A recent report showed that just 7% of those working in publishing are from non-white backgrounds, though over 40% of Londoners are. And even worse – it showed that just 4% of editorial staff were from a BME background.
But the question about how the publishing industry is able to reflect society at large, when it’s not represented by it – is not a new one.
Impac prize winner Jon McGregor recently claimed that the publishing industry “works to perpetuate an environment in which their own sort feel at home”. But in my experience, I don’t believe this to be the case.
Three years ago, a group of people got together to try to do something in a small way to help.
The producer and talent agent Michael Foster, someone with 30 years’ experience in the business, drove it.
Together, we set up a charity called Creative Access.
With the sole aim of helping bright young people from black and Asian backgrounds get a start on a career in the creative industries.
To quote Jon McGregor again: “Let’s start with a blank page, and open the door to new audiences”.
And that’s what we did… The idea was that if we could bring in a substantial number – hundreds – of ambitious and talented young people then some of them would rise to the top and become the decision makers of the future.
In three years Creative Access has placed 520 BAME young people into properly paid internships with over 200 media companies, from the BBC to The Sun and from the National Theatre to Sony.
The internships last a minimum of 6 months – so they get a real foot in the door.
They come with a full package of training, mentoring and masterclasses, hosted by the likes of Google, Twitter and ITV.
We can also provide grants to companies to financially support them in taking people on.
We place people in 12 different sectors including film, television, radio, newspapers, theatre, music, advertising and of course publishing.
At the start, some publishers were a little sceptical, but I’m proud to say that we have now placed an amazing 96 interns in 37 different publishing organisations.
• From all the big publishing houses (like HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin Random House, Pan Macmillan);
• To independent publishers (Hurst, Faber, Canongate);
• Through to academic publishers (Kogan Page, IB Tauris, Rowman & Littlefield)
• Specialist publishing ventures (Cassava, Hot Key, the Bookseller);
• Literary agents (Jo Unwin, Aitken Alexander, Furniss Lawton)
• And trade bodies (The Society of Authors, Inpress and the Publishers Association who have been particularly supportive);
These interns are training in every imaginable entry-level position across all creative departments – in editorial, sales, rights, publicity and marketing.
And whilst many of them did – predictably – study English, we’ve also recruited graduates from dozens of different courses including microbiology, Law and Chinese. Just one of the 96 interns so far came from a Publishing course.
We have a database now of over 8000 registered applicants and over 7000 Twitter followers.
So don’t let anyone tell you that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are not interested in working in creative industries.
What I hear from our interns is, more than anything, they have the desire to see more authors and more themes published that represent them and their backgrounds.
Most of our candidates are graduates, but the majority of them are the first in their family to go to university.
40% of our applicants were eligible for free school meals (compared to a national average of 15%).
This is promoting socio economic as well as ethnic diversity.
And the really good news?
The really good news, is that over 80% of Creative Access publishing interns get a job at the end of their placement – almost all in permanent roles.
Yassine Belkacemi who has just been promoted to Press Officer at John Murray and this week won Best Newcomer at the Publicity Circle Awards for his work on the Loney, sent me an email yesterday in which he says: “I could never have achieved this much already without the support of Creative Access. I cannot thank you enough for setting me on this path.”
And his is not an unusual story.
Look at our website – it’s peppered with comments from current and former interns who are making a real go of it in their chosen field.
As a charity we’ve been very lucky.
We’ve had the support of Government Ministers who had the foresight to see that you need to attract the most talented people into the industry wherever they come from to make sure our creative sector continues to compete with the best in the world.
The economic case for diversity is just as strong as the social one. And the companies we work with recognise that.
The more economic muscle we can put behind the drive for greater diversity, the more successful we’ll be.
But even more importantly we’re bringing in some who might be gatekeepers.
Might be the ones who “decide what gets published”.
And that’s the most important decision of all.
This blog piece is based on a speech that Creative Access CEO, Josie Dobrin gave to the Westminster Media Forum on 3rd March 2016.