Courttia Newland has been here before. In 1997, it seemed as if the British book industry might finally have recognised it was out of step with the multicultural society that surrounded it. Writers of colour including Newland, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali were picking up sizable advances as the trade promised a step change. No longer would the doors of London publishers be time machines, transporting the unwary from one of the world’s most diverse cities to a monoculture that was a throwback to the 1950s. The books and the people who published them were going to be different.
Twenty years on, as the industry launches another drive for inclusivity, Newland is not holding his breath. “We are really wary because we have seen it all before,” he says. “A few people are championed and then people lose interest because they think the issue has been addressed. And then it all reverts back to the way it was before.”
The tide of change may have ebbed after initiatives in the 1990s and early 2000s, but this time something feels different. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but it seems to me as if the report I put together in 2015 for the writers’ development agency Spread the Word has managed to sting the book trade into action. Writing the Future found an industry “awash with white, middle-class men” was shoehorning black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) authors into cultural stereotypes, confining their work to “authentic” literary fiction.
One sign that 2016 may mark a sea change in British publishing is the appearance of writers of colour such as AA Dhand and Sanjida Kay on commercial fiction lists. Transworld is expecting great things from Bradford-born Dhand, claiming his northern noir Harry Virdee series is set to do for Bradford what The Wire did for Baltimore. Kay’s compelling debut, the psychological thriller Bone on Bone, is published by Corvus.
Another is the level of investment that publishers have brought to bear. When the government announced earlier this month that it was pilling the plug on Creative Access, which co-funds paid internships for BAME candidates, Pan Macmillan stepped in with £50,000 to continue its work within the book trade.
Elsewhere, the biggest three publishers have spent heavily on training and recruitment they hope will improve their ability to connect with black and Asian writers and readerships. Penguin Random House and HarperCollins led the way with measures to improve recruitment, followed swiftly by Hachette. Penguin also launched a scheme aiming to find and mentor BAME, LGBTQ, disabled and socioeconomically disadvantaged writers. A sign that the scheme is long overdue is that 2,000 writers from under-represented communities immediately applied for the 10 one-year mentorships. Other publishers began work with writers’ development agency Spread the Word and revitalised industry-wide programme Equip, from the Publishers Association.
“Is what publishers doing just window dressing?” asks Profile’s managing director Andrew Franklin. “No. I feel it is part of a generational change that is taking place in the industry. I think that in 20 years’ time it will be very different at the top of publishing.”
Next year, publishers promise more BAME writers on their lists, as well as continued investment in recruitment, to change the face of their workforce from white middle class and Oxbridge-educated to one more representative of the British population.
But, despite good intentions, there remains frustration among writers and agents. “I had an Indian writer with stories that I thought would carry, but the rejections that came back were that it was ‘too Indian’,” agent Gordon Wise of Curtis Brown says of one client whose work he regarded as a universal rite-of-passage tale.
Wise does not condemn editors, but sees such decisions as symptomatic of outdated expectations. “We are still in a world where we don’t want men writing sagas. It is a raw kneejerk interpretation of what is marketable. We need to examine a lot of assumptions.”
But according to publisher Crystal Mahey-Morgan, who started her own company Own It! earlier this year, there is no room for excuses. In September, she launched Robyn Travis’s debut Mama Can’t Raise No Man, a hard-hitting story of prison and masculinity, with a sellout event at London’s Hackney Empire. The capacity audience had paid £7.50 a head to hear Travis talk about the novel’s roots in gang culture.
“The audience for Robyn was 100% BAME and working class,” Mahey-Morgan said. “A lot of the things that I heard for so long – that the talent was hard to find and that the audiences [for writers of colour] were not there – have proved to be completely untrue.”
Speaking to writers and publishers of colour, it seems clear that the clash between publishers’ desire for inclusivity and their assumptions about the market has made it harder for them to find diverse talent. Years in which black and Asian writers had not seen their faces reflected back at them have made them choose alternative routes to publication – whether self-publishing through Amazon or ethnically diverse independents such as Jacaranda and Saqi Books. And traditional publishers have felt the impact of their failure to open up to a wider readership.
According to Gillian Redfearn, publishing director of the science fiction and fantasy imprint Gollancz, demand for writers of colour is outstripping supply. “I’ve spoken to two agents whose mission statement is to represent a diverse range of authors, and who have been actively seeking them, who are incredibly frustrated not to have found more writers to represent,” Redfearn says, “though they have not struggled to place those they do represent.”.
While the demand for BAME writing is undeniable, authors of colour are still struggling to gain the profile needed to sell their books and to establish themselves as writers instead of community representatives.
“Too often Zadie [Smith] is the go-to writer and she gets all the coverage and that is it,” says Guardian children’s fiction award winner Alex Wheatle: “If you scan the magazines you hardly ever see any black British writers, they are invisible unless they are Zadie.”
Even when they receive coverage, it remains hard for BAME writers to be taken seriously for their work. “I and my publisher constantly battle with the fact that people find it easier to see me as an ex -gang member than they do seeing me as an author,” Travis says. Despite the signs of a shift in attitudes and the commitments publishers have made for 2017, for Travis the transformations are all too slow: “Sometimes it feels like very little has changed from when I was a young boy.”