Publishing is in the middle of a reckoning. In the weeks since the death of George Floyd, as black authors topped UK books charts for the first time, and #Publishingpaidme exposed the disparities in what black and white writers are paid, publishers – long criticised for employing overwhelmingly white workforces who cater for white readers – have been grappling with their record with black authors, editors and agents. And black people in publishing are not holding back, sharing details of the “hostile environment” they’ve been working in.
Last week’s release of the Rethinking “Diversity” in Publishing report confirmed what many people already knew. With interviews with 100 authors, agents and publishing staff, it found that UK publishers still serve a supposed core audience of white, middle-aged, middle-class readers, a mission that changes books by black writers in ways that are invisible to a reader by the time they hold the book in their hands.
Narratives that don’t fit a typically white, middle-class editor’s perception of black people result in rejections, changes and comments that far exceed constructive criticism. Malorie Blackman’s magical black siblings pitch was deemed implausible and rejected. Dorothy Koomson was asked to add racist characters and a slave narrative. Some authors have been asked to sign off on “a more African cover”, others prevented from showing any hint of blackness at all. Some books, such as Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman – about an older, black gay protagonist – have been “negatively” considered “niche”. (In Evaristo’s case, “triple niche”.)
“Black writers do not want special consideration,” Koomson wrote recently. “We want a level playing field, the chance to write books and explore as many subjects and genres as our white counterparts.”
Early in her career, literary agent Emma Paterson learned to “anticipate” these responses from publishers. Alongside pitch letters, she would send information editors wouldn’t know to inform them why there was “commercial or intellectual value” in books that speak “very directly to an audience that’s not white” – which were often “mainstream for black and brown readers”.
As a young black man, I’m just not used to being trusted in that way and it really brought out the best in me
Agents in the Rethinking “Diversity” report claimed that finding BAME authors remains a major challenge for them, citing a lack of submissions from BAME writers, or being unable to find them through the usual avenues: prizes and creative writing courses. But Paterson is sceptical. “I fiercely oppose the idea that it’s hard to find the writers because the writers are out there, clearly, you just need to look for them,” she says. “I think a lot of it is about … desire. What are your priorities? What do you want to find?”
Paterson, whose client list at Aitken Alexander includes Evaristo, Paul Mendez and Otegha Uwagba, notes that although looking for black writers might require “engaging with different writing communities”, she also uses “exactly the same channels as everyone else”. She has discovered a number of her authors by simply sending them a message on social media: “That’s how I’ve built a list that doesn’t resemble lots of the lists of very established, powerful, older, white agents in the industry.”
For Mendez, whose debut novel Rainbow Milk has seen him compared to James Baldwin, traditional routes were inaccessible. “[There’s] nothing that stands out on my CV that would say this guy is going to be the next important debut,” he says. Agentless at the time, he submitted his work directly to publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove on her first day at her imprint, Dialogue. He calls Lovegrove “a godsend” and praised her ability to understand and prioritise stories from black, working class and LGBTQ communities. “I didn’t have to convince them. They could already see who I was and what I was trying to do,” says Mendez. “[As] a young black man, I’m just not used to being trusted in that way and it really brought out the best in me”.
“There were things I understood, and so I didn’t have to ask him questions about the authenticity of what he was trying to say or how relatable it will be,” says Lovegrove, whose imprint is dedicated to authors “excluded from the mainstream”. Her anger with the UK publishing industry, she says, is due to what she calls “corporate colonialism”: “They came, built up and gentrified London, created jobs and hired everyone except those who are born there from black, Asian and marginalised ethnicities as well as people from working class, neuro-atypical backgrounds and excluding much of the LGBTQI+ communities, which together make up over half of the population of the capital. To redress the balance my aim is to be fully inclusive by paving the way – as is the heritage of all civil rights movements.”
Perception isn’t the only hurdle; numbers are too. As books by black authors are comparatively few, the industry method of predicting sales by comparing similar titles is problematic. “If there isn’t anything similar,” says Lovegrove, “then it’s really hard to position it in the market. So therefore you have to always start at a very low point, because it’s almost like everything is the original. Although the maths isn’t biased, the process in which black writers are compared is.”
Queenie author and former marketing executive Candice Carty-Williams knew this well and positioned her debut about a single, millennial woman as the “black Bridget Jones”. Although the phrase raised a few eyebrows, Carty-Williams knew it would work in her favour: “That was me sticking my foot in the door and pitching it alongside this book that was a huge commercial success so people knew how it should be treated.”
It worked. She signed a six-figure deal with Orion after a four-way auction; Queenie has sold more than 77,000 copies and was recently named book of the year at the British Book Awards. The success of Queenie, says Kishani Widyaratna, a Sri Lankan commissioning editor at Picador who works with several black writers, proves publishers are misjudging their audiences: “There is a failure in really understanding what readers want to read ... these books are racing up the charts.”
One of the most striking things about Queenie is the cover: the braided up-do, the large gold hoop earrings, the black woman. Many successful books have covers with black characters, but some publishers still fear that “strong racial signifiers” could make a book seem “niche”. One respondent in the Rethinking Diversity report said that putting black people on covers is still “seen as a bold move”. Some designers avoid this by “downplaying” racial elements, while others find safety in following trends: silhouettes of women with afro hair, or wearing headwraps, or using African prints. (Replacing the much derided acacia tree stereotype that was popular for years.)
Patrice Lawrence knew she didn’t want the cover of Orangeboy – a family drama that touches on the issue of knife crime – to be a stereotype; boys doing “a gun sign or something”. She praises her then editor Emma Goldhawk for commissioning a cover that reflected the essence of the book, as well as getting it into the hands of her intended audience. Lawrence notes that Goldhawk “had gone into schools”, submitted it for prizes and even passed on copies to her running club. Yet she feels that much of her positive experience was down to individual effort, rather than being widespread.
“There’s a lot of work being done around sort of black literacy, black books, black reading,” says Lawrence, “but it doesn’t feel that there is that networking that’s been done with [those organisations].” Her latest book Eight Pieces of Silva, out in August, features a queer black character; Lawrence has had to find bloggers to review it herself. But it’s not just black readers that she feels are missing out.
“The younger generation are quite global,” she says, referencing her daughter who enjoys anime and is starting a degree in anthropology and Japanese. “I think publishing doesn’t move quick enough and have enough of these types of young people inside publishing to enable them to connect with that.” Paterson however has seen a small change in the landscape. “It does look a little bit different,” she says. “You have a different generation who don’t really need to explain the value of a book or that there is an audience, because they kind of get it. They exist and operate in the same spaces.”
As publishers scramble to sign more black authors and promote people into roles to show they are listening, there are concerns that existing issues such as narrow commissioning, low pay and marginalisation haven’t been dealt with. “Inclusion takes time,” says Lovegrove, who fears this rush to amplify black voices could backfire and harm a new generation of authors in the process. “[Without] ensuring that the space is inclusive, is welcoming, is open, you end up with a lot of people who are really resentful.”