Asian Booklist: my response to the exhausting diversity debate

I don’t ever want to be pitted against Lionel Shriver because, frankly, I’m intimidated by her. Shriver is successful, wealthy and powerful and has that brisk, irascible manner of formidable older women who just don’t give a damn anymore. 

I was wary then when I was recently asked on a BBC radio show to respond to Shriver’s past comments about diversity in publishing. I know why presenters do this. Shriver is a provocateur and her comments work perfectly for the adversarial format favoured by producers.

I was reluctant to engage, not only because of my impression of Shriver but because rehashing the same debate gets us absolutely nowhere. The same enervating questions are asked again and again: Does diversity lower standards? Is diversity a moral imperative or is there a commercial incentive? Do writers of colour sell? Do characters of colour on covers sell? Do people of colour even read? 

As a writer, I have grown tired of fielding these questions and tired of fighting for our right to exist. Instead of continuing to engage in this debate, I decided to create Asian Booklist, a website that helps readers discover new books by British-Asian authors. 

I chose to focus specifically on this demographic firstly because the UK has a poor track record in nurturing homegrown writers of colour. Secondly, British-Asians – particularly Bangladeshis and Pakistanis – suffer the highest rates of poverty in the country, which presents a significant barrier to entry when it comes to the arts. 

As one of few writers from this demographic to have secured a deal with a big publisher, I know how bruising it is to break through, which is why Asian Booklist champions writers facing the same challenges. The site aims to showcase the incredible breadth of literary talent in the British-Asian community, from established stalwarts like Hari Kunzru to talented newcomers like Abir Mukerjee whose Smoke and Ashes was chosen by the Sunday Times as one of the 100 best crime novels and thrillers of the last seven decades. There is brilliant non-fiction too, from Monisha Rajesh’s Around the World in 80 Trains to Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science

British-Asian writers have the will and capacity to create work that transcends identity; work that is critically acclaimed and award winning. In a climate where space in bookshops and broadsheets is fiercely contested, I feel the need to champion writers who need – and more importantly deserve – to be read widely. 

There’s an ulterior motive, too. By collating books by British-Asian authors, Asian Booklist aims to draw attention to the paucity of these titles. There are approximately 150,000 to 190,000 titles a year published in the UK. In 2016, fewer than 100 titles were by British authors of colour. If we accept, as I do, that literary talent is distributed irrespective of ethnicity, then that number should be much, much higher. In its nascent state, Asian Booklist does not yet list every British-Asian author being published this year, but I can confidently say that they are vastly underrepresented. I would urge decision makers in the industry to look at the list and ask why. 

The list also highlights the lack of bestsellers by British-Asian authors. Here, we enter chicken-and-egg territory. Are publishers reluctant to invest in British-Asian authors because they seldom hit the bestseller list, or do British-Asian authors seldom hit the bestseller list because publishers are reluctant to invest in them?

It’s wonderful that publishers are beginning to analyse who is and isn’t getting book deals, but statistics can mask a great deal of apathy. It’s not just the number of authors being published that’s important; it’s also the number getting the kind of investment needed to propel books onto the bestseller list and build long-term careers.

It’s undeniable that publishing is a nebulous art and that investment doesn’t reliably reap results, but it’s fair to say that the full weight of sales, marketing and PR gives a book the best chance to fly. Asian Booklist encourages publishers to analyse who is and isn’t receiving that support. 

I recognise that publishing is a business and that editors cannot commission books when there is a dearth of successful comp titles. With this in mind, my ultimate aim with Asian Booklist is to build a critical mass of readers that can harness their collective purchasing power to propel more books by British-Asian authors onto the bestseller list.

I urge those that care about diversity in publishing to get involved. I hope that agents, editors and publicists will submit titles by their authors and I hope that readers will sign up to the list. The time has come to stop debating and discussing. Let’s directly support the authors instead. 

Kia Abdullah is the author of Take It Back (HarperCollins, March 2020) and the founder of Asian Booklist.