"Do better, publishing people": an open letter to the industry

I have to start by admitting that when I began writing this letter last week, I was boiling mad and ready to take everyone on. Now, in its tenth or twentieth draft (I don’t know which) I’m still boiling mad, but most of your gaslighting social media posts that sent me over the edge have gone, so I’ve calmed down a little. A little.

I am still boiling mad and I still think you need to know a few things. Firstly – and most importantly – you need to know: publishing is a hostile environment for Black authors.

I’m not talking about the inclusive indies, the ones who’ve been forging their way ahead, I’m talking about the major players in publishing. Yours is an environment that the world thinks is welcoming, liberal, ‘right on’ and intellectual, but in reality can be extremely damaging for Black authors.

Let me also be clear: Black writers do not want special consideration, we do not want special treatment, we want a level playing field, an equality of opportunity, the chance to write books and explore as many subjects and genres as our white counterparts. We want to look around and see other Black people being as successful as us in all different genres in all branches of the publishing business. And that is not the experience for most of us when we come to write our books or have them promoted or see them on the shelves.

When we try to enter the world of publishing, a lot of us already have so much on our shoulders. Black writers know that every word we write, every story we tell, will be taken up as speaking for every single black person that ever lived. We are often seen as a monolith and everything one of us does is often used to represent all of us.

Agents are the first gatekeepers most of us encounter and we very often hear from them that they can’t connect with ‘Black’ stories, they don’t understand ‘Black’ voices, the story isn’t teaching them anything. And yet, we can see with our own eyes that they very often represent white authors who are telling stories about Black people and earning millions and accolades whilst doing it.

If we manage to find a supportive agent or navigate those gatekeepers, the next lot of gatekeepers we meet are publishers who very often have in mind the type of ‘Black’ book they want to acquire:

Showcasing black pain? Tick

Willing to constantly talk politely about race and nothing else? Tick

Making white people feel comfortable? Tick

Teaching white people something about the ‘Black experience’? Tick

No one in publishing will admit this, but you can tell by the rejections you receive, the conversations that you have about a book, suggestions that are made that this checklist is – often unconsciously – there.

As we move through the publishing process, what do we come up against next? People who don’t ‘get’ Black voices so set about changing our words to fit the stereotypes in their heads. Editors who need subtle, modern-day ‘slave’ narratives added in even if it doesn’t fit the story arc. Those who ask you to find redemption for a white antagonist so as not to put people (read: white people) off. Publishers who want you to make characters racist because that’s obviously what’s missing from your rom-com. Editors who pick apart every single word to make sure you don’t get uppity and think you might just be good at this writing stuff.

Full disclosure: I’m an award-winning, internationally bestselling author who writes commercial fiction, I have been in the book industry for over 16 years and I am seen as one of the ‘lucky’ ones – and these things have all happened to me. I’ve had success and I am acutely aware that very few other Black authors have had it as ‘good’ as me, despite working as hard as me, telling stories as well as me, working as much as me and trying as hard as me.

Also, I have been very fortunate to have an agent who has always been on the same page as me – I’ve had to tell him to leave things when he’s wanted to intervene because I can’t face the battle and I just know I’ll come off looking bad. In addition to that, my current editor and publishing team are incredibly supportive and they trust me as a reader, a writer, someone who knows what she’s talking about.

I have also been ‘lucky’ that most of my previous editors have treated me with the same respect, but you know, what? Not all of them have. Some have been so awful that I’ve been forced to go to their bosses. (Obviously history is rapidly rewritten and I’m the oversensitive, bitter, failing harpy with an axe to grind even when I bring receipts of their misdemeanours.)

And it’s not just editors – I’ve just remembered the sales person I went on a signing tour with who casually dropped a racist word into the conversation and didn’t even have the good grace to look embarrassed. And yes, I had to spend the next day with her going to different bookshops, on edge waiting for it to happen again. I remember the marketing person who was super nice and complimentary to me in front of other people, and then cut me out of every single conversation about promoting my book.

And writing aside, I’ve had to do some heavy lifting in other areas of publishing. How many times have I had to contact some of you in the publishing industry privately to tell you what you’re doing is wrong or racist or sending a terrible message? How many times have I been the only Black person in the room having to explain why you can’t award a certain book an accolade because it’s racist and/or completely ignores the existence of Black people in a narrative about humanity? How many times have I had to endure micro-aggressions that everyone laughs off because the aggressor is too powerful to go against? Too many times, that’s how many.

And, let’s not forget that my hard-won position has been constantly ignored and overlooked by the trade press unless I’m rolled out to be put on display so they can pat themselves on the back about how progressive they are. Or the numerous times I’ve been edited out of a story about a project that I’ve initiated, or had my words used but my name removed from certain pieces. I’m very often there for the photos to add colour to an event and nothing else.

A week after all of your public posts claiming how supportive you are of Black voices when you’ve done – at best – the bare minimum, I am still extremely angry. So are many of the other Black authors I have spoken to.

More than anything, I resent being made to speak out like this. This is not my way. I try to support other authors behind the scenes, I try to fight battles for myself and other people without making it public.

But what I witnessed last week was truly horrendous; it was so outrageous that the publishing industry, which exacts a huge toll on a Black person entering their world, would pretend otherwise.

I have watched people who have made it clear over the years they wouldn’t spit on me and my kind if I was on fire now asking for submissions from Black and minority ethnic voices. To what end? So you can demean, demoralise and discard them? I’ve seen ‘right on’ festivals with racist directors rushing to invite Black authors to sit on their panels. For what, except to make the festival look good and inclusive? I’ve seen declarations of support from people who seemed to barely know we existed six months ago.

And truly, what will the result of this ill-thought-out rush to find and support Black voices be? Us who are here already doing the hard yards being forgotten? New Black authors being made to feel as if there is some doubt about how they got there? Let’s face it, Black writers will probably always be frowned at as if to ask if we’ve truly earned that spot or if we’re just there to fill a quota. You have done that, not us. You.

Do better, publishing people. Do better, be better, treat us better. Talk to us, listen to us, stop going out there with words of support and look inside with your actions to improve the environment for Black authors. Just do better. And enough public posturing, all right? Enough.

Dorothy Koomson

Supported by:

Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Yvvette Edwards

Sareeta Domingo

Alexandra Sheppard

Courttia Newland

Frances Mensah Williams

Talisha ‘Tee Cee’ Johnson

Melissa Cummings-Quarry

Natalie Carter

Alex Wheatle

Dapo Adeola

Irenosen Iseghohi-Okojie

Dorothy Koomson is a multi-award-winning, global bestselling author whose novels have been translated into more than 30 languages. Her sixteenth novel, All My Lies are True, is published by Headline on the 9th July.

Editor's note: thanks to Dorothy for letting us publish this open letter, which she originally posted on Twitter here. If you are inspired to write an open letter to the industry of your own on Black Lives Matter or any other topic you feel is important, feel free to submit them to molly.flatt@thebookseller.com.