Image Description: A photo of a laptop screen with Douglas Stuart smiling during the Publishing Scotland ‘Douglas Stuart and Shuggie Bain – A Publishing Journey’ event. Propped next to the laptop is a copy of his novel Shuggie Bain. The lighting in the room is warm and cosy, with a sole candle lit in the background.
As one of the darkest and most tumultuous years came to a close, the publishing industry saw light when Douglas Stuart was awarded the Booker Prize 2020 for his first novel Shuggie Bain in October. Shuggie Bain, which provided a harrowing snapshot of what it meant to exist in Thatcher’s, post-industrial Scotland, was critically lauded, and Stuart became only the second Scottish writer to win the Booker Prize, the first since James Kelman in 1994.
At the Douglas Stuart and Shuggie Bain – A Publishing Journey event organised by Publishing Scotland last week, Stuart emphasised the necessity of representing the working-class voice. Scottish writers should continue to tell their stories, and as seen through Shuggie Bain, the issue of place or dialect, does little to deter the reader empathising in a story which transcends boundaries, this being what Douglas describes as, ‘gentle souls surviving in hard places’. Shuggie Bain has now been translated into forty different languages.
Although the Booker Prize 2020 was argued as the prize’s most diverse short-list so far, there was conversation surrounding the prize’s, and the industry’s in general, London-centricity. The Booker Prize has been criticised in the past for championing larger publishers based in London, and ignoring the work of smaller, independent presses. There have been thirty UK-based recipients of the Booker Prize, with two Scottish, one Northern Irish, and one Welsh, all of whom were represented by London-based publishers.
The Common People: Breaking the Glass Ceiling in UK Publishing (2020) report argued that London-centricity was ruining the publishing industry, and acted as a barrier in representing marginalised or underrepresented voices. The report pleaded that the industry needed to ‘wake up to the world beyond the M25’.
The publishing industry is becoming increasingly London-centric. I am currently studying an MSc in Publishing Studies, and the majority of jobs that are advertised are London-based. The thought of moving to London is a daunting one. It is a difficult thought but one that I am open to pursuing. For me, moving to London seems to have been accepted as ‘the nature of the beast’, a common graduate approach in getting their foot in the door. Does it have to be?
The Nationwide Building Society have recently announced that they will give 70% of their workforce a choice when entering a post-pandemic society. They can either choose to work from home permanently, return to the office, or have a blend of both. This comes after an employee survey revealed that 57% of their workforce would prefer to work from home full-time, 6% would prefer a full-time return to the office, and 36% would prefer a mix.
It is easy to fault virtual working environments. It is something that many of us had to adapt to quickly, without much warning or training. There are technical issues and misread communications. You miss the traditional back-and-forth rapport that you have with your peers or co-workers. It can be difficult to interpret facial expressions or body language. You had to merge your work and home environments. Despite the limitations, as someone studying remotely in Dumfries & Galloway at Edinburgh Napier University, and although I cannot speak for everyone, I have had opportunities that may not have manifested due to my year at university being virtual. I am currently doing a virtual placement with a smaller publisher based in Glasgow and will be doing another with a publisher based in Edinburgh in May. Living in Dumfries & Galloway, commuting to an in-person placement would have been problematic. The transport links to Glasgow and Edinburgh are unreliable, time-consuming, and costly.
The influx in virtual events and conferences have been the industry’s reaction to the pandemic environment, and have been successful in terms of communication and networking. Starting university in September 2020, and coming from the turmoil of a very strenuous lockdown, networking virtually helped in easing my initial anxieties of emerging from an isolated lifestyle. During lockdown, I developed a tentativeness when it came to socialising, something that I believe the virtual environment allowed me to overcome quicker than if it had been in-person. The SYP Scotland Conference which was held last week, and the Bookseller Children’s Conference of September last year, are just two examples of many virtual events which have proven successful during this age of the pandemic. I may not have been able to attend as many events if they were done in-person.
Do we really need to go back to the office? Douglas Stuart highlighted the importance of marginalised and working-class voices in the industry. What voices are we losing due to the industry’s London-centricity? Who are we losing because they cannot connect to the lifestyle of London? Is there a concern amongst those in the industry that their voices may not be heard?
If publishers began hiring those working outside of London in the context of work in a virtual environment, much of the stress of entry-level positions would cease. Many cannot afford to live in London on an entry-level salary. Many of those who take the risk have to undertake freelance work to keep them afloat. The grim milestone of a year since we first went into lockdown came in March. My hope is that moving into a period of post-pandemic, we disregard the comforting mindset of going ‘back to normal’, and understand that virtual working environments, if utilised properly, can lead to higher levels of inclusivity within the publishing profession.