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On Creating Dialogue Books

On Creating Dialogue Books: An Essay by Sharmaine Lovegrove

In 2009, Dialogue Books was created as a bookshop in the back of a tearoom in Berlin when I was 27 years old. I’d moved to Berlin for love and a desire to make an independent bookshop work in the birthplace of the printing press. I had £5k to my name, very little German, and a dream to live a simple yet engaging life drinking red wine and talking to readers about literature. 

My journey started as a 15-year-old, working in my local bookshop in Battersea, South West London. I love selling books to readers. For me, there is a huge honour in being a bookseller. As a bookseller it’s a huge responsibility to find a book that will take a reader away from their friends, family, television, phone scrolling to immerse themselves for hours, days, and weeks in the pages of a book, blocking everything out other than the world that is created on a page. As Dialogue has grown, I have taken this understanding of readers and applied it to my work as a publisher.

I became a publisher entirely by accident. In winter 2016, I was at an exclusive industry publishing dinner in Mayfair with literary agent Julia Kingsford who co-founded the Good Literary Agency; Julia introduced me to Charlie King, the managing director of Little, Brown Book Group. After dinner, Julia, Charlie and Philip Jones, the editor of trade magazine The Bookseller and I went for a drink at Little Mayfair, Soho House, where I was a member. Over cocktails, we discussed many things publishing-related including the fact that I was the only Black person at the dinner and the male to female ratio was 50:50. Phillip brought out the new issue of The Bookseller which had a focus on diversity and as I flicked through a statistic jumped out at me: ‘out of 65,000 books published in 2016, less than 100 were by a person of colour and only ONE Black male debut was published’. At the time I ran a book-to-film consultancy and my job as a scout was to read hundreds of manuscripts and work out which narratives could be adapted to screen by my clients; I was also the literary editor of Elle magazine – with over a thousand books dropping on my door mat each year – so, whilst these stats were known to me through experience, to see them on the page was really shocking. My feeling then, as it is now, is that to not engage in the narratives, stories, experiences and talent from people from minority and marginalised groups is a failure of epic proportions that requires real change to rectify.

Over the next few weeks and months, I spoke to Charlie King, who was immediately open and engaged on the subject of me heading up an imprint to redress the balance of writers on UK publishing schedules. During this time I held meetings with PRH and Harper Collins, but there was a lack of understanding and ambition to what could be achieved whereas with Charlie King and Hachette’s CEO David Shelley, there was the desire for real, sustainable change that would make a difference to the publishing landscape. Knowing about Changing the Story, Hachette’s diversity and inclusion programme, helped me to understand that Hachette were serious and demonstrative about the issues. During these conversations, I spent time creating the proposal which continues to act as a blueprint for my vision for the imprint. Talking to other Black women in publishing as well as trusted allies to consider what was missing and what could be done differently was an inspiring time at the beginning of this chapter in Dialogue’s history. 

Since establishing in 2009, Dialogue has been four companies: the bookshop in Berlin, then publishing consultancy Dialogue Berlin, which evolved into book to film consultancy Dialogue Scouting, and then Dialogue Books the imprint. When I was working on the concept of the bookshop, Dialogue was a working title for me; it symbolised the exchange in the relationship between authors and readers. If I were to underline the focus of my work over the past two decades, it would be about the facilitation of connecting readers and writers. Although I’d never worked in a publishing house before, when I arrived at Hachette to work at Little, Brown as publisher of Dialogue Books in the summer of 2017, my unparalleled work experience meant that I was walking into the role with a mix of brilliant independent business acumen, proven track record in getting books to readers but little knowledge of the systems and processes that get a book from a manuscript to readers. My learning curve was steep in many respects but my prior experience and determination to keep the author and reader at the centre of all aspects of the publishing experience and my drive to succeed helped me to stride forward in the wake of negative comments and undermining actions. 

The publishing industry is quietly brutal. Everyone who works in publishing is really ‘nice’ but, for me, there is a question mark about the viability and relevance of an entire industry that is monocultural in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability and age. Having grown up in London, it is astounding to me that an industry that concerns itself with the ideas of others entirely failed to include anyone from outside of a very specific background. As the first Black person to do my job as a publisher in a corporate publishing house – 50 years after Margaret Busby set up Allison and Busby – I refuse to succumb to imposter syndrome. I am on such a mission to change who is published by whom and although I’ve heard the negative comments and felt the pressure, I’ve fought for my authors and protected my mental health as I have gone above and beyond, because it’s imperative that I am here, doing this work. I have earned my place as someone committed to that author-to-reader journey and i know that my race, gender, sexuality, class and ability is needed. I see the world from a different perspective and I know there is great value in that and without vision and difference any business or industry becomes stagnant. We can see the effects of the single view from the publishing world and it’s one that it is leaving the most important art form (in my opinion) diminished. 

The publishing industries failure is entirely structural and therefore can be dismantled and remodelled. The greatest barrier to inclusion that publishing has to face is the barrier of exclusion. A recent manifestation of  exclusion can be characterised by the generation of unpaid work experience, this meant that by stepping foot in a publishing house you were more qualified than those who hadn’t, and so privileged people with two-week work experience from their godparent, aunt, or father’s friend from university were more likely to get a job because they had experience – thus a generation from the same background entered the workplace. 

As publishing companies merged to become huge houses, the demand for more books to be published by fewer people, for the sake of profit, resulted in a culture of hiring for the job that needed to be done today (diligent editorial assistant), rather than the job that needs to be done tomorrow (brilliant, innovative commissioning editor). Working in publishing is busy and demanding so it’s much easier to hire a highly organised person who has a hint of experience rather than take a chance on someone who is box-fresh and bursting with ideas, who may need some training. This results in only getting into publishing from the lowest rung of an entry level job; anything above step one on the ladder requires prior knowledge, managers don’t have time to train newbies so they want people that can hit the ground running. It’s gotten so bad that editors keen to move from fiction to non-fiction imprints or from rights to publicity departments in the early years of their career are told they don’t have the right experience; the lack of movement between departments has become rare, let alone from people from outside of publishing coming into the industry. By not understanding that skills are transferable across departments or recognising that people’s interests can change, and that there is value in knowledge and a vast array of untapped talent from outside of publishing, has led to a stark cultural deficit in publishing. 

As those diligent first jobbers grow to become industry leaders, without any challenges to their ideas of innovation, diversity and culture, we’ve ended up in the state we are in. Despite my vast experience in a career dedicated to books and readers I was and continue to be seen as an industry outsider. For us to make progress, the way in which skills and creativity are valued needs to fundamentally change. When the idea of the right person changes, the demographics will; as the people who make books change, so will the authors;as the authors change, so will the readers. The reality is the colleagues, authors and readers are out there, being inspired by other mediums yet ready to be embraced, the lens just needs to be refocused so more people fit the picture. 

Dialogue Books is concerned not only with who writes the books, but who reads our books and who works on them. By introducing the credits page at the back of each publication, that was my way of celebrating teamwork and also to inform readers of the different roles that are required to create a book. My mission at Dialogue is the same as it ever was, to connect authors with readers, but now that task encompasses challenging an entire industry to think bigger and bolder about who writes the books, who reads them and who makes them. Multiculturalism is key to the planet’s most incredible cities –London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Kingston, Toronto. We shouldn’t need Harvard Business School reports or panels on diversity to tell us that. Our working environments should mirror our journey to work with the variety of people we encounter. 

My only real hobby, which has become my obsession, is great storytelling. This comes from the fact that I had a challenging time of being misunderstood in my childhood and books were a great refuge for me to understand I wasn’t alone in the world and that other people faced issues far greater than mine and survived. Reading Matilda at 7 years old, Judy Blume at 9, then Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Karl Marx at 13 and Milan Kundera, Anaïs Nin and James Baldwin at 16 gave me confidence, instruction, and inspiration. Books transformed me and when I am reading a manuscript sent by an agent, I am considering if that narrative, that author’s voice can do the same for Dialogue readers. My personal library contains books from writers from all backgrounds, the fact that I focus on publishing people from marginalised and minority backgrounds is because so many editors and publishers failed to do so and someone had make a stand and create a space where individuals are celebrated for their work and talent beyond their protected characteristics. However, I also believe that I could be a great publisher to any writer from any background, but my focus is on redressing the balance,I am here to ensure that other people from minority backgrounds get to work on whatever they are interested in and are not pigeonholed to diversity. I am driven by innovation and inclusion and I am so grateful to the team that work with me: Millie Seaward, Emily Moran, Celeste Ward Best, Catriona Row and more recently Maisie Lawrence and Bad Form’s very own Amy Baxter for committing so much time, energy, and creative passion to Dialogue and ensuring our books reach readers across our society. Looking forward as an industry, we have a long way to go to mirror our society. One way of doing this is by publishing professionals decentering themselves and their norms from the books, being really bold and engaging with the wide range of people, experiences and characteristics that make up our world. Looking beyond,embracing and creating (not just accepting) change, difference, and innovation will bring greater gains and, as we envelop more people into our orbit, what will open up to us will be incredibly rewarding on all metrics. By having this broad vision and naturally inclusive standpoint, Dialogue Books, our authors, and the reading communities we serve are here to lead the way and I am so proud of all we have achieved in the first five years of being a publisher. Cheers.