The role of diversity initiatives in publishing


Recently in the creative industries, there has been a demand to consider diversity in spaces that champion quality art. You may remember the Golden Globes boycott of 2021, when it was reported that there were no black members of the voting body, the annual backlash against Glastonbury’s lack of female headliners, or the criticism prompted by book bans in the US targeting minority voices. However, this criticism has thus far been largely unsuccessful in making long-term change to the institutions that canonise and validate the books we read. Instead, new spaces have been forged to celebrate and uplift diverse writing – but you may only find them if you’re looking for them.

A few years ago, when trying to diversify my reading, I came across the Jhalak Prize: a prize created specifically for writers of colour founded by Nikesh Shukla and Professor Sunny Singh. It prompted me to discover a whole new literary eco-system, full of literary festivals, events, prizes, and journals which spotlighted specifically minority voices. As thrilled as I was to discover that these spaces even existed, it begged the question, how effective can they be if they require people to seek them out?

As thrilled as I was to discover that these spaces even existed, it begged the questions, how effective can they be if they require people to seek them out?

Jhalak was established partially in response to 2016’s World Book Night list featuring no writers from BAME backgrounds. That same year, non-profit organisation Spread the Word published their ‘Writing the Future’ report which determined that the publishing industry was not making any significant progress on cultural diversity. At the time Shukla described the circumstances as ‘a perfect loop-de-loop of blame’ in which minority writers were set up to fail at every level, meaning they were not being integrated into mainstream publishing by those in charge. In 2020, a new report by Spread the Word suggested that the publishing industry was unsure of how to reach both underrepresented authors and audiences. So much of the mainstream industry’s focus has thus far been on diversifying the publishing workforce (as of last year, only 17% of the workforce came from an ethnically diverse background, and 66% from privileged backgrounds), however it is questionable whether this is actively producing change.

The industry still struggles to see how books that are neither by nor about the white middle-class could be seen as valuable to their core demographic. Even outside of questions about commercial success, the cultural value of these books at literary festivals, on shortlists, and at booksellers relies on the value they can provide to their predominantly white, middle-class audience. A 2015 survey of the Edinburgh, Cheltenham, and Hay literary festivals found that only 4% of authors could be classified as Black Caribbean, Black African, South Asian or East Asian and UK based. Instead, the report suggested that a reader specifically interested in underrepresented voices would have to attend alternative festivals such as the Yardstick Festival or the South Asian Literature Festival.

The industry still struggles ot see how books that are neither by nor about the white middle-class could be seen as valuable

Taking an alternative direction, the Bradford Literary Festival has tackled the myth that minority groups aren’t a key demographic through their Ethical Ticketing Policy which shifted the audience demographic to 65% of attendees earning below the national average and 47% from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Similarly in book prizes, awards have sprung up to celebrate underrepresented demographics. The Portico Prize, the #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize, the Jhalak Prize, and more, demonstrate a concerted effort to provide underrepresented writers with both recognition and the resources to continue their writing careers.

Where underrepresented voices have achieved success through mainstream channels, there has been an undercurrent of anxiety about whether that diversity will be sustained and why it has taken so long to get here. When Candice Carty-Williams won Book of the Year for Queenie, she spoke about her sadness that ‘it had taken so long not just for a book like Queenie to be published, but to be given such attention in the industry and in the literary world.’ Similarly, Bernardine Evaristo, joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize and the first Black woman to win the accolade, wrote that her ‘recent success winning the Booker Prize will only be truly meaningful if it opens doors for other writers of colour to break through, especially those who are forging their own creative paths and not seeking to replicate what already exists.’

The infrequency of wide-ranging research makes it hard to assess how much impact these changes are making. However, it is clear that changes both in and out of the mainstream are providing new opportunities for underrepresented voices to change the face of the British book industry and its readership.

Image credit: Andrew Lih

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