By Charlotte Brook
The Society of Authors (SoA) has announced their annual Authors with Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses (ADCI) Literary Prize, exclusively open to authors who are themselves disabled or chronically ill and show this representation in their novels.
The prize was founded by author Penny Batchelor and publisher Clare Christian, who are strong campaigners fighting for better disability representation and accessibility across the publishing world. We spoke to Penny about her inspiration for the prize, her campaigning and what she hopes to see from the future of the publishing industry towards representation.
Inspiration for the ADCI Prize
Being both an avid reader and disabled, Penny felt she hardly saw anyone like herself in fiction or, if she did read anything with disability representation, it often fell into limited storylines.
“Disability representation in fiction is often written with a ‘triumph over tragedy’ or ‘misery’ stereotype – and don’t even get me started on a storyline where a disabled person is magically cured,” she says.
When she started writing her own novel, My Perfect Sister, she set out to change that. The novel is a dark mystery where Ian, a lawyer with cerebral palsy, and his old friend Annie try to uncover what happened when her older sister, Gemma, went missing in 1989.
“When submitting, I was concerned that agents and publishers would avoid signing books with disabled characters because there is a lingering, outdated stereotype that disability is too niche or depressing,” says Penny.
However, Penny’s novel fell into the hands of Clare from RedDoor Press who loved it and agreed with Penny that there is an imperative need for better representation of disability in fiction.
Clare conjured the idea of founding a prize for disabled novelists and from there, she and Penny worked together to launch it. The Society of Authors agreed to host the prize as part of their award stable, as well as it being backed by funding from Arts Council England.
“We’re looking for books that show disabled and chronically ill characters who live their lives and don’t conform to stereotypes and are integral to the novel’s plot. We hope the prize will be a gamechanger when it comes to highlighting disability representation in fiction and will inspire the careers of more DCI writers,” says Penny.
Submissions for the ADCI Prize open in August. More details here.
Campaigning for Accessibility With #KeepEventsHybrid
Over the past six months, Penny and Clare have also been campaigning by calling for wider access to literary festivals and events post-pandemic. Not only that, they have also successfully worked with Amazon to introduce a new Disability Fiction category to its books section.
The #KeepEventsHybrid campaign is run solely by Penny and Clare volunteering their time, but they have already secured a donation from author Kit de Waal which they used to publish a guide for putting smaller literary festivals and events online.
“It’s a labour of love and we’ve had fabulous feedback and many heart-rending stories from authors and readers who have found their world opened up during the pandemic when events moved online, yet firmly shut again when lockdown ended,” Penny tells us.
Penny and Clare have been in touch with smaller festivals, such as the Gwyll Crime Cymru festival, to ask for advice on how to increase accessibility. However, for Penny, it’s really the larger ones she wants to see lead the way, as they are the ones likely to have the budgets to go hybrid.
“Just because ‘bums on seats’ festivals worked before the pandemic doesn’t mean they shouldn’t change and offer a hybrid format. There’s also a huge environmental benefit of not flying so many authors in when it’s much cheaper and better for the planet for them to Zoom in,” she says.
Edinburgh International Book Festival is one big event which is pioneering accessibility, hosting over 200 online events this year and publishing the Inklusion Guide.
The Publishing Post readers can help the #KeepEventsHybrid campaign by signing the open letter, sharing on social media and educating about the importance of hybrid festivals when working in the industry.
What else should the publishing industry be doing?
While the publishing industry has been making moves towards representation, particularly for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ groups, disability awareness can often get forgotten.
From her perspective as an author and a member of the SoA’s ADCI group, Penny is working to push agents and publishers to be open and accessible to disabled and chronically ill people, making it clear they welcome submissions and can make adjustments.
“We want to be seen as a benefit, not a burden! Not all disabilities are visible, too, so each new client should be asked if they have any needs they require help with, whether that’s a disability, caring responsibilities or financial issues,” says Penny.
Increasing representation of disabled people working within publishing is also of utmost importance. Publishers should be transparent about how many disabled people they employ and what they are doing to make them feel valued and making sure they have the adjustments they need.
Penny’s second thriller, Her New Best Friend, is out now!