I first joined the Black Agents and Editors group in February 2021. Having a support system with people from the same ethnic background within the publishing industry is of great value to myself, as I was able to share my experiences without judgement or being made to feel like the ‘odd one out’, when an opinion was shared.
A welcoming network
What intrigued me about the group was the open platform it had to enlighten those who wanted to learn more about the publishing industry via mentorship, also how smooth it was to join the group.
There were no questions like, ‘Why should we accept you’, it was a straightforward easy process, which created friendliness and unity. Yes, we have different roles, work for different companies, but we are there to encourage each other. That is what the aim of the group is, to offer a supportive network system because at times the industry can be isolating, and to provide others with a chance to learn about the industry without going through the long formalities of an application selection process especially for underrepresented groups.
Change is happening – but more is needed
With people from African Caribbean backgrounds openly coming out about oppression, and racism that has been experienced over the years, I do believe the publishing industry has taken note and has become a more welcoming platform.
Publishers like HarperCollins have done submission calls for authors from underrepresented backgrounds for their HQ Digital Submissions under the title Born to Write. Penguin Random House Random has great publicity with their Amplify Black Stories showcasing black authors. Simon and Schuster went on a step further: as well as fantastic promotion by showcasing black writers with books like us, behind the scenes they hired Dana Canedy, who is reportedly the first black person to head a major imprint. This is one of the companies I believe that has taken note in striving to change the way they operate. Internships with publishers are requesting for people from BAME communities, the industry on a whole seems a lot less dismissive and more willing to engage with us, which is very positive.
There are those that are still sceptical. I have spoken to authors who have asked me, ‘How long is this going to last?’, ‘Is the industry going through a trend of commissioning more black authors and once the trend wears off are we going to be back to square one?’ I know writers have felt let down by the industry, and not just writers, even those working behind the scenes. Publishers do need to gain back trust and, I suppose, build bridges. One of the ways to do that is by following through goals that they may have set to make sure there are more diverse books, and authors. Also to have much more diversity within management, editors and marketing, especially in the UK. I must admit I do go to the team’s page on a publisher website to see if there is a great diverse range of ethnic backgrounds especially within the African Caribbean community and not just one or two, also to see if publishers are committing to making a change not just in front of the scenes, and to me this definitely still needs improving. That is why groups like the Black Agents and Editors group is important, it shows that there are those from BAME communities that do work behind the scenes, and there is a great number that are not really shown as much.
This brings me to my next point about the lack of representation with books. I had a mother say to me once, before she buys a book for her daughter she looks through illustrations to see if they have characters that looks like her even if it is just one, and if it doesn’t then she doesn’t buy it. She was getting frustrated in seeing the lack of representation, and it is not just her: there are many others, to the point where they turned away from the mainstream publishers and started their own independent publishing company to put on the market books where their children or themselves are represented, and at times this has proven to be successful. They are thinking about the next generation, therefore books that don’t have multi-cultural ethnic groups at times don’t get read, even if the content is good.
The industry has improved by allowing different ethnic backgrounds to read extracts of books when marketing to gain interest with that specific audience, but that is not enough: when a book is commissioned editors could advise the author that it would be good to have characters from other backgrounds if there are not any in the manuscript, and get them to thoroughly research that culture, and the features of the people from that culture.
Building a gateway
There needs to be a gateway between publishers and readers from African Caribbean backgrounds, just like there is a gateway between publishers and authors. They are the audience buying the books; publishers need to find out what they would like to see more in books, and it may not be just about race: it could also be positive representations, for example black characters in high society and not always being oppressed. At least the publishers will have an idea of what the readers are looking for. Yes, there is a lot to be done, but it is moving in the right direction.
Vanessa Grossett is a Literary Agent at The Authors Care Agency Ltd. She is also a columnist for the multi-award winning and the UK’s leading multi-ethnic gospel publication, Keep The Faith magazine, where she writes about the publishing industry.