Some questions are too important to go unanswered, and Nikesh Shukla’s recent blog piece ‘Where are World Book Night 2016’s BAME writers?’ raises one that we at World Book Night have been struggling with for some time. While there are no simple answers, I can offer some experiences from my own work and hopefully a contribution to what is a vital debate.
Nikesh is right, and his article is a great summation of some of the exasperating problems we are facing as an industry as well as the positive things that are already happening. As Nikesh says, the World Book Night 2016 list offers a range of titles to inspire new readers, and we are delighted to be able to share so many brilliant books with those who won’t yet have encountered them.
It is a great shame, and with huge regret, though, that we weren’t able to include any works by BAME authors this year. I was dismayed, though not surprised by the findings of Spread the Word’s scathingly spot-on report which lamented the whiteness of the current publishing landscape, and am frustrated that World Book Night 2016 is unable to do more to help improve the picture.
World Book Night is an extraordinary industry initiative achieved through a wide coalition of authors, publishers, printers, distributors and other partners - not least the volunteer givers. However, like all charitable initiatives the funding model and submissions process which underpins it also shapes its delivery. The curation of the final books is not simply a question of choosing freely from publishers’ lists; publishers submit titles for the list and financially support the printing of the titles selected and the programme overall. Participation in the programme represents a significant monetary commitment for all of them, particularly for the smaller presses we’ve been delighted to welcome on board over the last few years. They all think very carefully about which books to suggest in the context of our drive to reach people who do not normally read for pleasure and WBN would not exist at all without the generous backing they provide. Each year we strive to strike a balance across the list. This year, despite our best efforts we have not been successful in respect of BAME writers.
Aziz Ansari, responding recently to criticism surrounding his show ‘Master of None’, where his character Dev has dated only white women in the first few episodes, said: "So cool people talking about this kind of stuff and having all the conversations about race […] Bottom line – if we did a hundred episodes, we definitely wouldn’t have Dev date a hundred white women a la Jerry Seinfeld in the hit television comedy Seinfeld." I hope he’ll forgive me for transplanting his sentiments to this particular debate. We will use this year’s experience and feedback to build support to help shape World Book Night lists of the future; they should and can be a home to diverse, wonderful and brilliant books by authors from all walks of life. Let’s keep talking and work together to help make this happen.
Rose Goddard is World Book Night project manager.