Posted on 18th May 2012

Posted by andrea

Publishing and the diversity elephant in the room

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.

Comments

1

Penny Wrout

18th May 2012 at 20:56

I agree with almost every word of this. As a white person who very much enjoys reading fiction written by people from diverse backgrounds, all I can say is keep writing, and keep reading everyone!
Rather like the seemingly unstoppable gap between rich and poor in this country, I wonder how it can be that after at least 30 years of overt struggle by black writers to be acknowledged in the publishing establishment, things seem to be going backwards. But please stick with it – there are many who want to read and still more who are the potential audience of tomorrow. Thank you.

2

Ota

20th May 2012 at 08:45

Great article, I agree with this statement. The publishing industry needs to understand that not embracing a collective voice, and adding a more diverse palet for their audiences, they are losing money. Audiences want new material, new challenges, new voices, and are eager to embrace the cultural one’s we have. Fantastic article it leaves much to ponder.

3

Jessica

20th May 2012 at 09:15

Wow,this piece really resonated with me,brilliant article. Every year we see the same types of books by the same types of writers.More diverse and unusual voices are certainly welcome.

4

Nkechi E

23rd May 2012 at 11:40

This is a very thoughtful post! And I agree with the sentiments.
We are all witnesses to the grace that stories represent, as stories are nurtured in our imagination and are a fabric of all societies. All writers need support, access to opportunities and a constructive critical theory base. As books represent lasting legacies of the human condition, I for one love to explore the diverse voices that enriches the sector!

5

Joanna Traynor

30th May 2012 at 06:36

Great article. BTW you forgot to mention me – I broke through with the Saga Prize. Not anything like a household name, granted. I retreated into the world of marketing and media for a few years. Only just emerging now with a new book to publish. Working in the media has been an eye opener – it was my successful writing that opened up that opportunity. Such opportunities are much needed as once you have netted that publshing deal – you still need to pay the rent- i think that goes for everyone though – white and black. We do it for love really.

6

Julian

12th June 2012 at 23:08

I dont know nearly as much as you do about the industry, but can imagine what it must be like if its anything like most of british industry thats largely happy if they ‘already have one black’ on their books. Disgusting. Especially the casualness of the response, as if it makes its own inherent sense. Good point about this representative nature of the industry – the idea that having one black person will be enough to speak for all black people. It has to be noted, to be said, and you have done it so well. And yes I agree that part of the answer is for there to be more black and asian publishers. As the radicals used to say in the sixties, ‘We shouldnt expect ‘the man’ to do for us what we won’t do for ourselves!’ Every group instictively looks out for their own, so perhaps its annoying for white people to keep hearing complaints from people of colour that they are not being included in white-owned infastructures. The problem then is catch 22 as the white owned infrastructure IS the infrastructure so must be co-operated with and worked with in some way in order for any other voice to be heard. A seemingly uneasy relationship.

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