Guest blog post by Irenosen Okojie
If you’re an aspiring writer the road to getting published can be tricky, soul destroying and tumultuous. Akin to climbing Mount Everest or participating in the world’s hottest chilli eating contest – surely the writhing on the floor and breaking into sweat isn’t dissimilar? A publishing deal can seem like a glimmering mirage in the distance. You have to be prepared for letters of rejection, hours of isolation and very few support structures in place. You have to be in it for the love of the craft and the long haul. It’s hard for everybody, but throw in the dynamic of being black or Asian and it’s an even more complex and difficult process.
Publishing is a business after all; agents and publishers are interested in making money and seem less inclined to take risks with new authors, particularly writers of colour. This isn’t going to be openly acknowledged because it doesn’t reflect positively on the industry, but you only have to look at the literary landscape for proof. Yes, the likes of Andrea Levy, Helen Oyeyemi, Diana Evans and Zadie Smith have broken through in a big way, but that’s a few out of thousands.
I attended a ‘pitch to agents’ event some years back and I remember asking one agent how open her agency was to black and Asian writers. Her response was uncomfortably telling: “Well, we already have one black writer on our list at the moment…” I was stunned into silence, not because she’d said anything overtly racist but because she’d revealed a subtle, small mindedness I suspect isn’t uncommon; the idea that black people are a monolithic group who all think alike and if you have one, you’re representing the perspectives of many. We’re often not afforded the luxury of being seen as individuals.
Do agents and publishers still believe that writers of colour won’t sell well and don’t know how to market them? Surely that assumption has been dispelled by the success of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Monica Ali and Zadie Smith. In commercial fiction, Dorothy Koomson, Lesley Lokko and Lola Jaye have sold tremendously well. If a writer has enough of a publicity machine behind them and publishers invest in marketing them correctly, they can do very well. It doesn’t hurt to be long- or short-listed for a prize either. Audiences want to read varied, deftly written, interesting novels and are far more open than industry professionals give them credit for. But why aren’t enough of these diverse voices coming through? The honest answer is that the publishing industry is very white middle class. Diversity isn’t a priority because it doesn’t impact the lives of the people running that industry. Imagine if there was hardly any visibility for white writers? Imagine the shoe on the other foot.
In the nineties, black publishers such as The X Press and Black Amber Books had great success and good distribution through WH Smith and Borders. One of The X Press’s biggest selling novels, Baby Father, was adapted into a BBC series. Unfortunately, that publishing house eventually folded. Currently, I know of one black literary agent, Susan Yearwood, one Asian commissioning editor, one black editor, Ellah Affrey at Granta, and five publishers proactively focussing on multicultural writing: Allison & Busby, Peepal Tree Press, Flipped Eye, Hope Road and Ayebia. There’s also the new SI Leeds Literary Prize for unpublished fiction by black and Asian women in the UK.
You often hear stories of agents lamenting the towering slush piles they have to wade through to find that one rough diamond of a novel. I’m sure on some level this is true, but I also think agents aren’t necessarily very open to new writers, particularly the more established agents. There are so many talented writers out there not being given enough opportunities. You only have to attend literary and spoken word nights to see the level of talent emerging. For things to ever really change there needs to be more black and Asian agents, commissioning editors and publishers, more industry professionals open to championing diversity, and more initiatives for new writers.
Despite these tribulations, writing can be a magical experience and good writers do break through. There are some great role models who’ve paved the way, like Ben Okri, the brilliant Alex Wheatle, Buchi Emecheta, Bernardine Evaristo and Courttia Newland. Organisations like Apples & Snakes and Spread the Word programme diversely and run some fantastic projects to develop poets and writers at all levels. If you’re an aspiring writer, contact a writer’s development agency in your region to attend workshops and connect with established writers. Sign up to the NAWE newsletter to stay abreast of networking and submission opportunities. Most importantly, keep writing and persevere.
Irenosen Okojie is a writer and freelance arts project coordinator. She is working on her first novel and a collection of short stories.