Publishers at Risk of Becoming Culturally Irrelevant

The publishing industry’s poor commitment to diversity, lack of senior Black Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) professionals and over-reliance on unpaid internships is putting it at risk of becoming culturally irrelevant, claims a new study launched today.

Commissioned by Spread the Word, a leading writer development agency, Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place surveyed writers, literary agents and mainstream and independent publishers to determine whether progress was being made on cultural diversity. The findings give cause for concern.

A snapshot survey of publishers and literary agents indicates that 74% of those employed by large publishing houses, and an alarming 97% of agents, believe that the industry is only “a little diverse” or “not diverse at all”. A sign that professional efforts focused at entry level are failing to permeate through to the wider trade.

Out of 203 UK-based published novelists polled, 30% came from a BAME background. Only 47% said their début was agented compared to 64% of the White novelists. Once into their publishing career, 53% of BAME authors remained without an agent against 37% of White authors.

The business case for publishers to be more culturally diverse in recruitment and the writers they publish is also compelling. BAME communities’ disposable income currently stands at an estimated £300bn, and they are expected to represent 30% of the population by 2050.

Sue Lawther, director of Spread the Word, said: “We commissioned Writing the Future to take the temperature of an industry we suspected could be in better health. After reading the findings, it is disappointing to realise that things are as bad, or possibly even worse, than we imagined. At times it was incredibly difficult for our experienced researchers to gain access to honest conversations with staff within the publishing industry. Many people didn’t want to speak on the record; a warning sign that something is wrong. Despite all the hard work, good intentions and a ‘signing up’ to the principles of diversity, it seems that an old mono-culture still prevails.”

Danuta Kean, author of the report, said: “Publishing recruitment remains dominated by Oxbridge graduates and unpaid internships. In fact, 10 years ago, there were more people of colour in senior positions than today, which is depressing. BAME novelists reported that they felt pressured into delivering a ‘certain kind of book’, which conformed to a White trade’s perception of what was ‘authentically’ Black or Asian. Many expressed frustration that they were expected to write about racism, colonialism or post-colonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people. Also the level of research into readership, and not just the BAME market, is poor. As a result, assumptions are made based on prejudice rather than solid knowledge about the actual markets for BAME writers’ work.”

According to the study, 42% of respondents from a BAME background wrote literary fiction, making it the biggest genre for BAME writers in the poll, while one of the biggest selling genres – crime – accounted for a lowly 4% of BAME novelists’ output. The dominance of literary fiction as the ‘best chance of publication’ for a BAME author was criticised by a number of respondents who admitted they were now looking overseas to be published.

 Award-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo added: “What does it mean to be a Black or an Asian citizen of a country that doesn’t publish your stories? Three decades ago, few novels were published by Britain’s Black and Asian novelists, while 20 years ago, a breakthrough occurred that became a short-lived trend. For the past few years, we have seen a return to the literary invisibility of the past, concealed by a deceptive tokenism. Where are we in British fiction? I am one of the lucky few who are still published, but where are all the new BAME writers? This report is a call to action aimed at a literary industry which has the power to get our stories out there, in our own words, because our stories need and deserve to be heard too.”

Writing the Future is officially launched by Spread the Word at the London Book Fair on Thursday 16 April 2015 with a panel discussion, featuring the report author Danuta Kean, report consultant Mel Larsen, John Athanasiou, director of people, HarperCollins, Valerie Brandes, founder and publisher, Jacaranda Books, Antonia Byatt, director, literature and South East at Arts Council England, Jamaican-British novelist and short story writer Leone Ross and Bookseller Rising Star 2014, Rukhsana Yasmin.

For more information contact Joy Francis at  Words of Colour Productions: joy[at]wordsofcolour[dot]co[dot]uk

A copy of the full report is available on request from Spread the Word: eva[at]spreadtheword[dot]org[dot]uk

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