A whiter shade beyond the pale

The most recent booklists for World Book Day and World Book Night fail, between them, to muster a single non-white author. Additionally - a scandal not picked up on by the media anywhere - the latest Richard & Judy list is all-white for the seventh round in a row: a BAME author hasn't featured since Khaled Hosseini in 2012.

This is not a statistical blip: this is bias. And Danuta Kean's research last year confirmed what seems obvious to many of us, that the book trade remains riddled with it, totally failing to reflect the make-up of Britain today.

In August, I saw Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speak about Half of a Yellow Sun at the Royal Festival Hall. The audience, which filled the 2500-seat main auditorium, displayed more enthusiasm than I've ever seen at a literary event. It appeared to me that at least half were black, disproving the ludicrously prevalent notion that there's no market for BAME writers or, indeed, the dangerously backward assumption that a BAME readership barely exists.

It also made me think that perhaps white middle-class men, people like me, should by now only expect publication if we have something worth saying, something that hasn't been served up countless times before. Otherwise, we're taking the slot of a genuinely new voice. And this applies to other neglected groups just as much: working class, LGBT, disabled. (No one's to be let off the hook about women just yet either.)

I've heard too many accounts of books with BAME protagonists rejected for being insufficiently relatable, too challenging to conventional tastes. We trap ourselves in the vicious cycle of the tried-and-tested, reinforcing the almost universally white experience that the world of books has long presented. If white readers can cope with immersing themselves in the customs and language of a school for wizards, they'll have no problem with exploring life as an Indian, a Somali or an Iranian, in Britain or anywhere else.

The few BAME voices permitted are so rarely those reviewed, displayed or advertised. We are underselling to these markets and, further, there are still communities that never see their experiences reflected in books at all and this total absence can be a major deterrent to reading, especially for children.

Individuals regularly wring their hands, on social media and in the occasional article, about this pitiful state of affairs. But major retailers don't speak out, big publishers don't make a stand,  leading agencies don't take action. There's the occasional cosmetic initiative, but we still just sit back and expect non-white writers to overcome multiple custodial barriers - standards that evidently don't apply to innumerable mediocre but well-placed white writers - and then blame a prior link in the chain when they don't make it into print. There's a constant refrain that the problem lies with someone else.

More worryingly, there is an element that refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem.

One high-profile editor recently suggested on Twitter that "it doesn't seem very likely to me that a group of very smart, intellectually curious and well educated people (who could all be earning a lot more money in other industries but don¹t because they love books) are in fact racist". Yet his publisher will feature just one black author among the 32 trade hardbacks it's publishing in 2016. Given that the 2011 census suggests 14% of the UK population is non-white, this 3% demonstrates unconscious bias - the idea that we white, middle-class, Guardian-reading publishing types in a media bubble notice when we read or publish a book by a BAME writer but don't register the whiteness of almost every other author. It would help if we had a considerably more diverse workforce.

So how many more seminars on diversity do we need? How many more times does Nikesh Shukla have to point out, as he does in The Good Immigrant, that when it comes to diversity "White people debate it. We live it"?

Quotas may be controversial, but they would offer a concrete solution. I'd like to see both publishers and retailers commit to fair representation, with aims declared and figures reported, because, so far, the book trade hasn't had the courage of its oft-repeated convictions.

Jonathan Ruppin is literary director of Orson & Co and founder of the English PEN Translated Literature Book Club.