Two panels at the London Book Fair on Thursday emphasized the ongoing challenge of giving opportunities to the widest number of people in society to write, publish, and advance themselves in the publishing industry.

The first of these was “SheEOs in Publishing: Women Pioneering the Pages," featuring Judith Curr, president and publisher of the HarperOne Group in the U.S.; Ameena Saiyid, founder and managing director of Lightstone Publishers in Lahore, Pakistan; and Emma House, founder of Oreham Group, who moderated the panel. The discussion centered around the challenges faced by women in the publishing industry, their experiences, and the strategies they can employ to advance their careers and empower other women.

Judith Curr, speaking about her role at HarperCollins, shared her experience of creating a diverse and inclusive publishing group. "I went there [to HarperColins] because I had the opportunity to create what I felt was publishing for the future," she said. "And of course, it involves many, many women and many different points of view and I wanted to have a staff that actually reflected the cultural and the virtual and racial and demographic makeup of the United States." Curr highlighted the growth of various imprints under her leadership, including Amistad, which focuses on African American literature and has grown from publishing five books a year to 23; HarperVia, which has published books from 30 different countries in 22 languages over the past five years; and HarperEspañol, which caters to North American Spanish-language readers.

Curr also stressed the significance of mentoring, both as a mentor and a mentee, and encouraged women to engage in activities outside their day jobs to support and uplift others. She mentioned her involvement with Girls Write Now, an organization that pairs underserved young women with mentors to help them discover the power of their voices through writing.

Ameena Saiyid further explicated the challenges she faced as a woman in publishing, including gender, racial, and age discrimination. She emphasized the importance of speaking up against discrimination, stating, "I feel that if one speaks up, which I would at every stage, it’s the only way…it now just helped me, but it helped others as well."

Saiyid noted that while the situation has improved for women in publishing, there is still a long way to go, particularly in Pakistan. She highlighted the significance of her company, Lightstone Publishers, being the first fully women-owned publishing house in the country. "Actually, when you sign checks for a company, you are empowered by that,” she said, addeding, “having women in leadership positions, I think it brings in a new dynamic into the company."

Both Curr and Saiyid said being women has shaped their leadership styles, giving them a focus on diversity, inclusion, and empowering women in all areas of publishing. Curr mentioned the importance of bringing people with different life experiences and thinking styles into the organization to enrich its success. She defined diversity broadly, saying it can include things such as age and educational level, and argued that employee diversity has contributed to a "richness that's propelling our successes here at HarperOne." She also stressed the importance of emotional intelligence to hear leadership style. "If you're asking your teams to contribute personal emotions and their passion [to work]," she said, "then you have to make sure you have a way of helping people deal with their disappointment."

Emma House steered the discussion toward the current state of the publishing industry and the representation of women in leadership positions. Curr pointed out that while there were previously two women among the top leaders at top five publishers in the United States—Madeline McIntosh at Penguin Random House and Carolyn Reidy at Simon & Schuster—there are currently none. She also highlighted the lack of women in the pipeline for these roles.

Saiyid shared an anecdote about the support and empowerment her mother and aunts found in each other's company, despite the limitations placed on women in Pakistan during their time. She emphasized the value of collaboration, cooperation, and sharing experiences among women to build confidence and learn from one another. "Women should collaborate, cooperate with each other," she said. "Get together. Share their experiences. And I think in the process, we will get a lot of confidence. We will learn a lot from each other's experiences."

PubilsHer Excellence Awards shortlist

The panel was held in conjunction with the release of the first shortlists for the PublisHer Excellence Awards, honoring female achievements in the book business. PublisHer founder Bodour al Quasimi offered a video message from her home in Sharjah, U.A.E. in which she compared a female publisher’s journey to ‘navigating a vast ocean’, because it demands ‘the skill to navigate calm waters, the courage to confront storms, the resilience to sail against the tide, and the wisdom to believe in herself despite uncertainty and myriad challenges’.

The PublisHer Excellence Awards aim to "foreground women who are improving publishing and blazing trails for others to follow, have the power to spur the winners on to further achievements and inspire others, and create awareness of the challenges many women still face in the publishing business."

The nominees were chosen from 113 candidates and the winners will be announced at the upcoming Bologna Children's Book Fair in April.

The shortlists are:

Lifetime Achievement Award

· Akosua (Akoss) Ofori-Mensah, publisher, founder, and managing director of Sub-Saharan Publishers

· Ana Maria Cabanellas, CEO of Grupo Claridad

· Shirley Yvonne Carby, chairperson of Carlong Publishers Caribbean

Emerging Leader Award

· Mitia Osman Tisma, CEO and publisher of Mayurpankhi and executive director of Agamee Prakashani

· Fernanda Valezini Ferreira, editor and founder of She Publishes Podcast

· Cassie Rocks, marketing manager of Collins and codirector of The FLIP

Innovation Award

· Awatef Mosbeh, CEO and cofounder of Morbiket

· Anne Friebel, founder and publishing director of Palomaa Publishing

· Jasmine Richards, founder and CEO of Storymix

Giving the working class a chance

A later panel that was part of Thursday’s Main Stage program “A Writing Chance: Do the Creative Industries Have Diversity Fatigue?,” addressed the lack of opportunities for working-class people to engage with the creative industries. This is especially relevant in the U.K., where a vast majority of those working in the book industries are given expensive, elite educations and do not come from the government, state-funded education system.

A Writing Chance is a project aimed at opening up the book industry to writers from working-class and lower-income backgrounds. It was set up four years ago and cofounded by actor Michael Sheen, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and New Writing North. The original program saw 11 new writers receive mentoring, enrollment in a writing development program, and a chance to learn about the industry. The second edition of the program is starting up now and looking for 16 new fiction and nonfiction writers. It is being run in partnership with the Daily Mirror, Faber & Faber, Substack, and Audible, with applications already up some 40% on the first phase.

On the panel, which featured Katy Shaw of Northumbria University, Sheen, Substack's Farrah Storr, Audible's Tracey Markham, and writer Sunjeev Sahota, the group considered the importance of the program and whether or not it was having an impact. Sheen recalled "a genuine sense of concern about paths into the creative industry" that had led to the project being set up. Looking back at his own path into acting, he said, "All the things I took for granted then I have watched disappear behind me.”

"Publishing is still an elite space," Sahota noted. "Even if research shows it is now much more diverse in terms of gender, sexuality, and even race, it isn't in class. Virginia Woolf was right—you need a room of your own and 500 pounds a year (approximately 40,000 pounds in today's money) to do it. I can only think of one writer, Irving Welsh, who managed to become a successful working-class writer without getting an elite education,"

So, what can the book industry do to improve the situation? "I realize it’s not just a terrible conspiracy," said Sheen. "What’s getting in the way is the lack of joined-up thinking. The whole system leaves it too late. What happens to that story-telling eight year old? How do you find and support them? The sports world discovers their future stars early and supports and trains them up."

The ultimate goal, said Sahota, should be to get rid of class distinctions overall, as class is so fundamental to the advantages people have in life. Sheen agreed. "It’s not enough just to change the gatekeepers," he said. "We need a society where everyone has equal access to opportunity—but that’s probably going to take a revolution!"