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White, female, and high rates of mental illness: new diversity research offers a snapshot of the publishing industry

Books are fundamental to our society: they shape our culture, education and ideas. To do this well, books should reflect the amazing and varied world we occupy.

Those who create books – publishers and publishing industry workers – are the gatekeepers. If those industry professionals are diverse and work within an industry that is inclusive, then there is a better chance that books will represent a wider range of experiences.

But how diverse is Australian publishing?

The 2022 Australian Publishing Industry Workforce Survey on Diversity and Inclusion, produced by the Australian Publishers Association and the University of Melbourne, shows there is work to be done.

The industry needs to be more culturally diverse: fewer than 1% of Australian publishing professionals are First Nations and only 8.5% have an Asian cultural identity.

Perhaps the most startling finding of the survey is the high proportion of publishing workers experiencing mental illness. 35.4% of respondents were experiencing mental health conditions. This compares with 25% of respondents to a similar survey of the UK publishing industry in 2021, an increase from 20% in 2020.

While the reasons for the high rate of mental illness are no doubt complex, the message for publishers is clear: staff need support. The industry can also be more inclusive for those with disabilities. 24.7% of publishing professionals reported having a long-term health condition or disability, including a physical or mental health condition, with just over 5% of respondents identifying as living with disability.

Around 8% of those working in publishing have an Asian identity. Mikhail Nilov/Pexels

Read more: Diversity, the Stella Count and the whiteness of Australian publishing

Shortfalls of diversity

The Australian survey was a response to Radhiah Chowdhury’s groundbreaking 2020 APA-funded report on lessons in diverse and inclusive publishing from the UK, which reverberated around the industry.

Chowdhury called for more empirical data to sit alongside qualitative accounts of working in publishing, noting “a paucity of research on the demographic composition of the industry, as well as of our national trade publishing output”.

Our survey was launched in March this year and received close to 1000 responses from across the sector. These came from small, medium and large organisations, micro-publishers and freelancers.

The broad uptake gives us confidence in the survey as a snapshot of Australian publishing today. It also shows a widespread recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion within the publishing industry, and a commitment to positive change.

What the initial survey reveals is perhaps not surprising for those who work in and around publishing. The industry is largely white, including a high percentage who identify as British. The proportion of those who identify as having Asian or European backgrounds is lower than in the general population.

Very few Australian publishing professionals identify as First Nations. This matters, because it suggests publishing is not an industry of choice for Australians of diverse cultural backgrounds, and because it limits the industry’s capacity to produce books that speak to readers of different cultural identities.

Read more: Why sensitivity readers matter – and should be paid properly

In other areas, the publishing industry is more inclusive. Survey respondents identify as LGBTQ+ at around twice the representation in the Australian population (21% compared to population estimates of 11%). The majority of LGBTQ+ respondents are open or partially open about their sexuality at work.

Women make up the majority of the Australian publishing workforce: 84% of the survey respondents were women. But representation of women and non-binary people shrinks in more senior positions in the industry.

There is also work to be done in breaking down the class dynamics of publishing. A minority (33.6%) of publishing workers come from family backgrounds that could be described as working or lower middle class. Only 24.7% are located outside of Sydney or Melbourne.

More than 85% of those working in publishing hold a bachelor degree and more than half also hold at least one postgraduate degree. 48% of publishing industry respondents attended private schools, compared to around 30% of the Australian population.

There is much work to be done. Pexels

Potential for change

The potential for change in the Australian publishing industry is now evident. The industry would benefit from focusing on how to include workers with disabilities of all kinds and ensure workplaces are accessible. It also has work to do in encouraging participation from around Australia, and in opening up pathways for entry that recognise a range of relevant skills and experiences.

This initial survey sets a baseline. It provides the necessary data that will allow initiatives to be targeted. It is already driving practical steps towards change.

The industry has committed to act on the results. The Australian Publishing Association has established a Diversity and Inclusion Working Group to monitor progress and target the gaps highlighted in the survey. It has renewed support for paid internship schemes as inclusion initiatives.

In response to the survey, President of the Australian Publishing Association James Kellow said:

We have a highly able and committed workforce, but our workforce doesn’t always represent the breadth of our culture. This plays into what and how we publish and the extent to which we reach, or don’t reach, all potential readers […] This survey’s hard data tells us we have a great deal of work ahead and provides a solid base from which we can lead change.

A better understanding of the book publishing industry can help to improve working environments and, ultimately, diversity in cultural products in Australia. Future surveys will allow changes to be tracked and progress to be measured. We look forward to seeing positive change in the publishing industry and in the good work publishing people are doing.

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