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Last Updated: Monday, 26 March 2007, 23:19 GMT 00:19 UK
Lifting the cover for book recruits
By Gavin Stamp
Business reporter, BBC News

Titles published by Hodder Headline
Publishers recognise they must attract a wider range of employees

For some budding authors, trying to get a book published can seem like a lottery.

Uncertainty and exasperation are also familiar feelings for many of those seeking a career on the other side of the literary divide.

Publishing has always been perceived - some would argue unfairly so - as a notoriously difficult industry to break into for people not fitting the right mould.

Minority groups have typically been under-represented in the industry - a situation demonstrated by a 2004 survey commissioned by the Arts Council which found nearly half of those in the profession did not believe it was "culturally diverse".

Making contacts

Even those who have fulfilled their dream of working in the industry are still frustrated about its recruitment methods and attitudes to candidates from atypical backgrounds.

"There are plenty of jobs out there in publishing for which people can apply but for some reason ethnic minorities are just finding it that much more difficult to get in," says Sandy Officer, a production assistant at Hodder Headline.

Sandy Officer, production assistant at Hodder Headline
You would have to be blind not to notice there is a problem
Sandy Officer, Hodder Headline

She is one of the lucky ones, having been taken on by Hodder on a special 12-month traineeship scheme in 2005 and subsequently securing a full-time job with the firm.

While full of praise for Hodder's initiative and its support for her, she believes the industry in general is only just waking up to the issue of diversity and is guilty of past complacency.

"This industry is very much based on who you know and the contacts you have and you only find these contacts if you are already within the industry," she says.

"If they are aware there is a problem - and you would have to be blind not to notice there is a problem - they have chosen to ignore it.

"Once upon a time, ethnic minorities did not have the wherewithal to fight it but now more and more of us do want to get into this industry and we are starting to fight back.

"Publishers have realised they have no choice but to consider us."

A languages graduate, she moved into teaching after seeing all her attempts at getting unpaid work experience - the tried-and-tested route for people trying to get a foothold in the creative industries - ignored.

Recruitment efforts

This is a morale-sapping experience shared by many people, and one which a leading publishing executive says the industry has had to look at very carefully.

"If you restrict yourself to self-selection you won't have the people working for you that you need," says Helen Fraser, managing director of Penguin.

Historically, many got their break into publishing through referral or word of mouth, a situation which critics say discriminated against those without industry connections and who did not study at a select group of universities traditionally seen as recruiting grounds.

Publishers have sought hard to break down the perception that social networking and the "old school tie" count as much as ability in getting a first job.

Penguin is one of the industry's most proactive firms, hiring a number of interns from minority backgrounds every summer as part of parent firm Pearson's diversity programme.

Logo of the Penguin publishing firm
It is quite a slow process and we have to be very persistent. These kind of revolutions do not happen overnight
Helen Fraser, Penguin

Five of those taken on last year now have permanent jobs with the firm.

It has also led attempts to promote awareness of publishing as a career by holding open days at schools and colleges with a large number of minority pupils and earmarking them for work experience schemes.

"The fundamental thing we are trying to do is to show that Penguin is seriously interested in becoming more diverse and we want to because our audience is too," says Helen Fraser. "There has been good progress but it has not been good enough.

"It is quite a slow process and we have to be very persistent. These kind of revolutions do not happen overnight."

Editorial decisions

With ethnic minorities making up a growing share of the population and seeing their wealth and spending power increase rapidly, there is a risk publishers will lose out commercially if they neglect these vital constituencies.

Research shows that black Britons and British Asians are keen and wide-ranging readers - but also that they feel too few books are published that reflect their own experiences or tap into their main interests.

Despite the mainstream success of the likes of Andrea Levy and Monica Ali, authors with roots in immigrant communities still represent a small fraction of the industry's annual output.

The latest figures show that minorities account for 7.7% of total publishing staff, slightly below their 7.9% share of the overall population
But minorities make up 28% of London's population while research suggest they account for about 14% of London-based publishing staff

This has inevitably raised questions about whether the background of key decision-makers in the industry limits the range of books being commissioned.

Samenua Sesher, director of the Decibel diversity awareness programme at the Arts Council England, says the make-up of the industry means it has missed opportunities to appeal to minority audiences through successful recent genres such as chick lit.

"Publishers need to try and cast their net a bit wider and broaden their links," she says.

Executives admit changes could take longer to make themselves felt at senior editorial level.

But Penguin's Helen Fraser defends those in senior positions from any charges of myopia.

"It is not the job of publishers to try and adjust social problems," she says. "They are, above all, looking for writing talent.

"You can't push them out of the way to change the social mix."

Moral case

Sandy Officer has already seen a notable shift in attitudes in her short time in the industry but says there is "still a long way to go".

And for some publishers widening their pool of talent remains fundamentally a moral issue.

The 2006 Booker Prize short list
Recruitment of staff and authors must be merit-based, firms say

"Although arguments can be put together that can state that diverse companies are more profitable, what motivates us is more the moral argument," says Nigel Marsh, director of publishing services at Faber & Faber, which is sponsoring a diversity placement along with Little Brown and Bloomsbury.

"What we hope these schemes will do is to allow more people to put themselves forward for jobs and get more people from different backgrounds involved in the industry."

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