A few years ago a friend and mentor of mine asked one of the nation’s foremost blue-chip journalists, a broadcaster on a flagship show, why their programme had never had a Black presenter.
The jovial response was that the show was “not a sociological laboratory”. And that brought a polite, if not awkward, end to the conversation. As fate would have it, the show in question has still never had a Black presenter, although it does have other ethnic minority presenters.
When it comes to diversity, often Black people are the driving campaigners but when the call for change is heeded, they’re (we’re) far too often not the beneficiaries. I call this bittersweet concept ‘mascotism’ (not to be entirely mistaken for masochism).
The mascot is synonymous with the team (or cause), flies the flag, campaigns and cheers… but, in a stroke of comedic farce, doesn’t stand a chance in hell of being picked for the team or even getting a glory shot with the trophy. I am yet to consult an actual mascot, but I suspect mascotism leaves a bitter taste. In the realm of diversity it certainly does.
Mascotism is one of several drivers of disparities in diversity and wealth in different ethnic groups. And it is something that came to mind in the aftermath of 25 May 2020, the day George Floyd was gruesomely murdered as the entire world watched.
The shocking nature of this moment created a long overdue worldwide reckoning on racism and, by extension, diversity.
In moments like this and far beyond writers are critical. They help create understanding and convey empathy. They take different people into worlds they don’t inhabit, would never visit and sometimes worlds that only exist in the mind. They elevate the imagination of a nation and push the boundaries of freedom. When George Floyd died we were lucky there were some books people could turn to that spoke to the heart of what had happened. But beyond this it is essential that the apparent will for dismantling racism that this terrible murder created also leads to far-reaching change in terms of the stories that get to be told, who tells those stories and the business behind both.
Though seemingly unique in urgency and sincerity, this was hardly anyone’s first rodeo. We’d all seen how these things play out: high on rhetoric, low on long term substantive change. Take 2019, for example. Despite mass campaigning and rhetoric on diversity, 2019 saw a regression as far as Black writers were concerned compared to 2018. In one of the larger publishers year on year acquisitions of Black writers fell by 70%.
In this moment of reckoning and movement that emerged after George Floyd was murdered, the most important thing for Black writers and publishing professionals was that this had to be the fall of the wall. Mascotism and performative social media allyship (remember the black squares?) or ‘cloutrage’ would not be acceptable. The mood music of change had to result in tangible, sustained and transformative change in the industry.
A year later there has been quite a bit of change.
The Black Writers’ Guild, of which I am a co-founder and organiser, was created (the idea for such an organisation, it should be noted, long predated May 2020). Though much progress has been made BWG is still in the early days of working with the industry to make transformative changes.
Books by anti-racism writers and Black writers in general experienced a massive surge in interest and demand. For the first time in British history a Black British author topped the overall book charts. This further demonstrated the economic, social and political case for such books.
On average, news of an acquisition of a new book by a Black author was announced daily. So the acquisition rates at most publishing houses should make for good viewing this year. Penguin Random House’s acquisition of Black writers increased from 0.8% of all intakes in 2019 to 5.3% in 2020. We will be able to assess the proof (or otherwise) of sustained change from 2024/25 at the earliest.
Publishers became pro-active in approaching Black people with book ideas. A lucky few with interesting stories to tell or life guidance to offer were able to skip the pitching and agent-hunting process and were pitched to instead. Unthinkable not long ago.
At least one Black publishing house (Jacaranda), thus far, has attained mainstream distribution from one of the big houses (Hachette). It is exciting to see how this improves the fortunes of Jacaranda and the hope is that this is replicated wider.
Though the surface of the retail side of the book business is yet to be scratched, there was a significant emphasis on diversity in submissions for the Book Awards (the Nibbies).
With much commendable (though still far from conclusive) change the question now becomes: what has not changed yet? And the answer would be: still a fair share.
Leadership. Data from the UK Publishing Workforce 2020 report (compiled and published by the Publishers Association in February 2021) shows that ethnic diversity remains an issue across the board. From the report: “at an industry level, the survey results show that representation of people from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups has stalled.” It is in senior leadership however where the most work has to be done.
Black writers are still significantly incentivised to write about topics deemed ‘theirs’ and often in a manner that is considered ‘safe’.
The retail side of the business as a whole is yet to really be examined in detail. Nevertheless, despite screams and pleas, the major supermarkets jump off the page as an obvious weak link. They’ve bluntly refused to diversify and as a result their shelves are as inspiring as a vending machine (that hasn’t been restocked in a decade). The re-opening of bookshops was even more welcome as a result.
There is still a massive amount of work to be done, but we can still celebrate the changes that have been made so far.