'Agenting is the coal-face of subjectivity'

I remember why I fell in love with publishing, and it happened long before I ever got a job. It was in a meeting with a careers advisor who said publishing’s sole purpose was to establish talent – it didn't matter who you were or where you were from. It was a true meritocracy.

And when I joined the industry, fresh off an MA, I wasn't disappointed. No one has ever asked me about my background as if it was a judgement. No one has ever asked me  where I am from – "no, I mean originally?" - or which of my parents is the English one.

So it took me aback on a careers day in a North London comprehensive when I had to defend why publishing isn't racist. Yes, there have been times when I've gone to meet a client for the first time and seen their eyebrows rise. And yes, once, an author pitched a story using the word negro. After telling them to Google my picture, I rather enjoyed the appalled silence.

However the 15-year-old who accused publishing of being racist was prompted when I was asked how many BAME agents there were in London - and I could only answer three I knew of. Three faces I had seen across multiple parties, and book fairs.

None of the applicants that pass through my agency for a job are ever BAME. And I can guess why. This was the second half of the conversation with my careers advisor: “The thing is Nelle, to work in publishing, you have to be connected.”

But I wasn't connected and it didn't stop me becoming an agent or building a list of Sunday and New York Times bestsellers, R&J book clubs, resurrecting the Sunday Times Young Writer’s Prize with PFD or becoming a Bookseller Rising Star this year. I have always felt supported and respected in an industry which prides assiduousness, and I know if I did it, so many others can. So the real question is why don't they want to?

Which was exactly what I asked the 15-year-old, who shrugged and just said: “Why would I join a place that clearly doesn't speak for me?”

It's funny because agenting is so much about finding voices which speak to you - it's the coal-face of subjectivity. And of course my experience of growing up as a mixed race individual, with its questions of identity, influences my taste. I seek out stories which represent my past and inform my future, reflecting the meritocracy of talent that our industry represents.

Yet we are missing this necessary diversity of background right at the catalyst of the publishing process. So what is publishing to do when BAME applicants just aren't applying to agencies? I sit in my office and look at my list of authors feeling intense pride to be part of something so influential. Who wouldn’t want to be part of this?

Sometimes I worry our lack of diversity is due to ignorance – do people even know about this side of the industry? It’s a fair question as my path only started when I was already in publishing and Andrew Kidd left the company I worked for to become an agent. It was out of sheer kindness that he met me and explained what an agent actually was. Other times I worry it is because BAME candidates still see publishing as this inter-connected gentleman's club, A Game of Thrones-esque wall just too high to climb.

I'd like to say being black hasn't affected my work but there are times when I have felt my difference. Five months ago, I was in a beauty parade and was a shaking mess because two hours before, a man had called me the N-word in the street. And very early in my career when I was less sure of myself, I wore my hair in its natural coarse curls because my hair dryer broke just before an important meeting and I was 15 minutes late because I had to mentally prep myself to leave the house, worried what they would think.

Later that day I met [the author] Charlotte Mendlesson who, clearly sensing my anxiety after I couldn't stop fiddling with my wayward curls, told me how much she loved my hair that day, and asked why I didn't wear it like that more often.

It's this side of publishing, its inclusivity, its care, its celebration of the unique that I love and which more people need to know about. Because honestly that 15-year-old was wrong. But how will he ever know it, if we don't try and tell him all the ways in which we are right?

Nelle Andrew is a literary agent at Peters, Fraser and Dunlop.