Does UK Publishing Reflect Diversity?

The UK is amongst the most diverse countries in the world. The 2011 Census found that the ethnic minority population of London was the majority population. White British people accounted for 44.9% of London’s population. So, considering that London is the home of UK Publishing and that the capital’s population, do you think ethnic minorities are well represented in print?
They aren’t. But why is this the case? Why haven’t ethnic minority writers been able to break through or is it a like a Labour MP once told me, that, “well, they don’t have the skills.”

So let me try and delve deeper and find out why the lack of representation is the norm and is likely to remain so despite the appointment of Malorie Blackman as children’s laureate in 2013 (and I will return later to try and answer why I think she was appointed in the first place).

So let’s turn back time, not too far, to a piece of research carried out by Decibel and the Bookseller in 2004 at tax-payers’ expense (that is, paid by the Arts Council). Here’s a quote from a report published by the Arts Council:

In Full Colour was the first-ever survey into cultural diversity in the UK’s publishing industry. The survey, commissioned by decibel and The Bookseller (the publishing trade’s most influential magazine), found that nearly half of people surveyed from the publishing trade feel they are working in a ‘white, middle-class ghetto’ and that employees are ‘drawn from a very small pool of people.’ Source:  

White middle-class ghetto. Colourful.

The reality is that some ethnic minority writers were being published and they were receiving plaudits from all quarters. However, a Guardian article from 2006 nips the adulation in the bud.

Monica Ali and Zadie Smith are in a minority, says survey

The survey, carried out by the Bookseller concluded that:

The report points the finger at publishers who are reluctant to commission books targeted at an ethnic minority group or to tailor books to appeal to a specific audience.

Yet, of course, a publisher responded by stating:

Jason Arthur, editor of Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal’s Tourism (Vintage), commented, “It’s probably a lie to say that what is in an author’s background has no influence. But the first consideration is always the story and how it’s written. “

What a load of hogwash. Or whitewash.

Perhaps, Danuta Keane who worked at Decibel during this period, put it most succinctly:

Publishing is, to coin a phrase, hideously white. That is the harsh conclusion of the first industry-wide survey into cultural diversity. It is also the conclusion of the vast majority of respondents to the decibel survey. (Source)

Hideously white? Not my choice of words, but well, it says it all.

So what happened to Decibel? It ran from December 2004 to October 2008 and its work was continued by the then Diversity in Publishing Network (Dipnet was originally set up in 2004 as well) which itself ran aground in 2012, changing its name to Equality in Publishing (Equip) in response to the changes in the law and the funding regime, or as it puts it so well on its web site:

Dipnet’s projects are now managed at City University London under the new name Equality in Publishing, a change reflecting the wider remit to address the nine protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010. (Source)

So, what did all these Arts Council’s funded projects ultimately achieve?

Well, a short visit to Equip’s Facebook Page or its Twitter URL will reveal that they have not posted anything since May of 2013. Much ado about nothing?

But seriously, what happened to them? I think Malorie Blackman happened to them.

She was pointed Children’s laureate in June 2013. A part of me thinks that the good white folks up and down the country took a collective sigh of relief that their work was done and superwoman Blackman would finally sort things out. Of course she can’t. I believe the choice to select her as Children’s Laureate was calculated, which ultimately will render her more readers, but will it change society? Every little helps. I think children will benefit, but a two year stint really isn’t going to do it. We’d need her to be Laureate for much, much longer for change to have a chance.

I think that despite all the good intentions that the Arts Council and others had and the sterling work of institutions such as Commonword which organises the Black and Asian Writers Conference and which, with Puffin Books and Catherine Pellegrino & Associates, runs the Diversity in Children’s Fiction Prize and also the work carried by Seven Stories and the now defunct France Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award, much was achieved, but not on the scale to bring about change.

I think there are good reasons why it could not happen and would never happen:

  1. Publishers are fundamentally businesses. There bottom line is profit, not quality or diversity. I think some of them are very sincere, such as Puffin, but that sincerity is not shared by all of them. As an aside you may have noticed that the biggest best-sellers of late are all coming from the United States or as a result of fan fiction…
  2. The way organisations such as Commonword work is in stark contrast to mainstream publishers; they serve a particular niche community or communities. Whilst they may aim to find thematic stories that celebrate diversity, mainstream publishers are wary of it and, to quote a publisher, “we’re looking for the next Harry Potter,” which is why the competitions they run cannot succeed despite the high quality material. 
  3. You cannot change a mind set by moving a few pieces, or to put it another way, the publishing industry is too large to tweak
  4. We live in the cult of celebrity. It is hard and getting harder for all writers, not just ethnic minority ones, and writers are making less and less money. Yet, writers in the literary equivalent of the Premiership, are making oodles of cash. The disparity between rich and poor is growing. Monopolies are increasing. Yet, we are all becoming authors in one way or another with the rising tide of social media…it’s going to get tougher, not easier. 
  5. The Equality Act effectively led to the reduction in funding to race related issues and the Conservative party’s nod to the right and cry that “race relations is dead” and the lack of a strong response from the voluntary sector meant that many race-focused organisations were sent to the wall as a result. Or to make a more profound point, any project which is predicated on grant funding is doomed; those who live by grant funding die by it. 

My personal conclusion:

I do not think we needed to tweak anything: ultimately the readers will choose as they always have. Knowing that it is nigh impossible to find an agent and mainstream publisher should be a clear warning to ethnic minority writers. Avoid. What writers must remember is that the coming-of-age of the eBook has changed things and the stigma once attached to self-publishing has diminished. I accept that the quality of self-published fiction is generally poor, but you know, so is the quality of recent published fiction. So, although things may not be as rosy as they could be, I think that it is changing, albeit slowly. 
ZHZ.

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