea of diversity in publishing. Now that it has been acknowledged as a public problem every Tom, Dick and Harry of a publishing company has started an award, started an internship or started blogging about the many changes their company is making to enhance diversity in publishing but why is it that the majority of the people inititating these ideas seem to be white, middle-aged, middle-class, males?

I genuinely beleive that in order to show true “diversity”, or inclusivity as I prefer to see it, it shouldn’t be led by this majority with some ploys to make a few people happy. Sure, they are usually the folk in power who have the final say, but surely it requires going to the under-represented crowds themselves (be it due to race, class, religion or creed) and asking them “what changes do we need to implement to make our industry a more inclusive one?”, “what would it take for you to feel accepted and heard?”.

I come from a rather priveleged background – white, middle-class, educated – but my parents come from working-class backgrounds with no contacts in the industry, people out there still ask me to slow down “because your accent is too hard to follow” (an East-Midlands accent after ten years in London – not a challange for most) and stared at with shock when I say my BA is in the arts rather than Engljsh Literature. 

If I, a priveleged person, still feel under-represented within the industry I so want to be a part of, then I find it hard to beleive that others out there, less priveleged than I in some ways, don’t certainly feel under or unrepresented. How do we fix this lack of representation? Not from the industry as it is, telling us how to fix it i’m sure, but by embracing fully those who represent these under-represented voices. By asking them “What changes do we need to make?”. By asking them to create the change they want to see and supporting it fully as fellow publishers – that’s how I see true inclusivity within the industry finally being achieved.
By realising that inclusivity goes further than just making the right size hole for someone to fit through in that moment, by exploring avenues to make inclusivity the normaliry rather than a novelty, by publishing voices that truly represent our greater society – that, I think, is far more importamt than another award, another open call for manuscripts, targeting a particular community at a particular time.

I call out for those who feel under-represented within their industry to do the research, fight and scream and shout for more than you are given. You are the people I would hire if I were to start a publishing company. You are the voices we need to hear in 2017 and beyond – yours, mine and thousands of others out there currently left screaming into the void.

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Paris and the Bibliophile’s Love Affair

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I was recently in the eternally beautiful city of Paris where I haven’t visited for many years. I found myself preparing to leave with what could be considered a severe case of the ‘holiday blues’ at the prospect of returning to an increasingly chain-store orientated London, shared housing and a job far from the industry that I am both qualified in and so passionate to be a part of. There were tears…a lot of tears…tears of rather embarrasing levels. This wasn’t, as may be the case for many, because of the romantic lure of Paris (though it was very romantic and a joy to explore with my rather lovely, fluently French-speaking boyfriend) but rather, because for a book-lover such as I, Paris remains a city of wonderful bookshops and independent Bouquinistes lining the Seine. 

This is a city where small businesses across many industries still seem to thrive or, if not thrive, continue to fight for their independently localised highstreets in a manner that Britain seems to have given up on long ago. I became obsessed by this city’s varied independent businesses over chain-stores, with their wonderful customer service (which as a long time retailer still strikes me as the heart of a business) and with what seems like a healthy attitude to market competition. Here follows the things I saw in Paris which won my heart…

1. The number of similar stores in a single area

This is something that I constantly noticed and brought up (to my boyfriend’s dismay). In Paris there seems to be key areas in which certain types of businesses dominated. Much like days past in London there seemed to be particular areas you might go to for certain things. Walking from Monmartre, for example, we seemed to come across a wedding dress district and some time later a comic book district. Initially I questioned how any of the businesses could be doing well and I came to the conclusion that it was due to healthy competition. Each store must have to strive to do ‘better’ in some way than the shops before and after it. Before chain-stores came into play this was how business worked. It seems considerably fairer that several independents are competing with one another rather than trying to compete with the big-boys popping up all over the city.

2. Book shops filled with people

Perhaps this is the prospective publisher in me but I at least looked into every single book shop I saw if I didn’t enter it’s doors and what I saw was busy busy bookshops so unlike what I see in the UK nowadays. And what’s more, people were leaving with bags full of books! As we know many other countries feel entirely different to us Brits about spending full price on books. Sadly we cannot go back and reinstate the Net Book Agreement and there is no point in wishing we can but it was so nice seeing a city full of people who still respect the worth and value of physical books. This respect is something that I wish and I believe we should strive to reinstate in people in the UK rather than allowing other countries to fall into our own money-pinching ways. Afterall, when you are willing to spend £3-£5 on a coffee what is your complaint of spending little more than that on a physical book?!

3. Independent shops are the mainstream

Of course there are chain-stores in Paris but they are few and far between. I took great joy in trying a different patisserie every day and determining who produced the best baguette, who had the most pleasant staff, where could I not resist returning to, and so on. And if you really wanted the chain stores there were certain areas that you could expect to find them so it came down to a personal choice of which experience you preferred. This is something we are losing in the UK and something I dread will eventually disappear  in the rest of Europe. To me there is little worse in London than seeing a Tesco or Starbucks everywhere I turn. I want variety, I want the option to shop at any of the stores in a mile radius based on the quality of their products.

4.  Bookshops open late into the evening

Honestly, I only noticed that one bookshop opened to 11pm and this was the incredibly busy independent Shakespeare and Company, a wonderful cavelike bookshop selling English titles, which attracted tourists like bees to honey. For me the greatest potential for an independent business is that you can determine your own working hours to better benefit yourself and your customers. I have long been saying that if independent bookshops in the UK were to open later, offer a better variety of community events and stronger customer services, offering a different business model to what is already out there then they could truly compete with the likes of Amazon. This isn’t a new idea, it’s just one that seems to be ignored in large util around the Christmas period. By staying open later you are making yourself available to a whole host of potential customers who would otherwise be at work themselves during your standard opening hours. I always seem to bring up the film Empire Records when I talk about this. If you’ve seen it you’ll probably understand why, if you haven’t and you dislike the big stores as much as I do, well just go watch it.

5. Working in the service industry is treated with respect

Having worked in retail for most of my adult life this is something that I was quite jealous of. Retail workers and waiters/resses, at least, seemed to be treated with respect and in return the customer service given surpased (for the most part) what I have seen in most of the UK. In France these positions are treated as careers, qualifications are even earned relating to the specific field that you go into and therefore the wages are higher and there is even a sense of pride for the job that you are doing. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen great customer service in the UK (I count myself as one of those who gives such) and I also saw some bad customer service in France (i’m sure not everyone in the service industry is there out of choice) but overall it just felt different and better.

I could actually keep on going but these were the key points that I have been considering endlessly. I have to admit though that these alone had me considering the potential to move to Paris in order to pursue my career – to run a successful publishing house alongside a bricks and mortar bookshop  – but I continue to love London’s great publishing tradition, it’s history, the many wonderful, exciting and innovative publishers that are popping up regardless of the many challenges that abound. I also am cynical enough to believe that all that I consider to be great about this industry in Paris has the potential to disappear almost over night. For now I will continue to practice my French and push for change on this side of the Channel and finally start writing that novel which Paris inspired. One day though, who knows…

You can make a book anywhere, so why London?

This is something I’ve been stewing on for a while and now I’m just going to say it…

Publishing needs to break out of London.

Don’t get me wrong, London is great; living in London you have access to almost everything you might desire. A hub for beautiful art, delicious food, thousands of events every single night, museums and architecture, history and a diversity of people I just haven’t personally seen elsewhere in the UK. It is loud and busy and full of life, there is a buzz, a tangible vibe, sometimes it has you grinning from ear to ear and sometimes it makes you wonder if you’re insane and really it is quite often frustrating as hell.

I grew up in rural Lincolnshire in a village with no public transport, eight miles from school and most of my friends. There was little for us to do apart from trips to the pub or the almost 30 mile journey to the nearest city. I’ll be honest, a trip to the supermarket could be considered an exciting day trip.

Lovely Lincoln

Lincoln City

When I was eighteen I headed south to study art and make my way into the creative industries. Everyone knew the south offered jobs and excitement and the freedom to dress and act any way you like. There are afterall no publishers in Lincolnshire that I know of. In comparison the south seemed to offer so much more. It still offers me enough that I’m sitting here watching the world go by, dreaming of my dream job in a London publishing house, only now I wonder if maybe it is time to realign the balance of those invisible borders.

Leeds Library

Leeds Library

It is quite strange for me now to feel so determined that north of the Thames is where the future of publishing may lie. Big businesses in other industries are already starting to make the move to Manchester as the Financial Times reported earlier this year, Government is promising to rebalance the economy by improving transport links in the north, and best of all, there are even places where you can still buy a lovely home for less than £0.5m…in fact a lot less.

London is home to approximately 300 of the country’s publishing houses, Oxford – 30, Edinburgh – 11 and Cambridge – 10, whilst everywhere else teeters down into the single figures. And I have been sitting for months now wondering if we are all missing a trick? Are we about to again be ridiculed for being left behind whilst the other industries move to where the cost of living is lower, the quality of life could be argued as higher and where, for you parents out there, you don’t have to choose six different schools and just hope and pray you get the good one you want. Is it purely out of a sense of tradition that we remain tied to a city that seems to be feeling smaller and more expensive every single day?

In this age of Skype and email, high speed trains and flexible working hours, a time when we are all squeezing ourselves into smaller and smaller spaces within the South East, why as publishers, for the most part, are we not looking further afield?

Sassy Sheffield

Sassy Sheffield

There are approximately 64m people living in the UK, reports say, approximately 8.6m of which are within London, less than half a million reside in Edinburgh and about a fifth of that number live in Oxford. There are approximately 9m people living within the publishing epicentres themselves and the rest of the UK is made up of a further 55m people. I can’t help but feel that with more and more students opting to stay in their university town or city and more still moving back home with their families I would say that now, more than ever, there are vast numbers of hugely creative, well-educated and forward-thinking individuals living outside the bounds of the industries who would so greatly benefit from hiring them.

Cities and towns nationwide are developing, expanding and looking to their future. They are industrialising once again and publishers need to be at the forefront of that happening in order to better reach their readers.

Melodic Manchester

Melodic Manchester

I could probably go on with this for hours, linking research and figures and a lot more opinions but I will finish with pointing out that there are numerous wonderful publishing houses already working outside the traditional publishing epicentres of London, Edinburgh and Oxford and I have the greatest respect for them. They took a model and flipped it around and are doing it well. Some great publishers out there in the wilds include;

  • Myrmidon Books in Newcastle-upon-Tyne
  • Comma Press in Manchester
  • Salt Publishing in Norfolk

(All photos copyright free from Flickr)