Inclusivity and diversity in publishing events: Q&A with Rosie Beaumont-Thomas

By   Hannah Bickerton 6 min read

Rosie Beaumont-Thomas manages the on- and offsite events for Waterstones Gower Street, previously for Waterstones TCR. Rosie co-founded the Feminist Book Society and literary film salon The Bluestocking Club, and was awarded PPC Events Manager of the Year 2018. Prior to Waterstones, she worked in arts PR at Four Communications. We chat to Rosie about prioritising inclusivity and diversity in events.

Tell us a little about your role as Events Manager at Waterstones Gower Street.

I curate the events programme here at Europe’s largest academic/specialist range bookshop, bringing together authors and speakers across a range of themes, hosted in our 110-capacity lower-ground gallery. We have a very strong literary fiction strand, and over the past two years we have hosted sell-out events with fiction heavyweights; our non-fiction events focus on Current Affairs, Activism, Feminism & Gender Equality, Politics, Race & Identity and Art.

You are a founding member of the Feminist Book Society. What inspired you to facilitate this initiative alongside some wonderful women in publishing?

I was approached by Katy Loftus (Editorial Director at Viking) and Eleanor Dryden (Publisher, Headline Review) just over a year ago. They proposed a regular event speculatively titled the Feminist Book Club, in which they’d chair panels of three varying authors discussing themes pertaining to the modern, intersectional feminist (i.e. anger, history, humour, friendship, sex).

I’d been trying to launch a similar initiative for a while, so it was incredible timing – even more incredible was our shared collective outlook. I proposed that it be more of a society than a club, and we developed our core manifesto, based on values which I also apply at large to Gower Street’s events: Feminist, Bookish, Curious, Inclusive, Challenging, Kind. Katy and Eleanor have a wise, sensitive and incisive interviewing style and I’m proud we have developed an environment which is welcoming, inclusive and inspirational.

Is there one event that stands out to you – one that you especially enjoyed or were particularly proud of organising?

To celebrate publication day of Michelle Obama’s Becoming – given that the former-FLOTUS herself was in Chicago with Oprah Winfrey – I invited co-founders of Black Girl Festival Paula Akpan and Nicole Crentsil to chair an event titled Love Letters to Michelle Obama. It was vital that women of colour owned this event, given the importance of this seminal memoir to this community, and Nicole and Paula have created a platform which celebrates black womxn in a way that Michelle herself would be proud of.

I invited Viv Groskop, Marianne Tatepo and Zing Tsjeng to each write and read aloud a love letter to Michelle Obama, and we invited audience members to do the same. What started as a reticent few first readers grew to eighteen people reading their
heart-warming, earnest, funny, powerful and inspiring letters about what Michelle Obama means to them, filmed by CNN. The panel voted for their favourite one, to receive a rare signed copy of Becoming. The winner was an easy decision, one which we imagined Michelle herself would have made: 10-year-old Charlei, brought along by her mother, whose beautiful letter (written while sat in the front row) began: ‘Dear Michelle, thank you for inspiring me as much as the woman who inspires me the most in the world, my mum’. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

You recently gave a talk on inclusivity and diversity in events at the Bookseller’s Marketing and Publicity Conference.

Over the past few years there have been some changes with regards to representation in the book industry, with campaigns such as #ReadTheOnePercent and #WeNeedDiverseBooks gaining popularity on social media. But there is still a long way to go – what changes have you seen since beginning your role at Waterstones and what do you think still needs to be changed?

Thankfully I’ve seen a decline in performative ‘diversity panels’, which served to platform minority voices in the context of discussing their work from this one point-of-view, rather than actually promoting diversity in the industry. I’ve seen an increased awareness of a need for better representation, though the rate at which commissioning has caught up with online discussions and #-driven campaigns is still quite slow.

The industry itself is still stiflingly white and middle class (like myself), and earlier this year the Publishers Association’s second annual diversity survey found that progress is slowest in the racial and ethnic criteria. I am of the opinion that there is a pipeline issue, and that the industry must not only hold itself accountable for its slow recruitment of diverse staff, but prioritise inclusion as an urgent matter. Hachette’s Changing the Story programme is an example of how this can be done.

How do you ensure that Waterstones Gower Street and the events you organise and facilitate emphasise inclusivity and diversity?

When programming every single event – be it a flagship literary event or choosing a book for our monthly book clubs – I ask myself whether it is pushing the conversation forward, and if it is serving the purpose of inclusion. While compromises have to be made – i.e. having two people in conversation because they are best served for the purpose of the discussion – sometimes this means I turn down mainstream / well-known authors or speakers in favour of including someone who would otherwise be less broadly represented in the mainstream.

My most popular events are those that prioritise diverse voices and tackle subjects that other bookshops or event spaces have been unwilling to host, so I like to think I’m proving the success of this approach, both from the point-of-view of creating a safe, welcoming space as well as meeting the commercial demands of the events programme.

What are your recommendations for publishers and booksellers hoping to prioritise inclusivity and diversity in their events?

  • Ask yourself: ‘Is this event inclusive?’ If the answer is no, more importantly, then ask: ‘Is it exclusive?” Are you putting together a panel or event that will be off-putting to people already excluded by our industry, and is there a way of reversing that?
  • Educate yourself: People can be inhibited by a fear of saying the wrong thing, of new terms which are not yet absorbed into their lexicon, and of striving for diversity while not themselves having a network which is representative of the wider population. In these cases I advocate that people educate themselves – has resources for inclusive communication; cursory internet research can solve most queries. An excellent overall sense-checking method – simply ask yourself: ‘Is this how I’d like to be addressed?’
  • Hold yourself accountable: Especially: white / non-disabled / non-LGBTQIA+ publishers, event producers and booksellers should prioritise considerations of how better to represent and include people from outside of these well-represented categories.
  • Do your research: Twitter is a phenomenal resource – sometimes it takes a little bit more time to research, and requires a determination to navigate online spaces that are not aimed at you, but as people of privilege it is up to us to go out of our way to find and approach more diverse voices. Your event will likely be far more interesting – and will bring in a more varied audience – as a result.

 And finally, what are you reading at the moment?

I often have a few on the go, so currently I’m dipping in and out of Our Women on the Ground, a stunning collection of essays by 19 Arab and Middle Eastern sahafiyat (female journalists) reporting from their changing homelands; I’ve been eking out Julia Armfield’s astonishing debut collection of short stories, salt slow; and I’m also reading Nesrine Malik’s strident, forthcoming essay collection We Need New Stories which I can already tell will be one of my most thought-provoking reads of the year.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.