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The opportunity for racial diversity in publishing

Written by Jon Tolley
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Originally published
November 4 2020,
updated
April 10 2021

A couple of years ago I watched a news story where a smart 5-year old remarked that “books are only about white kids”. I was dismayed to discover, after digging a little deeper, that he was right.

 

Then and now

The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) reported that, in 2017, only 4% of children’s books featured black, Asian and minority ethic (BAME) characters. That figure rose to 7% the following year with books featuring a BAME main character moving up from 1% to 4% in the second annual report. An improvement, but by no means great.

 

Lack of representation

Put that in the context of population where around a third of English primary pupils are from a minority ethnic background, add in that less than 2% of published authors and illustrators in this country are people of colour2 and 86% of publishing staff are white3, and it becomes clear the sector has a serious representation issue.

 

Systematic failings

A Goldsmith’s study “Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing”3 focused on how writers of colour are currently being affected by the three stages of the publishing process - acquisition, promotion, and sales. The research is detailed and shines a bright light on a number of systematic failings such as assumptions of audience awareness, a fear of being seen as niche, complacency, and a lack of creativity.

 

But change is possible, and happening

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought inequality issues to the fore and, in doing so, has also improved the sales of books by black British authors, some of which have topped the bestseller lists. And, when the black author Candice Carty-Williams won book of the year for “Queenie” at this year’s British Book Awards, it was dubbed as a “history-making moment”.

BLM has also been seen as the trigger for the formation of the Black Writers’ Guild whose first act was to write to the largest publishers in the UK demanding, among other things, an audit of black authors and black staff as well as more black commissioning editors.

Now often a catalyst for change, social media has sparked a range of related hashtags. These include #publishingpaidme which highlighted racial disparities in publishing advances, while #BlackoutBestsellerList and #BlackPublishingPower have all sought to draw attention to black writers, authors and other professionals and to demonstrate the market for these books.

 

The commercial opportunity

The Goldsmith’s study urged mainstream publishers to re-evaluate how it measures diversity, its audience, what is considered ‘quality’, its hiring practices and its strategic partners. All great advice because there’s no doubt that finding, commissioning, marketing and promoting authors that better represent modern day society is both morally responsible and socially just.

More than that, ignoring those outside of such narrow confines – that is potential readers and a largely untapped market – is commercially foolish. Particularly now when the technology, applications and demand for shorter run, print-on-demand and even print-to-order has never been greater or more accessible.

 

1          https://www.thebookseller.com/news/clpe-reveals-increase-bame-representation-urges-against-jasmine-default-1085896#
2          https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/news/news-2019/less-than-two-per-cent-of-published-authors-and-illustrators-in-the-uk-are-british-people-of-colour-says-new-booktrust-research/
3          https://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Rethinking_diversity_in-publishing_WEB.pdf

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