After #BlackBestseller: Publishing’s Persistent Anti-Blackness
Seemingly overnight our timelines have been flooded with all-Black reading lists celebrating the likes of Akala and Audre Lorde. Indeed, the general public is scrambling to learn more about issues Black people have been very vocal about for decades. But now, perhaps more than ever, it is important to point out the obvious: the fight against anti Blackness is not a hashtag based trend that can find resolution through reading alone.
Unless the industry addresses damning facts about its demographic make-up, such as that under 1% of editors are Black, the rush to publish and publicise Black authors risks becoming an empty marketing strategy capitalising on a volatile zeitgeist. The book industry shapes culture. As they choose which voices and stories are heard first and loudest, those people behind-the-scenes become the rule-makers of said culture. The true fight against anti-Blackness is not scouring Amazon for Colson Whitehead’s latest: it is wondering what these now-popular titles would look like if they were edited, marketed, and publicised by Black publishers.
In an effort to remedy the reality of an industry that is still saturated with middle class white people, three out of the UK’s big four have introduced strategic diversification schemes to better accommodate BAME voices. Only as recently as 2017, HarperCollins launched their first ever schemes to leg up BAME job seekers and employees. Indeed, it is commonplace for entry level publishing jobs to open up exclusively to BAME applicants. We can only hope that, in time, these schemes will affect long-lasting change. The facts, however, are less than promising. An industry wide shift towards inclusivity seems to roll around every couple of years, with similar schemes being unrolled sporadically by other and smaller publishers. The sense of déjà vu is profound.
While BAME traineeships and diversity initiatives have their uses, there seems to be a more insidious problem preventing Black people from accessing career development. Most initiatives designed to catapult Black people into the industry rarely see them move beyond entry-level and junior positions. This means that the strive for equality in publishing remains half-hearted, seemingly existing for bigger publishing corporations to appear “diverse” while, actually, doing very little to truly be so. It is no secret that independent publishers, such as Edinburgh-based Canongate, are inclusive without schemes to make themselves appear so.
For one, these schemes pigeonhole Black people – and other minorities – as part of that ambiguous “diversity” quota which reproduces the industry’s artificial (but tenacious) divide between genre and “diversity” titles. In 2018, a study conducted by Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold stated that books published by BAME authors have been falling since 2011. Publishers often see writers of colour as a riskier investment, meaning BAME authors are bound to be overlooked in favour of their white counterparts. In the few instances when they are taken up, their titles are expected to, at best, uphold cultural stereotypes or, at worst, perform their identity crisis for a whitedominated environment.
Bluntly (but truthfully) put that marketing focus is the product of a white-dominated industry that parrots BAME stories for the white gaze or, rather, “a white middleclass older woman … Susan” whom the industry images to be its “dominant”, if not only, customer (Rethinking Diversity Report).
Again, publishing a few Black authors and offering BAME entry-level schemes is far from enough. The publishing industry must make the necessary internal changes, partly through educating all employees (particularly hiring teams) and largely through other wilful strategies, to ensure Black career progression and the eventual diversification of its upper echelons. As is evident from the recent #pubishingpaidme hashtag on Twitter, there are socioeconomic barriers to entering the publishing industry. However, low salaries also limit publishing careers to those who are welloff in a world where Black people are twice as likely to be in the lowest income decile. It is undoubtedly the responsibility of the industry as an entire network, and not just small teams at certain companies, to make total black inclusivity an industry standard. To allow Black-authored books to be produced and marketed in a way that is true to Black communities, Black people must occupy major industry positions and not just reading lists.