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Writing the Regional Powerhouse: championing diversity in contemporary publishing

Diversifying who gets to write and who gets published is a core challenge facing the UK publishing industry. Northumbria University research has revealed the barriers that writers face in getting published today, especially working-class writers and those based in the North of England. As a result, new policies, initiatives and businesses have been launched to level up publishing into the UK regions. These include new regional publishing offices, mentoring schemes and professional fellowships that nurture talent, break down barriers and make publishing more accessible to all.

Research by Professor Katy Shaw, an expert in twenty-first century literature, has highlighted the challenges faced by working class Northern writers - namely the difficulties they have engaging with London-based publishers due to the cost, distance and relocation involved. This makes publishing inaccessible to them and, as a result, publishers are missing out on new talent and the opportunity to represent the diversity of British society through their publications.

In 2020, Shaw and New Writing North (NWN) – the biggest writing development agency in the country and Northumbria University cultural partners - launched Common People, a mentoring and professional development project, funded by Arts Council England, that provides opportunities for working-class writers to boost their career progression. This project built on Northumbria’s long-term collaborative relationship with NWN, an organisation that supports writing and reading in the North of England by commissioning new work, creating development opportunities and nurturing talent. You can learn more about the Northumbria University & New Writing North Partnership from Northern Stars on Vimeo.

New Writing North, one of Northumbria University's cultural partners

The resulting Common People report caught the attention of the UK literary and publishing industry and has helped to bring about a dramatic shift in attitudes in the sector. As the Head of Literature at Arts Council England reflects, the report ‘points the way towards the world we must work together to shape on the other side’. The research has led to the award of prestigious life-time fellowships to 60 authors from under-represented communities by The Royal Society of Literature; in-house training and new policies from Hachette (the UK’s second largest publisher) to make publishing routes more accessible to all; and the foundation of literary agencies based outside of London: the Liverpool Literary Agency and Laxfield Literary Associates – now located in the communities of the groups that need more representation. These inclusive strategies ‘encourage all stories, all voices, all writers to believe they can be published in the mainstream’. Industry representatives from Bonnier Books UK, have noted Shaw’s work as ‘incredibly important research’ and that actioning the recommendations described in the report would ‘build a more representative and sustainable industry’. Representatives from Pan MacMillan and Penguin Random House also comment that the research has ‘made the whole sector think, talk and take action’ and prompted a ‘rethink in terms of our strategy going forwards’ respectively.

Northumbria University also sponsor NWN’s Northern Writers Awards (NWA) programme. This supports writers from the North of England to help them develop their work towards publication and navigate the publishing industry. Shaw’s research into the impact of the awards has shown NWN ‘for the first time the long-term impact that the awards had on writers’ and showed that the awards also contribute to the local economy and introduce new writers from the region to national publishers. The research allowed NWN to ‘look at fundamental changes to how we supported the network of [alumni] writers…and make the awards more impactful for [them]’. NWN now feels they can ‘plan confidently for the future’ and have made ‘key changes to [their] business planning’. Additionally, the NWA programme has prompted new awards schemes sponsored by Channel 4 and Sky. Ultimately, collaborating with Shaw has infiltrated ‘every area of [NWN] positively and makes staff proud to work for an organisation that can now evidence real change in people’s lives’.

Caption:The 2019 Northern Writers' Awards winners

Shaw’s research evidence was also presented to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Writers as part of their inquiry into author earnings and informed new awards for working-class authors and establishment of new regional offices by global publishers across the North. For example, Hachette have confirmed a new regional office in Newcastle and ‘[t]his decision is potentially transformative for the North East’.

The latest development of Shaw’s inspiring work is the launch, in February 2021, of A Writing Chance, a follow-up project to Common People. This project, of which Northumbria is a research partner, is co-funded by the actor Michael Sheen, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and supported by media and literary organisations. It will benefit new and aspiring writers from under-represented backgrounds through bursaries, mentoring and publication opportunities in the New Statesman and Daily Mirror. On a national level, the programme will advocate for change in the journalism and media writing industries to embed diversity in content and representation.

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