I recently read an article in the Guardian newspaper where they featured Yaa Gyasi, an American– Ghanaian author who wrote the book, Homegoing. She was expressing her experiences of being a Black author.
She stated that Homegoing climbing back on the New York Times Best Seller list, after the murder of George Floyd and so many African-Americans, was bittersweet; she is making a living from the pain of the past. She felt the questions asked of Black authors when they are being interviewed, compared to their White counterparts, is totally different. The latter get asked about the ‘craft of their writing’, whereas Black authors feel their work is treated like some kind of medicine.
She also stated: “We shouldn’t be back here again” and “When it seems like all is changing for some, it is not.”
After all the Black Lives Matter and anti-racism protests, has the publishing industry taken heed and changed the way it operates, to being a more welcoming platform for Black professionals?
Looking back on my own experiences, I am pleased to say there have been some positive changes. Publishers are more receptive about receiving manuscripts from Black authors, and are open to the main characters being Black, Brown or from another ethnic group.
In the past, when I would submit manuscripts on behalf of my clients, editors would tell me they have no ‘commercial value’. The underlying tone was that books by Black authors don’t really sell, and people won’t understand the characters or buy the books. We know this is a myth.
Unless a Black author was a celebrity or an already established writer, new authors would not get a chance – even if they had a brilliant manuscript. This is why many authors took to self-publishing, because of the frustration they had with being overlooked, and some have been very successful at it.
Now editors are a lot more accepting, willing to review material, provide contracts, are a lot less dismissive, and are pleasant to communicate with.
Another major positive change is publishers have been advertising internships – particularly for those in underrepresented groups. Publishers are talking with groups, like the Black Writers Guild, to find out what they can do to improve going forward, to make the industry a better platform for Black professionals.
There definitely needs to be improvement in terms of management and editors within publishing houses – especially the major ones – as there is not enough cultural diversity behind the scenes, especially now there is a call for writers from different ethnic groups.
Also, the statistics for the amount of new Black authors being published is still low in the UK. Some publishers continue to see investing in Black authors or other ethnic groups as a risk, even though there clearly is a need for more books that represent different cultural backgrounds. Publishers need to stick to their commitment to ensure they publish a certain amount of books from ethnic writers, and do more – not just front of stage, but also behind the scenes.
We still need to do our part
Some writers are sceptical about the changes, because there has been a lack of trust and division between Black writers and publishers. Some believe this is just too good to be true, and can miss out on opportunities. Writers need to see this as a great opportunity to get their work out there.
Though publishers are accepting more underrepresented authors, writers need to remember they are a business, and books still need to sell. Therefore, writing about oppression, slavery, and racism – though they can be accepted – is not always of commercial value. We also need positive representations of our culture, and not always write about the oppression.
When there are applications available for an internship position, publishers still do not get enough applicants from ethnic groups. This is a chance to learn about the industry, and to put views across that publishers may not even be aware of.
In conclusion, yes, there is still much to be done, but there have been positive changes, as people are no longer willing to be silent. We need to start seeing each other as people; we all exist for a reason on God’s planet Earth, and all have a part to play make the world a better and fairer place.
Written By: by Vanessa Grossett