As the US prepares to bid farewell to its first black President, the issue of diversity has never been more discussed. The inaugural Building Inclusivity in Publishing Conference, organised by the Publishers Association and the London Book Fair, was an important event and may in future mark the point at which the industry began, collectively, to take this issue seriously. The presence of Hachette UK CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson to give the opening keynote was significant and the publisher used the day to launch a raft of initiatives aimed at boosting black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) representation, both at board level and among rank and file staff.
However, speaking at the conference, Sunny Singh, the author and chair of the judges for the Jhalak Prize (from the Hindi word meaning ‘glimpse) – launched earlier this year to reward British writers of colour – criticized British publishers for the “shockingly low” number of submissions to the new prize. Most of the entries were from small presses, she said, adding: “Big publishers are letting indies do the heavy lifting. They pass off the hard work and once there is a hit they poach. Where we stand today, inclusivity is no longer a political stance or ideological agenda, it’s a moral issue. If we can’t hear stories of each others, we cannot be fully human.”
The issue of education is interesting here, especially its role in exposing young people to other cultures. Are enough stories of others being heard? What are the BAME numbers at the high schools people in the industry choose for their children? As Little Brown and Orion CEO David Shelley put it, commenting on the embarrassment felt by some in the 70-strong body put together to look at all types of diversity across the Hachette group: “[Some] are worried that, as a white, middle-class, often public school educated person, their very presence in a group like this might strike the wrong note, or worse still, cause offence…”
The election of Donald Trump continues to create ripples (some might say full on waves) around the industry. The author and philanthropist (for that is surely how he should now be described), James Patterson, said: “We’ve just come out of the most divisive presidential election in history – and among all the issues that captivated voters, education wasn’t one of them. It was hardly discussed. Nearly half of the American population reads at or below a basic level, and we need to address that problem to foster an informed future electorate. I’ve made it my mission to underscore the vital role reading plays in children’s lives, and the need to sustain school libraries is at the heart of that mission.”
He was speaking as he gave US school libraries the second instalment of the $1.75 million he pledged earlier in the year, distributed to 452 schools across the country, in grants ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.
Meanwhile, the Women’s March on Washington ‘for the protection of women’s rights and human rights” – due to take place on 21 January 2017, the day after Trump is inaugurated – has invited women in the book industry to join them, with Florida-based indie resource body Paz & Associates, and Laurie Gillman of Washington’s East City Bookshop, taking up the banner.
The International Publishers Association (IPA) and the Federation of European Publishers (FEP) issued its Annual Global Report on VAT on books, which contained some interesting nuggets. Forty-two countries have no rates at all on either printed or digital books, while of those that do, the IPA and FEP note that Taiwan has the lowest rate on p and e of 5%. “There is strong evidence that exempting books from tax brings widespread medium-and-long-term social, cultural and economic benefit,” the IPA says. “A zero-rate of VAT on books is a fast and equitable way to boost consumption of literature in the classroom, at home and on the go.”
One assumes this is because a zero rate of VAT keeps prices lower and is applied equally, across the board. Whether the IPA thus has a view on fixed prices would be interesting to know. One imagines its stance is neutral.
Finally, to end with that election result. Kelly Justice at the Fountain Bookstore in Virginia, issued a lovely, very inclusive note for its customers: “I want you to feel safe here. I don’t care how you voted. I only hope you did. I don’t care where you came from. Or what colour you are. I’ve certainly never cared about who you’re sleeping with or which bathroom you want to use. It boggles my mind that people do. But that’s just the way it is. What I do care about is this: you. I love what we share together: a community over the written word.”
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.