Hiring more employees of colour and seeing stories with BAME characters as normal, not niche, are just some ideas suggested by the book industry following a damning report which revealed that only 4% of all the children’s books published in the UK last year featured a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) character.
The study, carried out by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) and funded by Arts Council England, found that of the 9,115 children’s books published in the UK in 2017, only 391 – 4% - featured a BAME character. Only 1% of children’s books had a BAME main character and a quarter of the books (99 in total) with a BAME character at all only featured them in the background.
Wei Ming Kam, the digital marketing and data executive for Oberon Books, and the co-founder of BAME In Publishing, said publishers needed to hire more people of colour all all levels and asked for “more people of colour behind the scenes and at decision making level, not just entry-level”. She added: “Don’t hire those assistants and then think your job is done.”
Little Tiger Group publisher Tom Truong said publishers needed to “try new things” to create true diversity and inclusivity, referencing his company’s recent call-out for for illustrators from under-represented backgrounds for a new pre-school series, while Aimée Felone, co-founder of Knights Of, said the industry still saw BAME characters as a “risk”.
“Until there is a culture within publishing and retail that sees BAME stories and characters as normal, these figures will unfortunately continue to stay disturbingly low,” she said.
Karen Ball, founder of Speckled Pen Publishing Services, said more time needed to be spent on editing and not just acquiring “highly polished manuscripts flying in off the back of MA courses”.
“I believe one of the answers is collaborative editing,” she said. “Proactively seeking out new talent - and that means getting out of buildings. Considering authors who are rough diamonds and helping them hone their manuscripts. Taking the brave decision to commission off partial submissions. Working with long lead times that allow for extensive editing. Publishers giving their editors time to edit.
“As editors we are used to seeing finely honed text that has gone through rigorous redrafts. When was the last time an in-house editor read a raw draft of a novel? That needs to start happening.”
For author London Shah, publishing a wide range of stories featuring characters of colour is vital, too. “We need all kinds of narratives, just as there are for white children, both more serious and issue-driven, and lighter, more escapist stories that show children of colour having adventures and falling in love and being regular kids.”
Anna McQuinn, founder and publisher at Alanna Books, dismissed the suggestion that diverse and inclusive books don’t sell, saying: “We published Lulu Gets a Cat in hardback last year and it was so successful we had to do two small reprints and delay our paperback until later this year. Cats Protection have chosen it as their core book for outreach to schools. Their education workers ordered 400 copies and are taking them into schools to read to all the children. They didn’t choose the book to discuss diversity or tolerance but to talk about the right way to go about adopting a cat.”
Author Robin Stevens added: “I began to write about characters from a range of backgrounds because that reflected what I knew growing up, but since I began to be published I have seen what BAME characters like Hazel and George mean to readers who share their backgrounds, and that has pushed me to make my books far more diverse. Representation matters in a very deep way.”
Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said he welcomed the CLPE study but pointed out that the figures are “sobering”.
“We know that publishers will be looking at the results and recommendations very closely. While publishers are genuinely working to try and address representation in their books and there is a real will for change, these figures show that there is still a huge amount of work to be done.
“Diversity in books is closely linked to diversity within the publishing workforce. Many publishers are making significant efforts to make their workforces more representative and, in time, it is likely that these efforts will also help in terms of the diversity of books that are published.”