James: 'publishers must go further to reach diverse groups'

James: 'publishers must go further to reach diverse groups'

Despite winning the £50,000 Man Booker Prize last month and being cast into the international limelight, author Marlon James is adamant he will not let the hype affect his next book.

“It can’t beat the pressure that I put on myself to just write a better book,” he told The Bookseller. “That’s the hardest pressure for me. It’s purely, ‘Am I writing better prose than I was in the last book?’That’s pretty much all I need.”

James’ next title, which he has referred to as “the African Game of Thrones”, is an attempt by the Jamaican author to unearth the “rich playground of history, mystery, science, fantasy and folklore that’s in my own culture”, he said. “Maybe one of the ways out of this continuing debate about being inclusive [and having more diversity in books], is to bring those stories that even I don’t know much about into the forefront [of my books].”

On the topic of diversity in the industry, James said publishers were not going far enough to include different voices or reach different groups with the titles they publish. He also argued that assumptions “that certain ethnic or racial or gender groups don’t read...that women aren’t going to read Metafiction [or] that black readers aren’t going to read a long novel,” for example, needed to be challenged. Yet, he added: “There are huge sections of the population who don’t read because no one is telling the stories that they want to read, or the people who want to tell these stories aren’t exposed enough. I think it’s a problem and it’s something that the industry can do a lot more towards reconciling themselves with.”

His third book, the Man Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, features a plethora of characters, each speaking with a distinctive voice, including a wide variety of black males grappling with ways to express their masculinity. “Masculinity is a Jamaican obsession. We’re always trying to define what that is, and the boundaries are always being pushed back or pushed forward,” James said. “It started as something I was interested in, if for no other reason than to complicate it. Two of the most vicious people in my book are both gay. No big deal, they are vicious gay people. But in the Jamaican context that really challenges the idea of what masculinity is.” He added: “A lot of what we derive masculinity from is from men like these gunmen who have a reputation for killing and being vicious. So I like confounding it, challenging it, but ultimately trying to explore it in its realness and contradictions.”

James also believes it is harder to get books with challenging or violent content published “largely because [publishers] assume that is all there is to the content”, he said. James’ first book, John Crow’s Devil (Oneworld, 2015), a violent novel about good and evil, was rejected nearly 80 times when he first sent it out on submission to publishers in 2002. If he was attempting to publish his début now, even following the rise of self-publishing platforms such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing or Kobo’s Writing Life, James said he would not attempt to self-publish.

"I’m not interested in self-publishing, which is not to knock it, but I think if you’re going to go down the self-publishing route, you’re deciding to be your own editor, your own marketing manager, your own sales rep, your own negotiator with Amazon—but then you become all these things and you stop being a writer,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in that. I do think that publishing is not a one person thing. It hasn’t really ever been. There have been decisions made in all my books that could not have happened without an editor. There are some things I wouldn’t have caught. I think editors are crucial.”

He added: “I also wanted the exposure. I wanted the access to publishers’ resources; I wanted all of that. But I also wanted to just write. I think if you’re self-published, if you’re willing to sign on for all of that, I think that’s great...but I mean, I have a day job.”

James is published by Oneworld in the UK and Akashic and Riverhead in the US. He described the publishing process for A Brief History... as “really smooth”, adding: “I’ve been lucky in that regard, with three publishers that have been very hands on.

"One of the problems with the indie publishers—I don’t know if it’s as big a problem [in the UK] as it has been in the US— while they are committed to ground-breaking fiction, they are not very committed to selling it and marketing it, and just doing some basic stuff to get the word out. So it’s always refreshing—it’s always a relief—when you come across indie publishers who actually want to sell books.”

As for their counterparts in retail, James is adamant that independent bookshops and libraries will be instrumental in introducing people to reading and creating reading habits in the future. He said: “I’m a huge supporter of independent bookshops, here and in the US. Most of my [book] tour was of independent bookshops, because the sort of bookstore- conglomerate approach to selling books doesn’t really work. Even with bigger stores like Waterstones, there is a certain sort of hand-selling and an awareness of the books, which I appreciate.”

He added: “But independent booksellers are going to be the future. All these neighbourhoods are going to end up being underserved, because as much as we shop online, I think we’re going to get to the point where people are going to miss something they never had, which is community and the idea that you can find a community at a bookstore or library. Which is something that I think people are going to discover, and I think that’s why the independent bookstore will always be with us, no matter how hard it gets.”