Changing the story with Hashtag BLAK and The Diverse Book Awards

I am a Black author and publisher in an industry that is dominated by white people. Black Lives Matter is not a hashtag. It is a movement that will carry on until we have seen real change. It is being said time and time again but there is still not enough representation in the publishing industry. It is frustrating to walk into a room and be the only Black person there. It is infuriating being in a meeting and being compared to another Black publisher, as if there are only two of us. It's annoying going into a bookshop and just seeing one Black author; like that represents all of us. 

We are here and our voices deserve to be heard. The #PublishingPaidMe hashtag actually made me feel sick. It never crossed my mind that was even a thing - to pay Black authors less than white authors. I was disgusted. I had to call out several publishers, booksellers, and editors on their silence. They should all feel embarrassed for not speaking up sooner. I love that I am connecting with more Black and Asian women who are speaking out just as much as me. Our voices together will create real change. And on that note, can we stop with BAME and POC? I am Black and I would like to be called Black please. Please stop grouping us into one non-white category. 

This is why my business partner Helen Lewis and I created our publishing house for under-represented voices, Hashtag BLAK, and The Diverse Book Awards. To give a platform to the voices that publishing want to keep quiet. We want to read their work and we want to celebrate them. 

Hashtag BLAK has been open for submissions for almost a year now. When we first announced that we were open for business on July 1st 2019, the love from the book world was incredible. The indies really do the heavy lifting when it comes to pushing diversity but are blocked by the big chains like Waterstones, who cater to the big publishers. We got Arts Council and National Lottery funding to publish our first Hashtag BLAK books and we've had hundreds of submissions from authors who are Black, Asian and Latin American. We do regular callouts on social media and open pitch days. We try to do more than just the standard submission via email process to make it comfortable for those who have never felt comfortable in this industry. We have signed two authors—one YA, one adult—and we are hoping to find one more. I am so excited for them and I hope this imprint continues to find new underrepresented voices because we need it. 

The Diverse Book Awards was launched under our other business, The Author School, which is all about creating events and workshops to help authors get to the next level. Everyone was talking about how many diverse books they suddenly had and it was a case of "okay, let's see it then". There are very few awards for diverse books—why is that? We need to celebrate the diverse books from the UK. I love American books but I do feel like US books, especially the YA authors, are pushed more over here than the UK authors.

We have had entries from the big five, small publishers and self-published authors - and that's how awards should be. It's 2020. We shouldn't be putting all these road blocks in place as to who can enter an award; plus many of the diverse books are self-published. I have read titles from authors I had never heard of before. There are so many books that I can now share with other readers and that's exciting. Our judging panel is diverse and not just in age but in race as well. That was very important, to make sure we had different voices judging. Some publishers couldn't submit this year. Why? They hadn't published any diverse books in 2019. It will be interesting to see the difference in who submits and what is submitted next year. Every year we hope there will be a significant improvement in the quality and quantity of submissions to The Diverse Book Awards.  

Publishing needs to wake up. Culturally, publishing is not a word in the black community. When I told my mum I wanted to be an author she replied with a question along the lines of, what is that? I had to teach myself this entire industry because I couldn't get an internship. I didn't know anyone who worked in publishing. I had to make my own opportunities and open my own doors. Black voices are needed for this industry to grow and not just when we're trending. Invest in us, mentor us, guide us… and pay us fairly!

Abiola Bello is co-founder of Hashtag Press and Hashtag BLAK, The Diverse Book Awards, and The Author School,. She is also author of the award-winning Emily Knight middle-grade series of books. Emily Knight I Am… Becoming is due for release by Hashtag Press on September 17 2020.