Diversity is a hot issue in publishing – and rightly so. It’s the central cultural debate of our time. The industry needs and seeks writers from a wide range of backgrounds, particularly those from under-represented communities.
But, unsurprisingly perhaps, it isn’t always easy knowing where to look. Writers from under-represented groups aren’t necessarily hiding, but often they face multiple barriers to entering the mainstream. And many agents and publishers don’t have the resources or the time to nurture and develop new voices, especially those that are traditionally hard to reach.
In the Writing the Future report (2015) authors Danuta Kean and Mel Larsen recommended that agents and editors form strategic alliances with agencies directly connected to under-represented writers. Recommendations included ensuring festival organisers and publicists promote under-represented writers on panels and events about general literary topics rather than diversity-related ones.
Creative Future’s Fair Access to the Arts report (also 2015) researched barriers under-represented writers and artists faced when accessing mainstream arts opportunities. As you might expect, admission costs (29%) and travel costs (25%) were reported as barriers, but, revealingly and crucially, 20% said ‘lack of confidence’ was always an issue.
Reaching out to people on the margins and helping them build belief in themselves is vital. Currently, Kit de Waal is highlighting the lack of published working class voices; confidence and feeling like you don’t fit in/imposter syndrome is common for writers from lower socio-economic backgrounds. So how we engage with people from diverse backgrounds is equally important. It cannot be about just fulfilling a quota; writers need to feel the door is wide open, that they can be themselves, and write about a broad range of topics, just like any other writer.
So how might the industry find and connect with under-represented writers in a truly effective way?
Romalyn Ante at Creative Future's Literary Awards 2017
High profile MA courses that cost thousands of pounds to attend are well trawled by agents for talent, but how about visiting FE courses or writing groups run by the voluntary sector? Understandably, there may be concerns about the quality of work created, but if groups have a professional writer running the workshops (and many do) then the potential to find new talent will be there. 16% of the Creative Future Literary Award winners came via workshops which ran alongside the competition. These sessions inspired new writers to enter the competition – in 2016, 42% of our award winners had never submitted to a writing competition before. Our 2015 Platinum poetry winner Catherine Edmunds went on to be shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. In 2016, Platinum Prose winner, Maeve Clarke, was shortlisted for Penguin Random House's Write Live initiative. 2017 Platinum poetry winner, Romalyn Ante, went on to win the Manchester Poetry Prize.
Literary agencies might connect with arts organisations which already work with under-represented writers: development agencies such as New Writing North and Spread the Word, as well as smaller agencies like ourselves, which specialise in working with under-represented writers.
Hosting pitching sessions or meet-the-agent/publisher events for under-represented groups is another option. A focus on a specific group will increase confidence of the targeted community. It’s hard to show up at an event if you feel like you don’t fit in. Hold events in venues familiar to your target audience. Low confidence and anxiety are often bedfellows; the more comfortable participants feel the more likely you are to get a good attendance. Using social media to connect with social care organisations,(such as charities working with those who are homeless or have mental health issues) and marginalised groups (like the LGBTQ+ and BAME communities) also has the potential to widen the net.
If diversity initiatives are to achieve your aims without patronising audiences or excluding others, it’s important to build relationships with local providers (a writing development agency, a support service, a local arts organisation) and enlist their help in publicising events. If you can’t go back for a few visits, ensure the door of support is kept open by keeping in touch with the local provider and offering opportunities via this network. Building trust is key when working with under-represented groups; opportunities and communication must be consistent and authentic. It’s better to work in one area with one target group consistently than offer one-off activities all over the place.
Remember to manage expectations. More than most, and because they’ve been ignored for too long, under-represented writers want their voices to be heard – everyone wants to be the next JK Rowling. It’s about encouraging and building confidence without offering the earth.
This tips are based on experience, not theory. For over 11 years, Creative Future has worked with thousands of writers on the margins, and at all stages of development. We know what works and what doesn’t, and we can link agents and publishers to potential new authors, too. We even have a free toolkit for how to engage under-represented people.
In an industry where the vast majority have been through university and have parents working in professional sectors, it’s all too easy for a ‘them and us’ attitude to persist. Talented writers come from all backgrounds, all levels of education, all cultures and look as different as there are people on the planet. If the industry is to discover new, diverse voices, we need to seek far and wide, and to effect lasting change, we must nurture and develop these hitherto hidden gems. The future of the industry depends on it.
The Creative Future Literary Awards is a FREE national competition aimed at highlighting the talent of under-represented writers. It opens on 3rd April. Cash and professional development prizes come from our partners; The Literary Consultancy, Penned in the Margins, Penguin Random House Writers’ Academy, JustContent, Jellyfish, and The Poetry School. For more information see our website or sign up to our newsletter here.