Photo by Anainah Dalal
The publishing world is often seen as this big, scary machine, that no one ever really understands the workings of. Who gets to choose what goes on shelves and how much of it? Who gets to choose which literary works are worthy of prizes and acclaim? How does one even get a book into publishing? Unsurprisingly, it’s never just one person, company or even organisation. It’s almost always a group of people across stages of publishing that get a book into your hands. So when the opportunity arose to listen to some of those people’s opinions on this big, scary machine, I jumped at the chance. And that is how I found myself at the Black British Book Festival’s (as part of a takeover for the London Literature Festival) panel discussion ‘Literature Powerhouses: Shaping the Future.’
On the panel were 4 important figures from across the literary world: Gaby Wood, the Chief Executive of the Booker Prize Foundation; Clive Herbert, Head of Professionals at Nielsen (a data collection company); Zain Mahmood, Head of Commercials at Waterstones; and Molly Rosenberg, the Director or the Royal Society of Literature. Each of the speakers spoke quite passionately about topics such as diversity and change within the literary world, the role of technology and A.I. in literature’s future, and any advice for aspiring writers, agents, editors and more. Throughout the hour I found myself agreeing to quite a lot of what each speaker was saying as the big, scary machine slowly dismantled, and I was left with a publishing industry that seemed way more understandable and manageable.
Starting with one of the central concerns in the publishing world currently, the speakers were asked to weigh in their opinions on diversity within the book-reading communities and the change each of their organisations was attempting to bring about. Molly Rosenberg’s thoughts amongst all stuck with me the most— she stressed the importance of organisations that had available funds to put their money behind authors and ideas that would not be flashy immediately, but would add great value to the discourse of diverse literature over time. She wants organisations— and gives the example of the Royal Society for Literature— to allocate funds for mentoring workshops for new and upcoming writers from all backgrounds to make the field more accessible, while also creating jobs for people in the industry that are consistently well paid.
Molly talks about diversity in the literary world as process-driven rather than outcome-based, a sentiment Zain Mahmood shared as well. Speaking about a practice Waterstones has adopted, he speaks of changing what stores’ bookshelves look like, as well as diversifying the people behind choosing books on those shelves. He talks of having not just multicultural bookshelves in stores, but also libraries and in homes, highlighting the need for such changes in reading patterns to be brought in from young ages. While diversifying the literary world could be a slow process, it’s not impossible and it’s more important than ever now. This was reinforced by the other speakers as well— the Festival this event was part of is a major milestone in the literary community's steps towards inclusion of all literary voices itself.
A perfect segue from talking about diversity led into discussing gatekeeping within the publishing and literary world- where leading authorities like publishers, academics and awarding institutions among many consolidate a fixed meaning of what work is truly “literary,” and determine a “canon” or “must-read” of literary works that is narrow and does not accurately reflect the vast and diverse creative world of literature. Tying into Zain’s points regarding bookstores being the best place for increasing diversity in readership, how can a bookstore gatekeep when its doors are literally open to anyone? Gaby Wood’s opinion rang resonant with the rest of the speakers though, with the very simple task of gatekeeping organisations within the literary world taking the responsibility of acknowledging that they do gatekeep. As the very first step in actively removing this harmful practice from the community, she claims it is highly necessary, with Molly adding on by saying it is the personal responsibility of the dominant publishing groups to acknowledge their gatekeeping practices and not engage in it. Clive Herbert took the discussion a step further and said that one of the best ways to not gatekeep is by having publishers be as transparent as possible in how they treat and consider authors in their decision-making processes.
With A.I. on the tip of everyone’s tongue and questions of relevance being thrown around in any and every field possible, it was no surprise when the speakers were asked about their views on the impact of technology and A.I. on the literary world. As someone who personally hates the question “Don’t you think writers will be made redundant by A.I.?”, I was very pleased to hear the optimism from the “literary powerhouses” in front of me— they had indubitable faith in the persistence of the literary creative world, with Gaby claiming A.I. does not yet, and may not for a long time, have the same mischievousness a human writer does.
This is not to say the role A.I. plays was completely ignored, with Clive clearly stating the facts: the academic world does use A.I. in writing books, A.I. is used in the production and distribution of books via data and statistical analysis, and if authors do use A.I. all that is needed is transparency and honesty regarding its usage. I appreciated such a pragmatic approach to looking at A.I., and furthermore was impressed by the speakers’ insistence on separating technology from A.I. Technology has helped publishers sell books for a long time as per Gaby, and to disregard its contributions to spreading the word about all kinds of work and authors would be unfair. Zain concluded this topic with the very simple words “An algorithm cannot replace a bookseller,” and I believe the same would apply to creators as well.
Ending the event with advice from all 4 speakers, I found myself with 4 perfectly succinct points to sum up the event. “Read more than you write” (Wood); “Inform yourself about the industry beforehand” (Herbert); “There’s different levels of success" (Mahmood); and “See what’s out there and drop emails” (Rosenberg). All of their last comments stayed true to each of their points throughout the hour, and offer up insight that is hopeful and encouraging. For bright and early in the day, I was afraid I would miss much of the discussion, however with engaging and deeply insightful speakers I was able to have both an enjoyable and informative morning!
This article is part of STRAND's coverage of London Literature Festival 2023.
Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor