Black Affairs, Africa and Development

Black Writers’ Guild calls for sweeping change in UK publishing

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More than 100 authors join new body calling for the industry to address deep-seated inequalities in output and personnel


More than 100 writers including Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo, Benjamin Zephaniah and Malorie Blackman have called on all major publishing houses in the UK to introduce sweeping reforms to make the overwhelmingly white industry more inclusive at all levels.

As black authors top the bestseller charts in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd, the newly formed Black Writers’ Guild (BWG), which counts among its members some of Britain’s best known authors and poets, has written an open letter airing concerns that “British publishers are raising awareness of racial inequality without significantly addressing their own”.

Several of the signatories have recently shared their experiences of racism, including editors’ requests to add white or racist characters to their books, and being offered lower advances than their white contemporaries.

The letter was sent to the “big five” publishers – Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, HarperCollins and Macmillan – on Monday afternoon.

Despite launching numerous schemes to attract a more diverse workforce over the last five years, the industry has failed to reflect Britain’s racial and regional diversity with white, privately educated individuals massively over-represented. A major survey conducted by the Publishers Association last year found that “significant progress” was still needed to improve racial diversity, with only 11.6% of respondents identifying as BAME – lower than the UK population (14%), and significantly lower than London (40.2%), where all the major publishers are based. In comparison, the proportion who went to private school is three times the national figure.

Among its recommendations, the BWG is calling on publishers to share more data about their black authors, including how many make it through the submission process to publication, and the size of their advances. It also recommends that publishers hire more black commissioning editors, who find new talent to publish, as well as more black staff in marketing, publicity and illustration roles.

“One of the biggest complaints about publishers amongst black writers who do not start out with a notable profile is that our books are misunderstood by both editors and the marketing departments,” the letter states.

The letter also notes the lack of any black people on the boards of major publishers. “In 2020 this is unacceptable as well as unsustainable in the modern world. We are asking publishers to address and rectify this immediately,” the letter states.

The guild also outlines a potential new network of black literary agents, talent scouts and booksellers outside London “to ensure the whole supply chain is knowledgable and committed to working with our narratives”, and asks publishers to put money into new awards, festivals and literary magazines dedicated to black talent. The most dramatic proposal is for a new system where stakeholders could raise any future concerns about decision-making made at the highest levels directly with senior executives.

Publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, who formed the guild with journalist Afua Hirsch and author Nels Abbey, said they had “had hundreds of positive responses” within hours of floating the idea to writers.

“It was agreed that we needed a strong and united black writers’ group. A group that could help us, as well as our industry, make the most of the exciting opportunities black writing talent in the UK has to offer. We want to help guide our industry to become leading lights in the global movement for racial equality,” she added.

The letter in full

We are the Black Writers’ Guild, representing the black publishing community in the UK. Our membership group includes over 200 published black writers, including some of Britain’s bestselling authors and leading literary figures.

The protest movement sweeping the world since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has forced an international soul-searching to understand the pervasive racial inequalities that haunt most sectors of our society – including our own major institutions and industries.

Publishers have taken advantage of this moment to amplify the marketing of titles by their black authors and release statements of support for the black communities who have been campaigning for equality for decades.

Although we welcome your support at this time, we are deeply concerned that British publishers are raising awareness of racial inequality without significantly addressing their own.

We are calling on you to help us tackle the deep-rooted racial inequalities in the major corporate publishing companies and support grassroots black literary communities such as booksellers, book clubs and the Black Writers’ Guild.

We request the following:

1. We would like there to be an audit of the books published by black authors. This should include genres, the submission-to-acquisition ratio of black authors in the past five years and the median and mode of the advances of black authors.

We’d also like data on the roles of black staff across the business.

Rather than relying on anecdotal information, the data is crucial for us to better understand the current situation and how each area can be resolved for equality.

2. We are concerned that an absence of black commissioners who understand our communities and nuanced life experiences is limiting the ability to find the stories that best capture and reflect the sensibilities within them, to market them and also identify new talent across a broad range of areas. We are calling on publishers to hire black commissioners at every level of their companies.

3. We are aware that there is a worrying absence of black publishing staff in key positions in sales, marketing and publicity departments. These roles are vital in the acquisitions process and, in addition, these specific roles are focused on books reaching readers from a range of backgrounds, so diversity is essential. This also extends to designers and illustrators who are an important part of the messaging and engagement of a book – there is a woeful lack of black talent in this area.

4. One of the biggest complaints about publishers amongst black writers who do not start out with a notable profile is that our books are misunderstood by both editors and the marketing departments. Our books can often require additional support to reach the audiences who should be sought beyond the usual retailer pathways. We would like publishers to create a ring-fenced fund for marketing and specialist publicity focus to support the books of new and emerging black talent.

5. We are deeply concerned by the absence of any black members on core leadership boards. In 2020 this is unacceptable as well as unsustainable in the modern world. We are asking publishers to address and rectify this immediately.

6. We would like publishers to help us lobby to expand the pool of literary agents and build a network of black literary agents and talent scouts for emerging black talent that reaches beyond London into black communities in the nations and regions. This should also extend to buyers and booksellers to ensure the whole supply chain is knowledgable and committed to working with our narratives.

7. We ask that publishers make an additional financial commitment to new awards recognising and amplifying black talent as well as other initiatives such as a festival, and a literary magazine that can help build and foster readers from the black community.

8. We believe there is a disconnect between black stakeholders in publishing and senior decision-makers in the industry. We believe each company should have a mechanism for stakeholders and senior executives to have a direct relationship to discuss concerns and trends in the output of publishers. We would like to work with publishers to create this.

We maintain that all of these requests will not only help to guard against pervasive racial inequality but will unearth more talent and help nurture a thriving literary culture in this country. We ask for your partnership in achieving this and look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,

  • The Black Writers’ Guild
  • Abidemi Sanusi
  • Adeola Solanke
  • Adjoa Wiredu
  • Afua Hirsch
  • Ale McKenzie
  • Alexandra Sheppard
  • Aniefiok ‘Neef’ Ekpoudom
  • Anni Domingo
  • Avril E Russell
  • Benjamin Zephaniah
  • Bernardine Evaristo
  • Bryan Judith
  • Candice Carty-Williams
  • Carol Russell
  • Catherine Johnson
  • Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
  • Cherish Shirley
  • Cheryl Ndione
  • Chine McDonald
  • Clementine Burnley
  • Cleo Lake
  • Courttia Newland
  • Daniel Taylor
  • Daniella Dash
  • David Olusoga
  • Degna Stone
  • Denise Saul
  • Derek Bardowell
  • Derek Owusu
  • Desiree Reynolds
  • Desree
  • Diana Evans
  • Dianna Hunt
  • Dipo Baruwa-Etti
  • Dorothy Koomsom
  • Dr Althea-Maria Rivas
  • Elijah Lawal
  • Elontra Hall
  • Emma Dabiri
  • Esua Jane Goldsmith
  • Evan Larbi
  • Frances Williams
  • Gabriella Beckles-Raymond
  • Georgina Lawton
  • Inua Ellams
  • Irenosen Okojie
  • Jade Benn
  • Jasmine Richards
  • Jeffrey Boakye
  • Jemilea Wisdom-Baako
  • Jendella Benson
  • Jennifer Nansubuga
  • Jessica Lauren Elizabeth
  • Jessica Morgan
  • Johny Pitts
  • Kayo Chingonyi
  • Kehinde Andrews
  • Keith Jarrett
  • Kit de Waal
  • Kuba Shand-Baptiste
  • Kuchenga
  • Kwadjo Dajan
  • Kwame Kwei-Armah
  • Lisa Bent
  • Liv Little
  • Lola Okolosie
  • Louise Hare
  • Louise Ogunnaike
  • Luan Goldie
  • Lynda Rosenior-Patt.
  • Lynsey Martenstyn
  • Maame Blue
  • Magdalene Abraha
  • Malorie Blackman
  • Marcus Ryder
  • Marviene Cole
  • Melissa Cummings-Quary
  • Munroe Bergdorf
  • Musa Okwonga
  • Nadifa Mohamed
  • Nadine Matheson
  • Natalie Carter
  • Natasha Bowen
  • Nels Abbey
  • Nesrine Malik
  • Nick Makoha
  • Nicola Rollock
  • Nicolas Tyrell Scott
  • Njambi McGrath
  • Okechukwu Nzelu
  • Oladipo Agboluaje
  • Olumide Popoola
  • Oluwaseun Matiluko
  • Omega Douglas
  • Patrice Lawrence
  • Paul Gilroy
  • Paul Mendez
  • Rachael Corson
  • Raymond Antrobus
  • Sara Collins
  • Sareeta Domingo
  • Selina Nwulu
  • Sharmaine Lovegrove
  • Sharna Jackson
  • Shaun Clarke
  • Simon Osunsade
  • Sir Lenny Henry
  • Sofia Akel
  • Stella Akinade-Ahmadou
  • Stephen Thompson
  • Symeon Brown
  • Tolu Agbelusi
  • Uju Asika
  • Valerie Brandes
  • Yomi Sode
  • Yvonne Battle-Felton
  • Yvvette Edwards

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