Black History Month UK: An interview with Abiola Bello and Helen Lewis

To mark Black History Month in October here in the UK, we chatted to publishing and entrepreneur extraordinaries Abiola Bello and Helen Lewis, founders of Hashtag Press, imprint Hashtag BlakThe Diverse Book Awards and The Author School.

Abiola and Helen combine their talents to publish and nurture new and own voices 356 days a year. Their series of activities and initiatives planned for Black History Month 2020 celebrate Black experience and excellence, and act as a call to action for the rest of the industry to authentically keep the momentum going outside of the month.


What are your plans for marking Black History Month?

The 34th Black History Month in the UK celebrates the culture, history and achievements of Black communities throughout October. In 2020, more than ever, this month is needed. The team behind Hashtag BLAK, Hashtag Press, The Author School and The Diverse Book Awards have put together a package of events, competitions and celebrations throughout October 2020 with the aim of raising up Black authors, showcasing the incredible books published by Black British writers in particular in recent years, but also to challenge racism in publishing. Activities include:

An open letter to publishing: This open letter is an honest and transparent perspective of what it means to be a Black British author in the UK today. It includes practical steps that must be taken to move the industry forward. Every year we expect to see improvement in terms of diversity and inclusivity, but there is way more talk than action. Not enough is being done to address the elitism, racism, lack of representation and archaic publishing models that are closed down to many hugely talented writers. https://www.hashtagblak.co.uk/an-open-letter-to-publishing-divers

A competition for school children: All school children (under 10s and over 10s) are invited to work at home or at school on a 150-200 word review of their favourite book by a Black author OR submit a piece of writing answering this question: “Who is your favourite Black author and why?”. The closing date for the competition is November 1st 2020 and the winner in each age category will receive a bundle of brilliant books by Black authors! The competition is only open to UK entries. Entries should be sent to helenlewis@theauthorschool.com.

More than a Hashtag: The video (watch at the top of this post!) has gone live across social media to highlight that Black Lives Matter, that Black experiences are more than just a fad, and Black History Month is more than just a hashtag.

#OwnVoices Panel Discussion: On 15th October at 7pm, Helen & Abiola will host a FREE #OwnVoices discussion, chaired by Luisa Martinez-Negret, which will be streamed via Zoom. RSVP https://ownvoicespaneldiscussion.eventbrite.co.uk

Nigerian Independence Day celebration: On 1st October, Abiola Bello and Hashtag BLAK author, Nuzo Onoh, shared articles to celebrate their Nigerian heritage.

Meet the authors: A series of ‘7-question’ interviews will be shared at www.theauthorschool.com throughout Black History Month including the amazing female writers who will be the first to see their books released by diverse and inclusive imprint Hashtag BLAK in 2021. Black British authors interested in participating are welcome to contact helenlewis@literallypr.com to be sent the 7 questions.

The Diverse Book Awards WINNERS announcement: The winners of the children’s, adult and YA Diverse Book Award of 2020 will be announced at an online video premier on 22nd October at 7pm. The shortlist will be announced on 30th September 2020. For more information: www.thediversebookawards.co.uk.

Black History Month book bundle: A book bundle will be available on the Hashtag Press shop: www.hashtagpress.co.uk/shop in honour of Black History Month throughout October.

We can’t wait to attend The Diverse Book Awards this month! What impact will the awards have on the wider industry?

Helen: We hope it will have a dramatic impact on publishing as it encourages UK publishers of all shapes and sizes, plus authors (from self-published to hybrid to traditionally published) to consider whether they have written a diverse and inclusive book. We hope it will encourage publishers to look at their 2020 titles and consider which books could be submitted for the 2021 awards from January. If they’re scraping the barrel to find books to enter, that speaks volumes! We also hope it has a positive impact – as it seems to have had already – as a reading list across YA, children’s and Adult fiction that can inspire purchasing decisions by readers, parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers etc.  It’s a celebration of the amazing, high-quality, diverse and inclusive books published in this country.

Abiola: I hope it makes writers from an underrepresented background feel like they’re being celebrated and that we’ve given them another platform to showcase their books. There is a lot of talk about diversity but not much that really authentically celebrates it, and as a Black writer that is very important to me. I hope schools will be filled with books from our list and young people will be able to see themselves reflected.

What should the publishing industry take forward from the open letter from Black authors published by Hashtag?

Helen: We want it to encourage discussion and action on the subjects of diversity and inclusion, racism and elitism, own voices and cultural appropriation. We believe that now is the time for more action… and the publishing industry has a lot it can and should be doing today, tomorrow and in the future. We need to learn from the past and make changes for the future. 

Abiola: The open letter is really our authentic thoughts and opinions from writers at all different stages in our careers. It’s kind of crazy that someone who hasn’t even released a book yet can see how we’re represented in this industry. I want people in the publishing to look at their teams and have a honest conversation with them and truly understand where we’re coming from. There is no point hiring ethnic people to be more diverse when everything else around is hasn’t changed to make us feel more included. 

What have you seen being done well in the industry in terms of equity and inclusion that might help others in publishing take tangible action?

Helen: There has been a lot of positive talk, which is a great start, but it needs to move forward into action. The number of neurodiverse books/writers coming out in 2020 has been positive. We’ve seen a lot more coverage in the media for writers with disabilities.  A lot more can still be done of course. The #PublishingPaidMe debate in the summer highlighted some of the major discrepancies in publishing on a shocking level – but the fact some household name authors chose to be involved in this debate (while so many hid away) shows that equality and inclusion is being taken seriously by some working in publishing. 

Abiola: I have seen more agents and editors actively signing more underrepresented voices. Also more books especially from Black writers have been pushed more across social media. One thing that stood out are awards are now writing ‘we want to encourage diverse voices.’ I just think it’s funny because it’s like, did you not want our voices before? It shouldn’t take a hashtag for us to be seen. 

Do you have any advice for people in the industry looking to start their own initiatives or organisations to make publishing more equitable and accessible?

Helen: Be honest and true and authentic. Genuine rather than commercial intentions shine through.

Abiola: I would say think about why you’re doing it or what’s missing that you can fulfil. The reason The Diverse Book Awards came about was because there were no awards that celebrated diversity for children’s, YA and Adult UK authors at the time.

Can you share any exciting plans you have for the rest of the year and into 2021?

Helen: We are very excited about launching our first three Hashtag BLAK books next year, starting with Being Amani by Annabelle Steele (YA Fiction) on World Book Day, then A Dance for the Dead by Nuzo Onoh (African Fantasy) in April and Ten Steps To Us by Attiya Khan (YA) in May 2021.

Abiola: We have some great books under Hashtag Press such as Hijab and Red Lipstick by Yousra Imran (YA Fiction) out November 5th, our first celebrity memoir Silver Linings by Jess Impiazzi out November 26th and the follow-up to our bestselling book (A Girl Behind Dark Glasses) A Girl In One Room by Jessica Taylor-Bearman is out in 2021 (YA Non-Fiction). Under The Author School, we will planning more online panels, expanding our online courses and making The Diverse Book Awards even bigger and better!