In 2016, the statement that there should be more diversity in publishing is still ringing loudly. But what does that actually mean? Does that mean more diversity amongst the writers that are being published or more diversity within the writing itself e.g. characters, locations etc? According to the ongoing debate there is still a lack of diversity amongst the writers who are being traditionally published and that something needs to be done to resolve this issues.
I’ve said it often enough but I hate being reduced to an acronym but as a black woman who happens to write, I would be placed neatly in the BAME box (black, Asian and minority ethnics) and Penguin Random House (PRH) have launched a campaign just for me. OK, maybe the campaign isn’t just for me but PRH are looking to mentor and publish new writers from socio-economically marginalised backgrounds, writers with a disability and BAME and LGBT writers. PRH’s call to arms is obviously a reaction to the fact that writers from these groups are underrepresented in the publishing industry, however, I find myself asking the question if this scheme (and others that are popping up) is the right answer to this ongoing problem.
The problem does not lie with a lack of diverse writers. It would be ridiculous to think that a BAME or LGBT writer or a writer surviving on benefits was afraid to pick up a pen or open up their laptop and write a book. Recent history will show you that there are, and I will call them ‘acronym writers’, that have even won a prize or two and routinely top the best sellers list (Marlon James, Zadie Smith, AM Homes, Marjorie Blackman, JK Rowling, Dorothy Koomson, Mike Gayle) but this is a miniscule number in comparison to the number of books that are being published or remain locked away on a desktop folder.
Why do the acronym writers struggle for representation? Why are they struggling to be seen? Self-publishing should make it easier for these writers to ‘breakout’ but if socio-economic factors prevent writers from being published traditionally than those same socio-economic factors are going to stop the same writers from self-publishing because after all, regardless of how accessible self-publishing it is, editors, proof-readers, cover artists and marketing costs money. We live in a digital world where people refuse to be hidden. We all have blogs, Facebook pages, YouTube channels and we’re loud and clear on Twitter and Instagram. These writers are no longer hard to find.
There are talented writers are out there but the problem lies solely with the guardians standing at the gate of the publishing industry, for example, the agents, editors, publicists and even the intern who can afford to work for free wading their way through the slush pile in a windowless room on the tenth floor in another non-descript room in the city.
Perhaps employing editors, agents etc who represent the acronym writers will enable the industry to move away from the old boy’s network but what about talent? Surely, if you’re talented, your writing will shine through. You would think so, but the fact that the question of diversity is still out there shows that the curtains in the windows of the publishers’ offices are still firmly closed.
I don’t think that a mentoring programme or any other acronym specific ‘one-time only’ competitions is the answer. What happens when the scheme, mentorship programme is over or the competition deadline passes? Does that mean that all of the efforts to make the publishing industry more diverse come to an immediate stop? The publishing industry has to do more than a once in a blue moon high profile campaign and find a more permanent solution. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to the problem of a lack of diversity in the publishing industry but I do think that a good place to start would perhaps be for publishers and agents to move away from the misguided belief that ‘acronym writers’ do not sell books.
This post was brought to you by Nadine Matheson.