Turning over a new leaf

An Arts Council scheme is seeking to improve the ethnic diversity of the publishing industry. By Madhu Neel
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The Independent Online

Go into a mainstream bookshop and you might think that cultural diversity in the UK publishing sector is alive and well. Monica Ali's Brick Lane, Diana Evans' 26a and Malaysian-born Tash Aw's The Harmony Silk Factory are critically acclaimed, popular books, by writers whose experience of coming from two worlds forms an essential backdrop to their work.

Behind the scenes though, the faces sitting behind decision makers' desks tell a different story: the number of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds working in the industry remains low. To improve this, Arts Council England, the national development agency for the arts, has launched the Diversity in Publishing Positive Action traineeship awards. Launched in 2005, the scheme selects graduates from ethnic minority backgrounds for a one-year salaried placement at participating publishing houses including Random House, Bloomsbury and HarperCollins. It will be advertised again this September.

The scheme's first graduates include Bobby Nayyar, 27, who spent his year at Faber. Inside the industry, he says a key problem is visibility: "When you don't have people from black and ethnic minorities in key roles in different departments, it is hard to see them filling those roles."

Gina Antchandie, Coordinator of the traineeships at Arts Council England, says: "Apart from the support services such as post or IT, it is rare to find a representative number of black and ethnic minority faces in publishing houses. The scheme gives a foot in the door to people who otherwise wouldn't get a chance because they don't move in the right circles." The most valuable part of the scheme, she says, is the mentoring it offers. As well as a mentor within the company, interns have another mentor from a different company, giving them the beginnings of the all-important network. This has certainly paid off for Nayyar, who has jumped from intern to a job as a marketing executive at publishers Little, Brown.

Meanwhile, Pria Taneja, 30, is due to start her internship at HarperCollins. She believes that visibility can make a huge difference. "I don't expect to be treated differently, but I do think the fact that I am there and I am Asian is important."

Taneja is completing a PhD in gender, Hindu nationalism and identity at Queen Mary, London. She also teaches a course in gothic literature: "When I stand up in front of my class, my Asian female students think: 'I could do that.' Yes my PhD is in something to do with India but it could easily be about Victorian literature. To be at HarperCollins and be seen in the office learning the job is the significant thing for me."

For publishers, the scheme provides a chance to review recruitment procedures. Isabelle Periera, coordinator of the scheme at Bloomsbury, says: "Having a mix of people from diverse backgrounds has made it clear how we can benefit from an open recruitment policy."

Although the scheme is very competitive, Periera points out that someone who didn't get a place last year was offered work experience instead, and is now working at Bloomsbury full time.

The traineeships follow on from In Full Colour, an investigation commissioned by the Arts Council and run by The Bookseller magazine in 2003. One editorial director responded to the survey saying: "There are some innate barriers to full cultural diversity in publishing, as we rely heavily on good language and literary skills within our chosen fields. Not all ethnic and cultural groups can offer these skills."

As the scheme encourages more people from ethnic minorities to consider careers in publishing, and forces those in publishing to recognise the benefits of a diverse workforce, this attitude will begin to change. It's not about ethnic minorities only representing ethnic writers, or black writers only being marketed if they write about black experiences. As Pereira says: "A more diverse workforce can only be a good thing in terms of all the books we publish."

For more information, visit www.artscouncil.org.uk