Women in publishing share their wisdom about the need for diverse characters
March 09, 2021
Community, accessibility and inclusivity - these three words define the ethos of WriteMentor, an organization that is banishing the myth of the isolated writer by bringing together a friendly and supportive community of storytellers through online mentoring opportunities, courses, awards, and a learning hub.
With this ethos in mind, WriteMentor decided to run its first International Women's Day panel on Twitter, where it sought to explore the question: What does it mean to be a women in publishing?
Reaching out to its online community, WriteMentor invited writers to chat with three women in the UK publishing industry to find how why and how they #ChooseToChallenge inequality.
Moderated by writer Florianne Humphrey, the panel consisted of two authors - Priscilla Mante and Emma Finlayson-Palmer - and literary agent and director Hannah Sheppard.
A story about friendship, football and girl power
Priscilla Mante's debut children's novel Jaz Santos vs. the World is a story about girl power. The first in a series focused on friendship, football and believing in your dreams, the idea for Jaz Santos vs. the World comes from her own childhood love of sports.
"Sport's massively important for so many girls, and this is often overlooked," Priscilla [pictured above] explained.
Rejecting sexist narratives surrounding girls football
Priscilla's main character Jaz Santos challenges the status quo and rejects sexist narratives surrounding girls football by creating her own football team.
"I wanted that to inspire others. Some girls have poor experiences of sports in schools so it was important to show how inclusive and fun it can be," she added.
Ensure everyone is treated fairly and supported
During the panel, Priscilla posed a series of questions that those in the publishing industry should reflect upon when acquiring and treating books from diverse voices.
"Is the industry widening their cultural literacy so they’re equipped to buy a wider range of books? Are writers from under-represented groups being held to higher standards with narrower expectations of what they should write?" asked Priscilla.
"#ChooseToChallenge the idea you can increase diversity while excluding diverse authors – this practice perpetuates inequalities. Reject tokenism and ensure all are treated fairly and supported to create a wide range of stories," she added.
Balancing work, motherhood and writing ambitions
Neurodivergent and Bi creator Emma Finlayson-Palmer is a woman of many talents: author, illustrator, editor, mentor, primary school lunchtime supervisor, and creator of kidlit writing chat #ukteenchat.
Her debut novel Autumn Moonbeam: Dance Magic is for children who love witches and dancing.
A mother of five, Emma has learnt to work in the middle of a chaotic living room. For her, creating mini goals and scheduling time for tasks has helped her focus on her writing, as well as remembering the three Ps: "Patience, Persistence and Plenty of rewards".
Increasing empathy and compassion through diverse voices
As a writing mentor and ally, Emma encourages people from from diverse backgrounds to apply to her. By doing this, she hopes to increase inclusivity in the industry, which in turn will have a positive impact on young readers.
"With writing I want children to see themselves and a rich and diverse range of characters just as they would in real life," said Emma.
"Kids need to see themselves and those living similar lives in stories, but also to see other cultures and heritage to their lived experience. Reading gives children and adults the chance to see different lives to their own and encourage empathy and compassion for others."
An impressive leadership career in children's publishing
With nearly 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, literary agent Hannah Sheppard represents clients across Middle Grade, Teen, Young Adult and adult commercial fiction. Hannah began her career in-house in editorial and moved to agenting with DHH Literary Agency in 2013.
Working as an agent gives her more time to do what she loves most – using her editorial experience to help writers develop their ideas for commercial success.
Barriers to success for women in leadership
Hannah is also a director of DHH Literary agency. During the panel, she commented on why at first glance there appears to be fewer female agency leaders when there are many women working in publishing - more so on average, perhaps, than other industries.
For Hannah, this inequality in leadership is an issue that goes beyond publishing, one that is deeply ingrained in broader societal mindsets and attitudes. This issue is rooted in the systems in place that make it harder for women - especially women from diverse backgrounds - to progress.
"Whether it’s limits we put on ourselves, the fact that (largely) domestic work/childcare and career breaks to have children are shouldered by women, or that we’ve internalised decades of lessons about what men and women are good at, we still see men rise through the ranks more quickly," she explained.
"I think possibly in bigger organisations it’s harder for women to claim their successes as their own. I’m much more comfortable knowing that at DHH when I have a success, then it’s my work which got me there, which I found harder to quantify in-house."
Challenging personal and industry-wide perceptions
Hannah admits to being on a journey of challenging her own perceptions, and she's sure she still has "a long way to go".
"I try to challenge myself – visibility is not my favourite thing - but I try to say yes to speaking opportunities etc because I think that visibility is probably important."
In terms of the wider publishing industry, Hannah believes people need to #ChooseToChallenge assumptions that, because things have always been done a certain way, they should continue to do so.
For Hannah, it's important "to be looking for writers and industry staff in new places and challenging the barriers to entry."