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Authors called David more likely to be on bestseller lists than BAME writers
The Bookseller magazine has published analysis finding a ‘shockingly low’ number of BAME authors in the UK top 500 titles of the year
'A writer has more chance of making it into the bestseller charts if their name is David than if they are from an ethnic minority, according to new analysis from The Bookseller magazine which found a “shockingly low” number of books by British BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic) authors in the top 500 titles of the year to date.
Looking at last week’s book charts, the magazine found one book by a person of colour in the official UK top 50 – American author Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which had just won the Man Booker prize. The first title by a British writer of colour, Matthew Syed’s look at the secrets of success, Black Box Thinking, was in 368th place.
But The Bookseller, which focused on diversity in publishing in the UK in its latest issue, found that last week was “not a one-off”. When it considered the top 100 bestselling titles for the year to date, there was just one British BAME author in the list – Kazuo Ishiguro with his novel The Buried Giant, which had sold just over 100,000 copies to make 59th place. By contrast, the list of 100 titles, The Bookseller pointed out, featured 11 books by authors called David. The next UK BAME author was Dorothy Koomson, in 156th place with the commercial novel That Girl from Nowhere, with Syed’s Black Box Thinking the third and final author in the top 300, in 169th place with sales of just over 57,000 copies.
“Of the top 500 titles for 2016, 343 were written by UK authors, of which 1.7% were penned by BAME Brits. That drops to 1.2% when extrapolated to the top 500. Considering the BAME population of England and Wales is around 15%, this is shockingly low,” writes the Bookseller’s charts editor Kiera O’Brien, pointing in comparison to America, which has 30 American BAME-authored titles in its top 500, and 19 in its top 300, equivalent to 6% of the list. Advertisement
Despite the low numbers – three UK BAME authors in the top 300, and six in the top 500 – 2016’s charts to date are actually more diverse than in previous years, The Bookseller found. Last year, the bestselling BAME-authored title was The Art of Eating Well by Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley, in 195th place, following by Laline Paull’s novel The Bees, in 315th. In 2014, it was Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More in 221st, followed by Koomson’s The Flavours of Love in 606th.
“There is an acknowledgement that the UK publishing industry isn’t publishing a representative number of BAME British writers and we wanted to look at the actual figures. We felt it was important to make the distinction that we were looking specifically for British writers, because it’s one thing to publish writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay, and another to nurture British talent from ethnic minorities,” said The Bookseller’s Sarah Shaffi, who edited the issue.
“While publishing is doing lots to improve diversity, we wanted to know where it stood when it came to how many British BAME authors are published each year; the time was right to really talk about the situation as it is.”
The Bookseller also published a series of essays by BAME employees in publishing this week, commissioned by HarperCollins non-fiction publisher Natalie Jerome, who called in her own piece for more editors from BAME backgrounds to be hired. “Quite frankly, it’s the fastest, most effective way we’ll tackle the overwhelming lack of diversity and the fact that the content we produce doesn’t always reflect the society in which we live today. It’s not rocket science. If the decision-makers are not diverse, nor will our books be,” wrote Jerome.
Kwaku Osei-Afrifa, executive PA at Titan Entertainment Group, wrote of how “progress is slow, but it’s happening” in his essay. “There’s a double-edged sword to this; one I’ve not felt more keenly than when I was invited to speak on a diversity in publishing panel and the chair – someone I know – mispronounced my name. (There are people in my current workplace who continue to say my name incorrectly, despite hearing it the right way for six months.) My solace was my participation in the event,” wrote Osei-Afrifa. “But too often these panels talk about us, not to us. This is a wall that shows no signs of coming down, when even on panels about minorities, we are the minority.”
Last year’s Writing the Future report from Spread the Word found that 8% of publishers’ work forces self-identified as coming from BAME backgrounds, according to estimates from publishers.
“Twelve years ago [after publication of a previous report into the issue, In Full Colour] there were all these initiatives to bring in people of colour, but they were all very much at base level. When I did the report last year, those people are the ones who should have been on the boards, and they just weren’t there,” said the report author, Danuta Kean. “I think there’s been a disconnect between the intentions of publishers and their practice, and it’s down to this whole issue of unconscious bias.”
“I think the industry has moved on from talking about diversity, and from endless panels on the subject, to actually doing something about it,” said Shaffi, pointing to initiatives including the Blake Friedmann literary agency’s new “open doors project”, launched in memory of the late agent and intending to encourage applicants from diverse backgrounds. Penguin Random House also recently launched the WriteNow project, looking for work from diverse new writers.
Although The Bookseller found that “of the thousands of titles published in 2016 in the UK, only a small minority – fewer than 100 – were by British authors of a non-white background”, Shaffi predicted this could be set to change next year, saying she was looking forward to titles including Nadiya Hussain’s first novel; Slay in Your Lane by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinene, described as a guide to life for a generation of black British women; ; Diversify by June Sarpong, an “intelligent and empowering” polemic about the limitations created by social division; and The Young Magicians and the Thieves Almanac by Nick Mohammed, a middle-grade mystery-adventure.
“Change is slow, but it is there, and hopefully we will not be having these discussions in 10 years’ time,” Shaffi said.
Meanwhile, Kean had her eye on a particular indicator of equality: “We’ll know things have really changed next year if black and Asian authors are not just publishing literary fiction, but also in the big commercial genres,” she said.' - ENDIT