Time for a radical rethink

In June 2020, something remarkable happened in the British publishing industry. For the first time ever The Sunday Times paperback fiction and non-fiction bestseller lists were topped by black, female authors – Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other and Reni Eddo-Lodge for Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.

That both women reached the top shouldn’t be remarkable; both books are excellent. But their success came in the wake of the global Black Lives Matters protests in response to the killing of George Floyd. And as Eddo-Lodge wrote on her Twitter feed: “Can’t help but be dismayed by this – the tragic circumstances in which this achievement came about. The fact that it’s 2020 and I’m the first. Let’s be honest. Reader demand aside, that it took this long is a horrible indictment of the publishing industry.”

Eddo-Lodge wasn’t the only one thinking this – or indeed saying it. Five days after her tweet, the newly-formed Black Writers’ Guild published an open letter, signed by 100 writers, calling for sweeping reforms. And around ten days after that, the UK’s first academic report on diversity in trade publishing and fiction laid bare the extent of the obstacles that writers of colour continue to face when trying to get published.

Re:thinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing was written by Dr Anamik Saha and Dr Sandra van Lente as part of a partnership between Goldsmiths, University of London, Spread the Word and The Bookseller.

Informed by interviews from more than 100 members of the publishing industry the report made a series of eye-opening discoveries: assumptions about existing audiences; skewed concepts of quality of work and commercial risk; a lack of creative thinking and innovation in promotion and sales; and, frankly, a flagrant neglect of potential audiences that anyone who has spent any time working in business ought to find staggering.

For example, the report’s authors learned that publishers see their core audience as ‘a sort of 50-something middle class to upper middle-class white woman who reads a lot because she has time and she has resources to spend on books.’ This mythical woman even has a name – Susan or Suzie.

But it’s worse than that. Somewhere along the line, the mainstream industry told itself that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME)/working class readers simply don’t exist.

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Both these assumptions have led to deep-rooted complacency in terms of promotion, with publishers expressing hope to their interviewers of crossover audiences, and yet apparently making little attempt to challenge Susan’s reading tastes, let alone attract new, potentially lucrative, audiences of colour.

The decision to take this more qualitative/commercial approach was a calculated one, says Rishi Dastidar, chair of Spread the Word: “We know the numbers of writers of colour being published is low thanks to other important reports. But the problem is structural. So what this report tries to do is show the barriers stopping us moving towards something that looks like a solution.”

That solution, says Rishi, starts with making the business case. As both a successful poet and head of verbal identity at brand agency Brandpie, he should know. “The more I read, the more I kept asking myself ‘where’s the innovation?’ If you’re a chief executive of a publishing house and you’re assuming that a group of people don’t read, that’s money you’re leaving on the table.”

He adds: “Initiatives aren’t working. This now has to be baked into a company’s strategy and it has to come from board level.”

None of the assumptions uncovered by the report cover the industry in any glory, but there is one that, for me at least, feels truly insidious – and it’s about notions of quality. Those interviewed professed a desire to publish more writers of colour, but expressed concerns about their lack of ‘quality’. For example, this from a white, male senior editor:  “And I do think that a number of sub-par books are being published precisely because they’re not written by white people. I don’t think that’s good for anyone.”

The problem, according to the report, starts with a fear of tokenism – the notion that anyone in any situation is hired to tick a box rather than for their ability. The irony, of course, as any hardcore bookworm will tell you, is that there are plenty of crap books written by white authors out on the market. Because ultimately art of any kind is subjective. But when subjective becomes unconscious bias, you start to see a creative industry that looks increasingly like the people running it.

Or as one white, female author who was interviewed in the report put it: “I think the first hurdle’s getting an agent [who are] overwhelming white, middle-class, Guardian-reading, liberal…They are not people who spend their lives dealing with difference. When people encounter a black person, it’s because it’s their cleaner or some terribly nice Oxbridge-educated black person who has been in publishing for 25 years.”

What this means, says Rishi, is that writers of colour constantly find themselves in a Catch 22, where they are held to a higher standard of commercial risk. Their writing has to be “so superlative to make it through the system in the first place – but they have to break through knowing that if they get there the chances are that any kind of supporting infrastructure, like sufficient or significant promotion, won’t be there for them to help make them less commercially risky.”

In other words all of the burden and all of the risk is placed on the writer of colour.

The industry needs to think differently, says Rishi, pointing to the music industry as a good example, where A&R scouts are trained to know that the next big act could come from anywhere – a pub, someone’s living room, a demo that lands on their desk.

“The writing pipeline is there – we know it is, because at Spread the Word because we see young, talented writers coming through,” says Rishi, “it just doesn’t come ready packaged with a good first degree from a Russell Group university and a creative writing MA from the University of East Anglia. I don’t think there’s the same level of willingness to accept the fact that talent is everywhere.”

But there is cause for hope. The report also spoke with agents and publishers attempting to be more proactive, creating writing competitions for writers from disadvantaged groups and exploring more informal routes, such as online journals and blogs.

Meanwhile, Penguin Random House has published what it calls an ‘accelerated inclusivity action plan’, acknowledging that commitments it laid out in 2016 are not moving fast enough. And Hachette UK has published its second ethnicity pay gap report – the first and only press to date to so. This report feels particularly timely given the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag that began trending on Twitter in June, as authors such as Malorie Blackman and Matt Haig shared what they were paid to highlight the disparity between black and white writers.

Still, though, more of this is needed if recent events are to become a true cultural shift rather than a moment in time. After all, Girl, Woman, Other may have made her the first black woman to win the Booker Prize (in 2019) but it is also Bernadine Evaristo’s eighth novel. And as Candice Carty-Williams put it on winning book of the year at the 2020 British Book Awards for Queenie, “I don’t quite know how I feel…I’m proud of myself, yes…I’m also sad and confused that I’m the first black AND female author to have won the award since it began.”

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Prizes help, says Rishi, but the true mark of change will be the point at which books by writers of colour rack up sales without prizes. “The next stage is to prove that thrillers, spy novels, crime, young adult and children’s fiction – the more lucrative genres – by writers of colour can sell too.”

That, he says, depends on breaking another assumption that writers of colour are only ever interested in writing about their colour, their identity and that audiences are only buying those books specifically because they talk about those experiences.

“There’s a sense amongst the bigger publishers that they are looking for certainty in what is an inherently uncertain business,” says Rishi. “So it’s fundamentally wrong to sacrifice ideas on diversity because you don’t believe you can get a certain return on it. Usually when something changes a market it’s precisely because it doesn’t look like the books that went before it. The industry needs to start trusting that audiences are interested in good writing regardless of who wrote it.”

How readers can encourage greater diversity in publishing

What’s striking about the Re:thinking Diversity report is that the publishing world’s assumptions don’t just ignore entire groups of potential readers, it also paints its white middle-class female reader in a pretty poor light – assuming Susan is uninterested or incapable of reading books written by authors of colour.

So readers can do more, too, says Rishi: “In many ways mainstream trade publishing has a vested interest in portraying itself as the only the option in town. But it isn’t true. There’s this rich ecosystem out there, if only readers are willing to step off the beaten track. And it doesn’t take much.”

So, with that in mind, we asked Rishi for his top recommendations:

  • Brixton Review of Books: “A proper literary review, with none of the associated stuffiness, coming up from the South London streets.”
  • And Other Stories: “Sheffield-based publisher of loads of brilliant novels in translation, and cutting edge US fiction. Worth a subscription.”
  • Offord Road Books: “Yes, I’m published by them, but bias aside, some of the best poetry being written right now, by other poets who are going to be world famous.”
  • Fitzcarraldo Editions: “If Factory Records was a publishing imprint, it might be as cool as…”
  • LRB Bookshop: “Not least for the best bookshop Twitter account; order online, order often etc.”

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To find out more about Rishi’s own work, take a look at our in-depth interview

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