One of the things that Black people know to be true is that when we lift up our voices to celebrate our joy, share our pain, or warn of the injustices levelled against our communities, we are often silenced—either by being denied the necessary platforms to elevate our voices, or by wilful ignorance of the establishment.
This lack of engagement rings particularly true in publishing, where for a decade in the UK, fewer than 2% of all children’s book creators were British people of colour. A recent report around the industry workforce by the Publishers Association shows that since 2017 there has been no increase in people of colour joining the industry. Last year, for the first time in history, Black authors Bernardine Evaristo and Reni Eddo-Lodge topped their respective Sunday Times bestseller category charts. While we celebrate these advances, we are alarmed that in 2020 we were still experiencing firsts. Black communities are clear that the victories that follow in the killing of George Floyd are, to echo a recent article on race and readership by Yaa Gyasi in the Guardian, “bittersweet”.
It is for these reasons and many more that we set up the Black Writers’ Guild; to address racial inequalities in publishing, make the industry more inclusive at all levels, and to champion the work of brilliant Black writers. In June of last year, we sent a letter with a list of eight recommendations on how to tackle the lack of Black voices in publishing to Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, HarperCollins, Bonnier, Faber & Faber, Walker Books, Bloomsbury and Macmillan.
We know that a move towards a racially inclusive future in publishing means partnership with the publishing industry. We are at the beginning of this path on the journey and the challenge to change the mindset of a seemingly liberal industry is great. What follows are some of the steps we have taken so far:
1. Publishing partnerships. Following the letter, we are pleased with the ongoing collaboration and inclusive innovation we have had with publishers including Hachette, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Bloomsbury, HarperCollins, Walker Books and Faber & Faber. We have matched their c.e.o.s with members of our guild to co-chair stakeholder groups to help meet the objectives outlined in our open letter, particularly issues of representation, pay, recruitment and audience.
2. Membership drive. We have also been actively engaging our membership and building our guild. We’ve recently incorporated as a community interest company, solidifying our guild as a permanent entity that is here to make purposeful change. Our membership has grown vastly and now includes most Black British writers, established and emerging. As a collective, we felt the urgent need to stand up for anti-racism writers with an open letter to media publications when equalities minister Kemi Badenoch made inflammatory and false statements about them.
3. Creating opportunities for Black writers. We embarked on our first collaboration with the Sunday Times to launch a new competition for aspiring Black fashion and beauty journalists, which was won by Ranyechi Udemezue.
This is only the beginning. It is vital that this association with the publishing industry continues; while books can be a gateway to worlds of fantastic imagination, they can also be a reflection of how we see and understand the real world. The problem with the absence of Black voices in publishing is that it limits the ability to find the stories that best capture the nuances of our lived experience and reflect the sensibilities within them. This also exacerbates the problem of failure to identify new, creative, expert Black voices who write about issues other than race. We look forward to this continued partnership with publishers, we encourage more introspection about the lack of Black voices, and we look forward to opening up our conversations to include more companies and functions across the industry.
And to Black writers, those who are members of our guild and those yet to join, we want you to know that we got you: this is your guild. No matter your background, your breadth of experience or your genre of writing, we will represent and fight for you. Black writers, whatever you want to write about—we got you.
This moment reflects a tipping point in the future of publishing, and the progress the Black Writers’ Guild has made is only the tip of the iceberg. We will continue to push towards an inclusive and racially diverse future, where our stories are being told... on our own terms. We are building on the foundations of activists before us to create something bigger than us, where the impact will be felt long after us. Until then, as Diddy said: can’t stop, won’t stop eh eh, eh eh.
Elijah Lawal, author of The Clapback (Hodder, 2019) is the co-organiser of the Black Writers’ Guild. For more information on the BWG, visit theblackwritersguild.com
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