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The hard miles

June 7, 2020

Here we are, again.

If you read nothing else, read this excellent piece by Gary Younge on systemic inequality in the UK and US, and the protest against the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd.

Protests have been held, online and irl, over the past two weeks. Anger and solidarity has flooded out worldwide. Maybe this time’s different?

Individuals, corporations, celebrities and brands flooded social media with black squares to express solidarity on #blackoutTuesday. Well-meaning earnest statements were crafted and released, white font, black background. ‘We are shocked…’ ‘We are appalled…’ ‘We condemn in the strongest possible fashion…’

And who can disagree with these sentiments?

But here’s the thing: words are cheap, action is hard.

This post discusses HarperCollins simply because its example is so visible. I don’t work for HarperCollins, and perhaps it’s unfair to single them out. However, the systemic issues in publishing are not confined to HarperCollins. They are industry-wide, but perhaps less starkly obvious.

The system

HarperCollins is one of the ‘Big 5’, a group of the largest English-language publishers the are responsible for a significant majority of trade publishing around the world. On 1 June, a week after the killing of George Floyd, they put out a statement on social media:

As is common in our trade, HarperCollins publishes under a number of different imprints. Each imprint focuses on its own niche.

Broadside Books launched in 2010 to ‘publish books on the culture wars, books of ideas, books of revisionist history, biographies, anthologies, polemical paperbacks and pop-culture books from a conservative point of view.

[Quick pause here, in case ‘revisionist history’ didn’t start alarm bells ringing. It really should.]

It is currently promoting The MAGA Doctrine: The Only Ideas that Will Win the Future, the cover of which features President Trump (who has rightly been criticised for pouring petrol on the fire) hugging the American flag.

Conservative voices are as entitled to a platform as liberal voices. But let’s be straight, this isn’t about free speech. HarperCollins is a for-profit company. Broadside was launched to capitalise on the rise of right-wing politics and angry Breitbart-style polemic.

Broadside is not a passive platform. It plays to the choir.

Publishing has an issue with diversity. It is an overwhelmingly white middle-class profession. In recent years, publishers have tried to address this through routes into the industry.

HarperCollins runs several diversity programmes, listed here. In fact, HarperCollins is the only publisher to have been named as one of Business in the Community’s Best Employers for Race.

This is evidence of an effort to address the some of the same systemic issues that HarperCollins seeks to commercially exploit through its Broadside Books imprint. Yet this kind of cake-and-eat-it approach is precisely the problem: does the tone at the top match the initiatives often driven by the organisation’s lower ranks?

Low pay and emotional labour

One of the common criticisms with diversity schemes is that they funnel people towards the lowest paid roles, often working in the most expensive cities in the UK, whether staff turnover is high. Relatively few hires stay in the industry long enough to progress, so management and leadership remains much as before.

In addition, drives to improve diversity disproportionately put the labour on black and minority staff. The department I work in at Cambridge University Press is by far the most diverse department I’ve worked in. Yet, the (often emotional, often tiring) work of championing diversity has fallen conspicuously on a small number of colleagues. No prizes for guessing which ones.

A couple of years ago the University ran the Black Cantabs exhibition to highlight the achievement of its black students. In 2016, only 1.5% of the University’s undergraduate intake was black compared with a national average of 8%. The exhibition was intended to encourage black and minority applications, underpinned by the ethos of ‘you can’t be it if you can’t see it’. It profiled 15 black alumni. Posters were placed around the Press to encourage people to visit the exhibition – and to encourage conversations about diversity.

Which it duly did… I heard reports of one comment: ‘There are more black people on those posters than work at the Press.’ There are 1200 people who work at the Press, and 3% of the British population is black so even if all these alumni had suddenly found themselves working in the organisation we still wouldn’t be representative.

Real change is hard

The problem with systemic inequality is that while it harms – kills, even – the oppressed, it bolsters those in power. To address these issues, we’re going to have to make hard decisions. Decisions about what we want the industry – our businesses – ourselves – to stand for. Because it isn’t conscionable to carry on as we are.

I don’t have the answers for how to address all the issues – but I guess that’s kind of the point. We have to collectively address them together. We have to build a consensus, and maybe if this moment is good for anything, it’s for looking around and acknowledging that change is necessary, important, urgent – and possible.

Listen.

Punch up, not down.

Use your voice to amplify others.

The protests and campaigns will fade, the next outrage will come along, and that’s when the hard miles begin.

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