Breaking the Class Ceiling in UK Publishing: The Common People project
Launched in 2018 and initiated by New Writing North, Writing West Midlands and the writer Kit de Waal and publisher Unbound, the Common People project aimed to identify new unpublished working-class writers, to create opportunities for these new writers to have their voices heard and their words published, and to offer them professional writing and career development.
Common People brought together all seven of England’s regional writing development agencies: New Writing North, Writing West Midlands, New Writing South, National Centre for Writing, Writing East Midlands, Literature Works and Spread the Word with Northumbria University. The agencies worked collaboratively on the programme supported by a grant from Arts Council England and a crowdfunding campaign run by the publisher Unbound. The project was comprised of two distinct elements: an anthology, edited by Kit de Waal and published by Unbound that profiled work by new and established authors and an accompanying professional development programme to support the new writers involved as they made their debut in the industry.
Throughout the project, Prof. Shaw carried out detailed, empirical research, to interview the writers involved and to track the impact of the project on those participants. Shaw’s work highlighted the barriers that the writers faced, attitudes from the publishing industry towards working class writers and offered compelling reporting of issues that the writers had experienced.
The findings and associated recommendations were drawn together into a wider analysis that formed the basis for a report, Common People: Breaking the Class Ceiling in UK Publishing that was published on May 1st, 2020.
Full details can be found on our showcase of the project, however in brief the Common People report identifies for the first time the pervasive barriers for working-class writers and the intersectionality that impacts alongside class; makes a clarion call for changes in the publishing industry and strongly recommends more effective and better-funded collaborative working across the commercial and subsidised sectors. The report details how the full diversity of voices active in British society is neither heard nor acknowledged in UK publishing today. It calls for the publishing industry to be more representative; to work collaboratively with regional cross-sector partnerships; and for new forms of investment to level the playing field in the regions.
The impact of the Common People report has been truly impressive. The report was the first of its kind carried out on this specific issue and carries much weight and value for those working professionally with writers. Upon launch the report was featured in news items in all the publishing industry newsletters and bulletins, provoked a feature in The Guardian and received write up’s, opinion pieces and commentary in The Observer and many trade and sector news sites. It was shared by prominent writers, commentators and industry professionals and provoked much public debate.
The report was embraced by industry and the arts sector with Sarah Crowne (Director of Literature, Arts Council England) writing ‘this essential report, published during an international crisis, shows the research isn’t less important – it’s more important. It points the way towards the world we must shape on the other side”.
The recommendations of the report initiated real action and developments within industry. Three new businesses have been set up in response for Shaw’s call for more literary agencies outside of London: The Sophie Bradshaw Literary Agency was established by the former non-fiction publisher at The History Press; Laxfield Literary Associates was established by Emma Shercliff, the former Sales and Rights Director for Cassava Republic Press UK and the Liverpool Literary Agency (the first business of its kind in Liverpool, that aims to link northern writers from diverse and under-represented backgrounds to the UK’s ‘big five’ publishing houses) was formed.
The report has been referenced by many industry bodies and organisations including, the Royal Society of Literature and the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society who we are now working with on related initiatives for 2021 with. We are continuing to engage with the All Party Parliamentary Group for Diversity in the Creative Industries on how we can further frame the knowledge that the report has generated.