Diversity in Publishing

The 2019 Sydney University Student Anthology was launched on March 6th by children’s editor and audiobook producer, Radhiah Chowdhury. It was a great night and Radhiah delivered an inspiring and fascinating speech on diversity in publishing, discussing some of the issues that have arisen in publishing since the start of 2020, where diversity has been a key factor. We’ve reproduced that speech here for you:

We’re a little over 60 days into 2020, and so far it’s been a flood of controversies for English-language trade publishing. If you’ve been unable to keep up (and who could blame you if so), here’s a rundown of the major dust-ups that have heralded us into the new decade. The Romance Writers of America (the RWA) imploded in spectacular slow motion, which has been an ongoing feast of disasters, but which basically started when one of its board members, a woman of colour who has written and championed inclusive publishing for her whole career, was censured and issued with a lifetime ban from ever again holding a position on the board, because she stated that another writer’s book was an example of cultural appropriation and pointed out that the publisher of the book had a poor track record when it came to white authors cannibalising minority experiences for their work. The fallout from this debacle is still continuing, but suffice it to say, the romance genre – publishing’s more lucrative genre, and one that has traditionally pioneered in publishing people of colour and starting difficult conversations around consent, women’s health, autonomy and assault – has been thoroughly shaken by this particular storm.

While this was happening, Macmillan US and Hachette UK published Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt with a rare seven-figure advance, strategically approaching Oprah, Salma Hayek and Gina Rodriguez, among others, to endorse a novel which follows a migrant family fleeing Mexican drug cartels. When it was followed by a significant backlash from Latinx writers and critics for its simplistic, facile depictions of Mexico and Mexicans which played into right-wing stereotypes, Macmillan initially tried to elide the criticism by suggesting that Cummins wrote from a place of cultural authenticity (she has since self-identified as white), then decried ‘cancel culture’. Hachette issued a statement about the importance of ‘starting a conversation’. Finally, a mea culpa: Macmillan committed to increasing the representation of Latinx staff and authors across the company.

Then, come February, Barnes & Noble and PRH US decided to rejacket 20 classics from the English canon recasting the main characters as people of colour. These ‘blackface editions’, as I’ve taken to calling them, were selected not using human intelligence (and one would hope, empathy), but with an AI algorithm, which ascertained that the characters in the relevant titles never specified that they weren’t people of colour. Lo and behold, B&N cleared space throughout their flagship stores to display, among others, an edition of Frankenstein in which the Monster, composited of dead people, denied a name and routinely decried as an abomination unworthy of living to the point where he goes on a murderous rampage, is now depicted as a black man. For anyone not well versed in the gruesome historical irony underlying this minstrel Frankenstein, Harriet A. Washington’s 2007 book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, offers a compelling history of the unrecognised debt medicine owes to bodies of colour, subjected to medical research without consent. All this to celebrate Black History Month, rather than showcasing – oh, I don’t know – books by black authors. There’s plenty more to say about this fun little experiment in retroactive wokewashing, but let’s move on.

The last kerfuffle I’ll mention (though it is by no means the least, and there’s also plenty more I haven’t touched upon) is the news this week that Hachette US acquired the rights to Woody Allen’s memoir, an acquisition that was allegedly strategically hidden from the editors of Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill, as well as Ronan himself, while that book was in production last year. I continue to be flabbergasted that awareness that a decision is so problematic that it should be concealed from others does not then follow through to a logical conclusion not to make that decision. Led by the team at Little, Brown, who published Catch and Kill, staffers across Hachette Book Group in the US have today walked off the job in protest, standing in solidarity with Ronan, his sister Dylan, and survivors of sexual assault. Hachette UK and Australia have since decided not to publish the memoir, and publishing professionals around the world will be watching the progress of this ongoing situation over the next few days and weeks.

In short, publishing has misfired and stumbled its way into 2020, and will no doubt continue to do so for many years to come, because there are precious few voices from marginal communities in positions of influence. The trade industry remains majority white, heteronormative and middle-class, the barrier for entry for people who fall outside this majority is high, and once you get your foot in the door, let me tell you, the struggle is real. In Australia, I’m also jaded enough to say that the will to do better, to be better, is not where it should be. As a member of an underrepresented community, mainstream Australian trade publishing is a war of attrition, and it comes with a large emotional cost. In my time as an editor in-house at various publishers, I have borne witness to an appalling panoply of missteps from commissioning editors, publishers and senior publishing staff, who have learned that ‘diverse publishing’ is a current trend and want to profit from it while engaging in none of the difficult conversations that we need to have about how our industry’s practices uphold the silencing of marginal communities. I’ve been patronisingly told that publishing is not in the business of censorship, as though we are not cultural gatekeepers, as though publishing itself is not a political act in which we choose who gets to have a voice in our society. I’ve been assured that I was being oversensitive when I queried a multi-phobic title written of course by a straight, white man that was so offensive that I cried for twenty minutes in the bathroom when I was forced to read it. A few weeks later, after the Christchurch massacre, that same book was quietly shelved, because the publishers knew that the optics of publishing this book post-Christchurch would not be positive. All it cost was 51 lives for them to acknowledge this.

At this point, you’re possibly thinking that asking me to speak today was a bit unwise. As everyone in this room probably knows all too well, the publishing industry needs to move beyond reacting to avoidable controversies with empty promises of inclusion and representation. Diversity in publishing, as Maeve Marsden so eloquently points out in her foreword to this anthology, should not just be a buzzword, a KPI, an end goal to reach with minimal effort and then cheerfully ignored in the industry’s race to the bottom. In order to achieve real and lasting change, diversity in publishing must entail an unending conversation, a voracious curiosity about experiences beyond our own, and a commitment to broadcasting a multiplicity of stories to a multiplicity of readers with one aim, and one aim only: to acknowledge and celebrate our shared humanity. 

It’s why I’m so delighted to be here today, to launch this vitally important collection. Stories matter; they shape our culture and our remembrance of history and heritage. I began tonight with a litany of shameful errors trickling down from people who are not paying attention to the conversation around representative publishing. Let me end now with my most heartfelt appreciation for a project that is flowering upwards from people who are. Diversity in publishing, in fact, is represented by the love and effort that has gone into producing this volume of creative and personal work by this wonderful group of my editorial peers, not because it will make Oprah’s next book club, but because these stories are all important, timely and they need to be in the world. 

Thank you, and congratulations.

Radhiah Chowdhury graduated from The University of Sydney in 2010 with a PhD in Children’s Literature. Since 2012, she has worked as a children’s editor in the trade publishing industry, with such houses as Scholastic Australia, Allen & Unwin and Giramondo. She is currently the audiobook producer at Penguin Random House Australia. Radhiah is also the recipient of the 2019-2020 Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship, awarded for her ongoing research project: ‘It’s hard to be what you can’t see: Diversity within Australian Publishing’.