Publishing needs more radical solutions for writers of colour, Saha tells EIBF

Publishing needs more radical solutions for writers of colour, Saha tells EIBF

Publishing needs to move away from the "benign language of diversity" in favour of more "radical" solutions to ensure there is real change for writers and audiences of colour, according to Dr Anamik Saha, the author of the first UK academic study on diversity in trade publishing and fiction. 

Speaking at the event "Rethinking 'Diversity' in Publishing: Lasting Change" hosted by the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Society of Young Publishers Scotland on Thursday (19th August), Saha suggested moving to suggestions of restorative or reparative justice, which would give platforms to writers of colour to tell their own stories, possibly through government funding or policy initiatives. 

"It’s not just about inserting more Black, brown and Asian bodies into the industry, actually how we can transform the industry such that the publishing process affords the same creative freedoms to writers of colour so they can tell the stories that they want to tell in the way that they want to tell them," he said.

The event was chaired by Ellah Wakatama, editor-at-large at Canongate and chair of the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing and looked at actions and initiatives which have been adopted a year on since the publication of Saha's original report. The panel consisted of Margaret Busby CBE, co-founder of publisher Allison & Busby, Crystal Mahey-Morgan, founder of OWN IT!, and Samantha Williams, founder of BookLove, who discussed what needs to be done to ensure these changes are longstanding, sustainable and part of a new structure.

Saha said: "In light of Covid, in light of Black Lives Matter, police brutality, ongoing examples of racial violence enacted against some of the most dispossessed in society, sometimes it might feel like the business of writing, making and selling books can feel a little bit trivial." But, he argued: "If racism is about the dehumanisation of people of colour, of taking away the value of Black, brown and Asian lives, and Covid has shown how dispensable these lives are, one of the powerful things about books and especially trade fiction which was the subject of this report is how they can restore the humanity of people of colour whose lives have been devalued."

In arguing for reparative justice, he said: “As much as I don’t necessarily want to move towards a kind of nationalistic politics that says ‘we need our own media and we need our own presses’, nonetheless, when I think of concrete things that can come out of this report, I am very much interested in what forms of policy are needed in order to support and fund those independent presses and enterprises that I think are actually doing a better job of pulling minoritised racialised audiences into book culture,” he said. 

He argued that “understanding Black, brown and Asian communities have been, certainly in the West, exploited and been on the receiving end of forms of oppression” could be addressed by “giving these communities a platform to tell their own stories and restore their own humanity”.  

“I know for a lot of people that might be difficult to swallow but quite frankly before Black Lives Matter we weren’t talking about defunding the police, and all of a sudden this is on the agenda. A lot of work and campaigning needs to be done around these issues, but I think this will benefit everyone. I think this is good for society.”

Mahey-Morgan said she started OWN IT! “not so much as an inspiration but what felt like a necessity” after working in mainstream publishing for 10 years and being frustrated by the assumptions made by white agents and editors about minoritised communities.  

“It really started to build up in a way. It felt like I couldn’t make the change that I wanted to make within publishing, and the only way it felt that I could actually make real change, and not passive change, but proactive long-lasting change, was to step outside of mainstream publishing and build something alternative," she said. "But in doing that, not to have that as something that’s siloed or ghettoised. To build something that was leading the industry rather than outside the industry, but to do that on our own terms”. 

She added: “Because of who we were we had access to different audiences, we weren’t making the same assumptions that most publishers were making and what we could do was build a business that was year on year growth, commercially viable, but also speaking to audiences that publishing wasn’t, empowering audiences that publishing wasn’t, and that was something that felt like an act of protest, it felt like activism. It wasn’t just about the business of publishing books in a commodity, it was about life”. 

She noted that when, three years in, OWN IT! also launched as an agency, among its first clients were “pioneers” Courttia Newland and Salena Godden. “The fact that in those 20 years they were unable to find an agent that they felt represented their needs and could push their careers where they needed to go says a lot about the industry,” she said.  

Busby said she was “concerned” that when people talk about publishers and booksellers, they still do not usually include her or any of the figures on the panel. “So it’s always a 'them and us' thing. And I think we have to be concerned that we’re not seen as 'them' often enough, and we ourselves are guilty of seeing it that way, as if we have to wait for 'them' to do something for 'us'. We have to try and make sure that the industry doesn’t do us a favour because what we’re arguing for is to make literature for us all better.” 

She argued that a truly diverse publishing industry would make the country’s literature “more relevant, more dynamic, more interesting for everybody involved wherever they come from”, adding: “It’s a business certainly, but it’s also about cultural politics”. 

Examining the cultural importance of diverse publishing, Saha said it was important to think about government policy “in a way that actually takes seriously the symbolic cultural specificity of books”, asking the audience to imagine what it would look like for a company like OWN IT! to receive money from the state because there is a recognition of the cultural value of the books that are produced there.  

“I appreciate efforts that are trying to get more people of colour in these industries, but actually if we really want a radical transformation then actually it’s a much bigger macro question, which takes us into questions of policy and lobbying,” he said.  

But the scrutiny faced by writers and booksellers of colour can be draining and overwhelming. Williams, founder of BookLove, said she was having to face “battles” every day in publishing. “I do it and I love it and I believe in it” she said, but she added that there was a “tension of having to engage in these conversations, sometimes just thinking I don’t want to have these discussions any more, I don’t actually really care — but then I think, 'I’m an activist, I need to have these discussions'”.  

“I just want to sell books, I don’t want to be the diverse bookseller or multicultural bookseller,” she said.  

When questioned about recent rows in the publishing industry, and the use of sensitivity readers, Saha said publishers are “petrified of being cancelled”. He argued that the fact that audiences “can now talk back” to publishers on social media, destroys the notion that ‘all press is good press’ and can make publishers defensive.  

“In our research we found that publishers consider themselves very liberal and open and when that was challenged by people who were calling out whatever forms of privilege they had, this provoked a very defensive reaction,” he said. 

Mahey-Morgan said she worried that sensitivity readers can be used to “offload the burden” from the publisher. “I think so much of the problem of what’s wrong with the industry not changing is it’s always offloading responsibility and burden on to somebody else,” she said. 

“That said, of course, you don’t have staff in-house, which in itself is a problem — maybe you need to start looking at symptoms and start thinking about causes for things. If you literally don’t have staff in-house who have any understanding of what an author is writing about or what an author might perceive, that’s a problem and you need to find a way to address it.  

“When books are published they go through so many different people, commissioning editors, copy-editors, proof-readers, marketing people, publicity people. If there’s only one person that can pick up on the fact that something is problematic, and that’s a sensitivity reader that’s not paid very much, then a huge burden is put on them. I’m not saying that there’s no space for [sensitivity readers] but I think how they are used and why they are used, are the things we need to be asking and need to look at.” 

Busby agreed, adding: “Publishing companies themselves need to have internal change before you get to any external criticism of what is being published.” 

Looking ahead, the panelists said they were frustrated by reports needing to be written every few years “because nothing really changes”, but noted some grounds for cautious optimism. Mahey-Morgan said she was inspired by communities taking the initiative and building movements and networks inspired by pioneers such as Busby and Wakatama, while Busby concluded: "Let's all learn from each other and may the younger generation build on the lessons from the past."