Publisher catalogues show representation on the rise but patchy

Publisher catalogues show representation on the rise but patchy

Back in 2016, when The Bookseller examined the lists of the UK’s most prolific publishing houses, there were fewer than 100 books published by authors of colour. Five years on, there are over 200 books published this spring alone by British writers of colour, and 400-plus when including writers of colour from around the globe.

Out of a total of 4,017 authors and illustrators featured across 33 catalogues from the UK’s “Big Five” and selected independent presses, 2.5% were Black British, when compared to the overall output. The figure rose to slightly more than 3%, however, when compared just against British writers. The statistics show that while progress has been made in some areas, in other respects representation remains patchy, with some divisions of the bigger publishers showcasing no Black British writers in their catalogues.

The Bookseller’s research was conducted using publisher catalogues and information in the public domain—biographies, interviews, social media. Spring 2021 catalogues of the UK’s “Big Five” (Bloomsbury, Hachette, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan and Penguin Random House) were analysed, as were three of the top independent publishers (Canongate, Faber, Profile). A small number of authors whose ethnicity could not be identified were not included in the study.

According to the last Census, Black/Black British people comprise about 3.3% of the population of England and Wales, though this will likely have risen since that date. The ratio in London, where most trade publishers are based is also much higher (44% of London now consists of Black and ethnic minorities, compared to 28.9% in 2001, according to the Greater London Authority). The publishers with the highest visibility of Black British authors on their catalogues this spring were Canongate (6.8%) and Faber (5%). This was followed by Hachette, HarperCollins and PRH, at 3%. Bloomsbury, Pan Macmillan and Profile were all below 2%.

Analysing the publishers’ catalogues by division, the data showed that some houses were relying on certain imprints to do the heavy lifting. For example, 5.3% of the authors showcased by Hodder & Stoughton, a division of Hachette, were Black British, compared to 1.7% for both John Murray and Quercus. At PRH, 15.5% and 6.7% of the authors featured by Penguin General and Cornerstone respectively were Black British, compared to none from its more commercial divisions Michael Joseph and Transworld. In response, PRH pointed to forthcoming and recently published titles from these divisions, albeit not included in their catalogues, such as More than a Mum by Charlene Allcott and The Book of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka (both Transworld), and Michael Joseph’s One Pot Vegan by Roxy Pope and Ben Pook.

Similarly, The Bookseller found William Collins to have no Black British authors in its spring catalogue, despite sister divisional imprint Fourth Estate having a much higher ratio. In response, HarperCollins said it was publishing US writers Anna Malaika Tubbs, Patricia Williams and Elizabeth Hinton during the season. HC also pointed to the forthcoming publication of British author Malik al Nasir, as well as recent acquisitions of a visual poem of Black Britain by Roger Robinson and Johny Pitts, and a two-book deal with author Aminatta Forna.

A spokesperson said: “HarperCollins is committed to broadening its content and the diversity of its author base. Our publishing divisions have each put in place diversity and inclusion strategies aimed at driving representation in their content. Our talent and audience development manager also works with the divisions to identify and acquire new writing talent. There is more to do, but we have already seen increased diversity in our publishing across many of our lists, and we continue to strive to further increase representation.”

Hachette c.e.o. David Shelley said: “We recognise that we still have a long way to go before our publishing is truly representative of our society and reflects all the readers we hope to reach. We have started to address this in a number of ways as part of our commitment to ‘Changing the Story’ and we pledge to always be transparent about our progress. Last summer, we formed an inclusivity taskforce comprised of senior representatives from around the company to respond to the Black Writers’ Guild and accelerate change in the areas it identified, starting with an audit of our current author base to understand where we are today. We are constantly searching for the talent of tomorrow through our free author development programmes, such as The Future Bookshelf and Grow Your Story. Dialogue Books, our activist imprint led by Sharmaine Lovegrove, continues to amplify under-represented voices and several of our other imprints are offering open submissions, prizes and bursaries to find and support more authors of colour. Our new partnership with Jacaranda will also, hopefully, help amplify the voices of more Black British writers. We have made a start, but we know there’s a long journey ahead.”

The data may add to concerns that publishers’ acquisitions of authors of colour are by and large fronted by authors who have already been recognised 
by the literary establishment, putting in doubt whether publishers are actually committed to an inclusion drive that involves reaching a new audience, or in fact believe that its core, white middle-class audience will not see value in books by writers of colour. The Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing report by Spread the Word and The Bookseller, published in June last year, found that “when it comes to writers of colour, publishers struggle to imagine an audience for such books, or more precisely, audiences beyond the supposed ‘core’ audience”.

Of the four Black British authors published this spring by Profile, two are household names (David Olusoga, Kwame Anthony Appiah), one is of “Great British Bake Off” fame, and the fourth is a YouTuber. The remaining non-British Black authors, of which there were 13, were either part of the literary canon or contemporary award-winners. Hannah Westland, publisher at Profile, said: “Our publishing programme is, and always has been, global in its focus. This does not diminish our desire to improve the representation of Black British authors on our lists, and we are working hard to do this, but this work goes on alongside our commitment to continuing to publish outstanding voices from all over the world.”

Overall, the study found that there were slightly more US Black writers published this spring in the UK than British Black writers.

In a recent gal-dem article, it was highlighted that visibly successful books by Black British authors have been repeated, with inspirational guides and anti-racism tracts regurgitated in a bid to cater to a previously untapped readership. Of the books published by Black British authors in the study, just 27 were by new writers, predominantly non-fiction and self-help books. Eight were fiction débuts.

The Bookseller found two mixed-race studies and several financial advice guides, alongside self-help books and anti-racism texts. Looking across non-fiction as a whole, there are concerns that publishers run the risk of saturating a readership, using words like “Black girl...” to the point of gimmickry, and neutralising important discussions about the intersections of race, while failing to publish writers who can push conversations on social issues forward into new territory.

When asked to respond to The Bookseller’s findings, all the reviewed publishers cited a commitment to company-wide diversity and inclusion initiatives aimed at acquiring new, representative talent. Some directed The Bookseller to forthcoming publications by Black authors not yet included in their catalogues, coming later in the year, or recent acquisitions. Pan Mac, for example, said a full-year audit of its lists showed Black British creatives represented 3.2% of its output.

The big publishers are committed to publishing audited data, but so far only PRH has done so publicly, prior to this piece. In response to this research, PRH said that 5.3% of its commissions for 2020 were from Black British/Black writers, compared with 0.8% in 2019, at least in part due to its accelerated inclusion plan, published last year.

Its c.e.o. Tom Weldon said: “Building a more inclusive and representative publishing industry is going to take time, because many of the issues we need to address are complex, difficult and systemic and are rooted in society’s inequality. That said, I firmly believe that progress has been made within Penguin Random House and across the wider industry, and we see this reflected in our own data both in terms of who we hire and the authors and books we publish. Of course, we still have important work to do to help drive real, long-lasting change and to fulfil our mission of publishing books for everyone, and our commitment to nurturing and publishing Black writers and illustrators is at the heart of that ambition. We acknowledge there is more to be done to improve the diversity of authors published in the more commercial genres, and this is something we are strongly focused on.”

The Publishers Association (PA) plans to release a toolkit for publishers by the end of April, aimed at establishing an industry-wide approach. PA c.e.o. Stephen Lotinga said: “Publishers are looking closely at data collection around the protected characteristics of the authors they publish. There is widespread recognition that this is an important thing to pursue and that an aligned industry-wide approach to collecting this information would be valuable. There are a range of legal, practical and ethical considerations when publishers approach authors to ask for this information. We have been asked to produce guidance for publishers around this area of data collection, which, following a series in-depth interviews with publishers, an independent researcher is in the process of drafting. We plan to release this toolkit to publishers by the end of April and hope that this will prove helpful in informing their work in this area and their pursuit of good quality data and greater transparency.”

Of the 4,017 authors analysed in The Bookseller’s research, 83% were white, and of these around 80% identified as British. The New York Times’ recent op-ed “Just How White is the Publishing Industry?” conducted a similar and longer-reaching analysis; it examined a list of English-language fiction books published in the US between 1950 and 2018, and found that of the 7,124 books for which they were able to identify the author’s ethnicity, 95% of the authors were white.

It appears calls for more diverse authors are on their way to being answered, but only by some—and even then, only partially.