Authors of colour & the British publishing industry

Alright guys, this is an essay I wrote for school, hope you like it.

When I was seven, I read the Malory Towers series, by Enid Blyton. When I was nine, I read the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. When I was 12, I read Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo. What do all these books have in common? For one thing, they all had huge impacts on me and my reading journey.

For another, they are all by white writers, with white protagonists.[1]

I am (haha you lot aren’t getting my age) now, and the first book I ever read by a South-Asian author- someone of my ethnicity- was less than a year ago.

This may seem like a trivial issue, but the lack of published authors of colour has a wide impact. Books are a way for us to enlighten and educate ourselves, and we all deserve to see ourselves reflected in the books we read- just as we deserve to see ourselves in all the other media we consume. Books are what help us believe that we can achieve anything, but if all we see are white characters by white authors, the reader’s imagination is limited about what they could be. As the BookTrust’s 2019 Diversity report puts it, “Children’s books can act as mirrors, to reflect the readers’ own lives, but also as windows so readers can learn about, understand and appreciate the lives of others.”

According to a survey by the New York Times in 2020, of 7124 books where the author’s race could be identified, 95% of the books were written by white people (So & Wezerek, 2020). In a market where they are a minority, authors of colour struggle to be heard, with only two authors of colour having ever won the Carnegie Medal, Elizabeth Acevedo and Jason Reynolds, both in recent years (2019 and 2021). In late 2020, children were more likely to encounter an animal or an inanimate object than a person of colour as a main character (Flood, 2020).

This question has to be considered in two separate parts. The first half of the question regards how the publishing industry treats authors of colour differently. To understand this, I am going to take a look at an author of colour and how the publishing industry has treated them.

Malorie Blackman is a Black British author, well renowned for her bestselling series, Noughts and Crosses (2001). Noughts and Crosses grew even more famous after the BBC adapted it into a television series in 2020. It has also been adapted for the stage, and is studied at Drama GCSE. According to Penguin Random House (a multinational conglomerate publishing house), Noughts and Crosses sold 1.7 million copies in Britain and in exports (Eyre, 2018)

Noughts and Crosses is a dystopian novel set in a world where Black people are more important than white people. It follows Callum (a Nought- white person) and Sephy (a Cross- the Black ruling elite), two childhood friends who have fallen in love. One of the main themes in the novel is racism.

The question I pose now is how was Malorie Blackman (and her novel) treated by the publishing industry as an author of colour?

The first thing I have to consider is the content of Blackman’s novel. Noughts and Crosses is a novel about racism and what it’s like being an ethnic minority in Britain. This is content about an issue that is facing people of colour- particularly Black people- all over Britain. While Noughts and Crosses was (in my opinion) an incredible novel, it is entirely possible that its content was a selling point for publishers to use. Authors of colour seem to have more books published about ‘POC [person of colour] issues’- which generally means racism. Authors of colour feel this so frequently that a prize was set up. The Jhalak prize was set up in Britain in 2017 to recognise “[authors] who feel that their work is often marginalised unless it fulfils a romantic fetishization of their cultural heritage”. This shows that publishers want prefer the writing of an author of colour, when it is about the experiences of being a person of colour. Books by authors of colour that are simply romance or fantasy novels, where race and racism aren’t the main subject of the book, are pushed to the side. As the 2015 Writing The Future report puts it, ‘writers find that they are advised by agents and editors to make their manuscripts marketable in this country by upping the sari count, dealing with gang culture or some other image that conforms to White preconceptions.’

The second part of the question regards why the British publishing industry treats authors of colour in this manner. Logically, it doesn’t make sense, especially after you consider how many publishing houses have been trying to reach out to more ‘diverse communities’, but it is still happening and there is still a reason behind it. First of all, 87% of people working in the British publishing industry were white in 2020 (Publishers Association, 2021). This means that authors of colour are immediately walking into an industry that may have preconceived notions about their heritage. These preconceived notions mean that authors of colour may feel pressured into delivering the ‘single story’ that is often expected of them as people of colour. While publishers may feel that they are doing a good job by publishing books by authors of colour, about issues that primarily affect authors of colour, they are doing more harm than good. While it’s great that they are publishing authors of colour, by almost exclusively publishing books about ‘POC issues’ they are further perpetuating and reinforcing stereotypes rather than breaking them down. This also often results in publishers capitalising on an author’s culture and heritage, in order to appear ‘woke’, but doing this means that they are only listening to the singular narrative that they want to hear from authors of colour and not listening to their voices.

Furthermore, publishers often see these books as ‘too niche’ to do well, as they are worried that in a country with a white population of nearly 80% (UK Goverment, 2020), less people will be interested in the books by an author of colour, and so they are less willing to spend money and other resources on them.

So, to take the question head on, how and why does the British publishing industry treat authors of colour differently? The first part of the question is easy to answer. Authors of colour are treated differently in the way their books are approached. Books regarding racism and other issues associated with being a person of colour (or a particular race) are seen as more viable to publishers. Another way the British publishing industry treats authors of colour differently is they capitalise on authors’ race, and use it as a marketing point rather than the book itself. The second part of the question is a little more difficult to answer. This could be for a number of reasons. For one, preconceived ideas about an author’s race in a predominantly white industry, a one-track mindset focused only on the stereotypical ideas of a race. For another, there are other preconceived notions, but less about the author- that the books aren’t ‘relatable’ or widely appealing enough to the public- especially in Britain and other white majority countries. Between the way they are treated, and the lack of representation this causes, writing doesn’t seem a feasible career for authors of colour and so there are less authors of colour published, and thus the cycle repeats once more and we get nowhere.

If we were to change how publishing treated authors of colour, if we were to diversify the industry and challenge the racial stereotypes in peoples’ minds, maybe kids like my little brother won’t have the same experience that I did. Authors of colour will have it easier getting their books out there.

Perhaps all kids will be able to see themselves in the books they read.


[1] In the Netflix adaptation Alina Starkov was portrayed as biracial, but in the books she was not.

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