Skip to main content

24th April 2024

The problem with publishing

We often view publishing as a way to make our voices heard on a public scale, but what if it is these same industries creating silence, too?
The problem with publishing
Credit: Pratik Prasad @ Unsplash

The world of publishing might seem like something of a “god-sent” industry for all of our greatest literary endeavours, but at what point do we begin to question it? Publishing offers opportunities to those with big dreams and ideas that are bigger still, with huge names that pioneer the decision of what lands on our bookshelves and climbs to the top of the best-sellers lists.

Particularly at university, many in the arts and beyond are beginning to consider their own journeys into publishing, whether it be as a career path or to have their own work published. All in all, it serves as a way to project our voices, no matter how small they might seem to us. But what happens when the industry that provides so much hope to some, also seems to silence the hopes of others?

Let’s look at the numbers: a study by Children’s books company Lee and Low Books suggested that around 76% of those working in the publishing industry as a whole (including editorial teams, agents, marketing, reviewers, interns and so on) are white. Though it is dominated by women, attempts to diversify the publishing world are not sustained.

So what does this mean for your average reader?

Well, if you take a look at your reading list you might boast a great range of novels written by authors of all races, nationalities and identities. But let’s think of it this way: how many stories are still unheard and unpublished? It seems that for a large portion of writers, getting published is a much harder feat than it is for others; with a largely white workforce, it’s unsurprising.

Back in 2020, writer L.L. McKinney created the Twitter (now, X) hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, which appealed to authors to share what they were paid for their work. Amidst this, it became clear that there was a huge disparity in the way black authors were being paid next to their white counterparts. The data from this trend was then sorted into a larger database, taking factors such as the author’s celebrity status or presence into account to make comparisons more accurate.

Shockingly, black authors like N.K. Jemisin (who won three Hugo Awards in a row) and Jesmyn Ward (the first woman ever to win two National Book Awards for fiction) were being paid substantially less than largely unknown white authors. Whilst it was a known issue beforehand, #PublishingPaidMe highlighted the systemic problems and biases within publishing. The trend provided the numbers needed to bring more awareness and change by proving that the gaps that needed to be closed were huge at best.

But had there been change?

In the same year, another controversy demanded that the publishing industry be investigated and reformed. This time, the hashtag #DignidadLiteraria. The social movement was triggered by the reaction to Jeanine Cummins’ book, American Dirt, which was widely criticised for including racist and exploitative depictions of Mexican culture. In the aftermath, Latinx people, united by their shared frustrations, began campaigning for not only change within the publishing industry but also for readers to consume responsibly.

Much of the outrage around these discriminations was spotlighted by the events of 2020, where issues surrounding race and discrimination were brought further to the forefront in mass media. However, what has been done since then to create positive change?

Well, according to Zipdo’s Essential Diversity In Publishing Statistics In 2024, not a great deal. One positive is that LGBTQIA+ characters in books have doubled, though this is spanning over 16 years (2002-2018). Other than that, the statistics don’t look promising. Zipdo reveals that:

  • Only 7% of published authors in the UK are from a non-white background, according to Spread the Word’s 2015 Writing The Future report.
  • Only 2% of higher education textbook authors in the UK are from BAME backgrounds, according to Sheffield Hallam University research.
  • In 2020, 70% of the children’s books published were written by white authors, according to data collected by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.
  • Only 1.9% of the publishing industry identifies as disabled, as found in the 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey.
  • According to the Writing The Future Report, Black and Asian authors are four times more likely than White authors to self-publish in the United Kingdom.
  • In the UK, 15% of publishing employees are from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, according to the Publishers Association.

The data is truly disheartening. So what can we do?

Going back to #DignidadLiteraria, being more conscientious about what we read is a must. Putting sustained pressure on those in higher positions is also one way that we can hope for some sort of change. If we can tip the balance of those working in these industries to better represent the inclusivity that we expect to see, then maybe things will change for authors around the world too.

More Coverage

Audible plunges listeners into the depths of George Orwell’s 1984, leaving me dazed and hooked

Andrew Garfield stars as Winston Smith in ‘George Orwell’s 1984’, bringing Airstrip One to life through Audible’s dramatisation and leaving listeners craving more

Spotify vs Audible: The battle for audiobook dominance

With streaming giant Spotify making its first steps into the world of audiobooks, could your next Spotify wrapped be dominated by Sally Rooney and Dolly Alderton rather than Taylor Swift?

Why I don’t regret buying a Kindle

Don’t knock it ’til you try it. We breakdown the controversial argument on why Kindles might not be the worst idea after all

Boy Swallows Universe: Does reality make the best fiction?

How many of your favourite songs or stories are based in truth? We look at Trent Dalton’s novel, ‘Boy Swallows Universe’, to see how fiction and reality are intertwined in the arts