The good beginning

I don’t wish to shock you, but this year’s preview of the Frankfurt Book Fair brings with it a whiff of something positive.

According to my colleague Tom Tivnan, who compiles the agent rights lists, the make-up of those authors featured is changing, with more writers from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) or LGBTQ+ backgrounds than ever before. A sign, perhaps, that publishing’s much-heralded diversity push is helping the business fish from a wider and deeper pool of talent.

As Tom says, representation doesn’t guarantee a deal—even at Frankfurt—but it does get these writers in the game. It also tells us something important about the sector: much as we might applaud publishers’ efforts to quickly diversify their lists, there is no overnight solution to a problem that has been decades in the making, and remains endemic to the sector. These seeds take time to grow.

Last week, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education released its "Reflecting Realities" report, its latest survey of ethnic representation in UK kids’ books. The top line is that it found an increase in books featuring a BAME character (from 4% in 2017 to 7% in 2018), but it also warned against box-ticking. The sector, it said, needed to invest in "quality portrayals" of BAME characters.

At this week’s Children’s Conference, keynote speaker Catherine Bell, co-m.d. of Scholastic, called for the trade to "reflect all children" and look at ways to engage with families where books, for whatever reason, are not the norm. "Where is our government-led campaign to show parents of under-fives how important reading together is?" Yet it was Pete Selby, head of books for W H Smith High Street, who set out the challenge bluntly: "The role the high street has to play in supporting a diverse and inclusive publishing programme is not just an obligation but, given the breadth and depth of our reach, a moral imperative... At the moment, we are failing—as retail as well as the publishing industry we are failing."

For all of publishing’s intiatives around inclusivity, if books can’t find their way into customers’ hands then the risk is that the would-be readers of today or tomorrow go elsewhere for the stuff that reflects their lives. Worse, it will feed the insidious—but active—narrative that such books don’t work, are somehow inferior, or that readers for these titles do not exist.

As Selby suggests, the fact that bookshops are based in communities all over the country makes the possible impact of acting broader. It is not without good reason that PRH’s Write Now scheme has sought to take publishing outside London, or that the geographical insularity of the sector has been referenced in reports by both Spread the Word and Arts Council England. In this space last week, I wrote about the trade needing to build its bases more widely; Selby’s talk reminds us that they already exist.

The diversity question has focused on publishers, but it is agents who can provide the good beginning books need, and booksellers who offer the chance of a happy ending. Getting it right at these poles changes the game for everyone.