Though no doubt we all came away with different take-home points from The Bookseller’s Marketing & Publicity conference yesterday, one theme that kept cropping up in different guises was publishing’s tendency towards – putting it bluntly – the borderline-twee. Sara Lloyd was the first to touch on this, delivering a keynote largely examining our complacency as publishers: our cynicism about digital products; how difficult we may find it to think about the future when we’ve got today’s twenty tasks staring down at us; but most importantly for me, our reluctance to look outside what she called “the circle of publishing.”
We as an industry have made some vital steps in the recent past to rectify a pretty awful diversity problem. I see Penguin’s The Scheme and move to scrap degree requirements as a direct search for employees outside Lloyd’s “circle”. James Spackman’s Spare Room Project will quite literally open up publishing to those outside the circle of London. But there are some aspects of white, middle class publishing that we can’t seem to let go of.
Taking a peep at #bookstagram quickly reveals some common images: books are often set up with their corresponding merchandise or quirky trinkets in colours matching the jacket; fresh-picked flowers are seemingly abundant; everybody is drinking tea. All of these stylistic features are symptoms of general Instagram’s reach towards the #aspirational, and not solely a feature of book tag photos. But it does point to a sort of lazy go-to ideal we assume all readers hold. It points to a wider feeling that reading is an activity for the leisure class, that reading now goes hand-in-hand with artisanal baked goods. Granted, we may treat genre readers differently, for example – but there is an identifiable one-size-fits all approach to marketing fiction or narrative non-fiction. It can sometimes feel like we’re indiscriminately stuffing tote bags down all kinds of reader’s throats.
If I had an Instagram snapshot of my reading life, it’d be a dimly lit photo taken slumped over a library desk, with a bottle of Lucozade and an empty chocolate wrapper in the near distance. I’d have to get somebody else to take the photo of me with wet hair, tenuously gripping a paperback in one hand and death-gripping a tube handrail with the other. We all know publishing isn’t a golden ticket when it comes to money and prosperity – where is that struggle represented?
This problem isn’t restricted to our social media projection of the publishing industry. When I was first applying for entry-level positions, I came across one job description which jokingly warned that applicants with baking skills would be prioritised. Baking, when you’re a final-year student who’s strapped for cash and time, shouldn’t be made your priority. I’ve heard established professionals say that one of the best things they did as an intern was learn to make a really good cup of tea, because senior staff appreciate the effort, right? Is that really how we’re measuring potential?
As somebody who neither cooks nor drinks hot drinks, but also as somebody who didn’t feel like I fitted the London-centric publishing stereotype very perfectly, I found all of this really quite alienating, and I’m a fairly bog-standard white, middle-class, cishet female English Lit grad. How can this come across to the people we are really trying to reach with our new pushes for diversity, whether they be prospective authors, collaborators or future publishing megastars?
Perhaps more importantly, how does this come across to our readers? My favourite moment of the day was again during Sara Lloyd’s talk, where she asserted that not all readers define themselves as such, that “reader” may not be their primary identity, or they may not even see it any real aspect of their identity at all. They might just read books.
I’m definitely “a reader,” but I’m also lots of other things. I read on the way to hear a Detroit techno godfather, after a hard night’s gaming, I read in the airport waiting for my third budget flight that month because I’m an Irish emigrant with a long-distance boyfriend. I have lots of different interests and aspects of my lifestyle, and you can bet all of our readers do too.
I let out a not-so-quiet “yass” when Sarah Braybrooke asked if we’d made publishing maybe just a bit too “cutesy”, if we’d injected it with maybe a few too many cups of tea. Chris McCrudden called for a moratorium on bunting. Jen Callahan Packer referenced her insight from working in TV to recommend we make books “sexy” and make a bit more noise with out marketing. Becky Fincham told us about her mum, a voracious reader who wouldn’t feel comfortable coming along to a standard book event. All of this leads me to think we need to break out of the doughy mould we’ve all found ourselves in when it comes to how we portray books and reading. Though lots of us had a little groan when we heard about the “hipster bookshop” Libreria, I reckon it’s got a more stimulating, maybe “sexier” kind of browsing experience than we’re used to. We’re made to work for the books we seek, rather than the (certifiably lovely, don’t get me wrong) calming experience of walking into a thoroughly-stocked, well-labelled bookshop. Don’t think I saw any bunting in there, either. They might be catching on to a new, different way forward for books, that could have appeal outside our usual book circle.
We see this lesser-publicised side of the book industry particularly in small independent publishers, where there might be two people running the whole show, and their margins are so tight they don’t have the time or energy to go off doing bakery runs. Books from Galley Beggar Press are too wonderfully weird and quietly beautiful to bother pairing them with a mocha latte anyways. This ethos of hustle-fuelled, DGAF publishing was epitomised by Influx Press this week when one third of the press sneakily (and sadly, jokingly) requested submissions for “novels set in the UK Garage or Jungle scenes of the late 90s.” I have to also thank my supreme employer – in my year at Turnaround I’ve *never* made a coffee or tea, even when the fancy publishers from Milan come over. Quoting my boss, “we keep it real.”
There’s nothing at all wrong with the softer side of publishing. Albert Hogan rightly pointed out that much reading is a soothing activity, many books are a moment of peace in our otherwise hectic lifestyles. This will always hold true, but I think it’s maybe time we recognise it’s not the only truth. Chris McCrudden told us that falling into a story is a very good reason to pick up a book, but it’s not the only reason.
If we’re really going to diversify the publishing industry – seeking BAME employees and outsider voices – we better diversify the publishing personality, too.
Post by Heather
Check out our diverse titles here