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Arts Council England launches a new chapter in publishing

Arts Council England has launched a new scheme to attract more people from black and ethnic minorities to the industry, says Madhu Neel

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 help open up the sector to a more diverse talent pool, Arts Council England ( www.artscouncil.org.uk), 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.

The scheme's first graduates include Bobby Nayyar, 27, who spent his year at literary publisher 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." Despite the fact that ethnic minority cultures have rich literary and reading traditions and form a significant slice of the market in economic terms, jobs are rarely advertised to them. "If you look at the history of publishing, it starts with families," Nayyar says. "There is an element of not being aware that there are jobs available or how to get them."

Gina Antchandie, coordinator of the traineeships at Arts Council England, says: "Apart form the support services such as post, IT or catering, it is rare to find a representative number of black and ethnic 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; on the strength of the traineeship and networking it offers, he has jumped from intern to a job as marketing executive at publishers Little, Brown that begins next month.

As he takes up his new role, Pria Taneja, 30, will start her internship at HarperCollins. She believes that visibility can make a huge difference. "It wasn't long ago that immigrants had no voice in this country. 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 currently completing a PhD in gender, Hindu nationalism and identity at Queen Mary College, London. She also teaches a course in gothic literature. She said: "When I stand up in front of my class and teach Gothic literature, 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 platform for them to review their recruitment procedures. Isabelle Periera, website editor at Bloomsbury and coordinator of the scheme there, said: "Having a mix of people from diverse backgrounds has made it clear how we can benefit from an open recruitment policy. Bloomsbury definitely has a greater diversity now than a year ago." Although the scheme is very competitive, Periera points out that someone who didn't get a place on the scheme last year was offered unpaid 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 black and ethnic minorities to consider careers in publishing, and forces those in publishing to recognize 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."