OUR OPEN LETTER TO PUBLISHING ON DIVERSITY & INCLUSIVITY FROM THE HASHTAG BLAK/ HASHTAG PRESS BLACK AUTHORS
Dear Publishers, Booksellers, Literary Agents & All Members of Publishing,
Abiola Bello and Helen Lewis, the co-founders of Hashtag Press & Hashtag BLAK have invited their Black authors to contribute to this open letter to publishing with a view to encouraging discussion and action on the subject of diversity and inclusion, racism and elitism, own voices and cultural appropriation.
The publishing world is in a state of flux, as is the rest of the world, as 2020 shapes up to be one of the most challenging and testing years of our generation. Bookshops were forced to close their doors, publishers pushed back publication dates from spring 2020 to spring 2021, authors faced disappointment in terms of sales, book launch parties and marketing plans being drastically changed. Bertram’s went bankrupt. Some small publishing houses didn’t make it through.
The shocking murder of George Floyd on May 25th resulted in Black Lives Matter dominating headlines, protests being held in the streets, while publishers were held to account with social media campaigns including #PublishingPaidMe revealing the disgusting differences in the remuneration of white authors compared to Black and Minority Ethnic Authors.
We believe that it is now time for more action… and the publishing industry has a lot it can and should be doing today, tomorrow and in the future.
ABIOLA BELLO, author of Emily Knight I am...Becoming and co-director of Hashtag Press/Hashtag BLAK
Being a Black author and publisher has its challenges. I work in an industry where there aren’t many people who look like me, or in a position of power. I’ve lost count of the number of panel talks I’ve done and book events I’ve attended where I am the only Black person in the room. Thankfully, I have a platform so I can seek out Black authors and publish their books. As an author I love to write about strong, Black inspirational characters such as my Emily Knight I am series. It’s so important to see yourself reflected in a positive light. I love books that showcase what we have experienced, such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, but I also want to read books that show us outside of trauma. Yes, publishers need to be better in finding Black voices and promoting them… because it can be done. I have an ARC of Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson which I have seen everywhere. That’s the level of pushing publishers need to do for us. But also literary agents and booksellers need to do more. I can’t stand when I go to a bookshop and see the same books—there are more Black authors out there!
ANNABELLE STEELE, author of Being Amani
Growing up I wasn't inspired by Black authors because I wanted to read the books that my friends were reading or the books that my teachers had recommended but they weren't books by Black Authors or books with Black characters. Pig Heart Boy by Malorie Blackman, was the one book that I remember reading by a Black author that my friends and my teachers were reading and recommending too. As wonderful as it was having them celebrate an author that looked like me, this shouldn't be the case. I shouldn't be able to remember the ONE book by a Black author that I read while in school. I should have a long list of books by Black authors that I read as a child. Agents and larger publishing houses should be doing more than publishing the occasional Black author as a token gesture or while it's trending and popular. They should be seeking out, pushing and promoting inspirational stories by Black authors as part of their normal practice. When I wrote Being Amani, I was conscious of not wanting to portray Black trauma as Black people have other stories to tell. Instead, I aimed to share a story about a Black girl who wasn't strong, steely and aggressive, but a story about a Black girl who is finding herself, finding love and growing up. I aimed to share the type of story that I enjoyed reading when I was growing up, the type of story that never had characters that looked like me! #diversevoice needs to be much more than just a hashtag.
LEONIE HUIE, author of The First Year Is Survival
I’m proud of myself for being a Black author for many reasons, starting with my twin daughters growing up knowing that their mother is an author, giving other Black authors hope that this can be done and there are people around the world who would benefit from their story somehow. It’s important that there is more diversity and inclusion in publishing; for my students, who have so far grown up not knowing many Black authors, and for those who have never read a book by a Black author as a child, just like me when I was younger. I think diversity and equality are so important for this generation and the next that reading Black books must become the ‘norm,’ going into a bookshop or buying a book online there needs to be more Black authors, and there needs to be a range of book genres with Black authors in each category… there needs to be more choice. I see myself as part of the ‘change’ coming for more diversity in the book world. I just hope more publishing houses and bookstores can help to move this forward so we’re all inclusive within the book community.
NUZO ONOH, author of A Dance for the Dead
As a writer and pioneer of the ‘African Horror’ literary genre, it has been my goal to redefine how the term is portrayed by the Western media. Thankfully, these days, as a result of the prolific work by the South African horror movie industry, an internet search of the phrase, African Horror, no longer automatically yields a bombardment of negative news and articles about the African continent. In the literary area, my books, and several new works by speculative writers of African descent, are slowly-but gradually-giving African Horror its rightful place in the genre pool. My works feature all that is terrible and terrifying, yet, fascinating and hauntingly beautiful about the African culture and continent within a supernatural context. I’ve always loved ghost stories from my earliest childhood when we were entertained with scary folktales during the Tales by Moonlight sessions. As a result, my writings reflects this early influence, being all about vengeful ghosts with unfinished business, African style! My upcoming book, A Dance for the Dead, follows this familiar vein. My greatest inspiration has been the late Nigerian writer, Amos Tutuola, whose book, The Palmwine Drinkard, introduced me to my first horror read and inspired me to write my own African ghost stories. But first, I had to get married and divorced a couple of times, raise two brilliant daughter and several cats, get a Law degree to please the parents, before finally following my dream at the University of Warwick MA writing programme, aged almost 50 years! That was the easy bit. Let’s just say that until the publishing industry makes publishing more inclusive, from expanding their pool of diverse commissioning editors, right through to literary agents (many of whom seem generally loath to sign on diverse writers), I fear that non-white writers of non-white stories will have their work cut out for them, particularly in getting a foothold on the publishing ladder. Fingers crossed, the BLM movement will not end up a flash in the pan/business as usual affair, but will result in sustainable and meaningful changes in the publishing world as a whole.
SUZY ROWLAND, author of S.E.N.D. in the Clowns
I grew up reading, almost as soon as I could talk. I read everything. When I discovered books by Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, I was choked with emotion to read stories with a heartbeat that matched mine. Publishing, like many other creative industries, is a business. We get this. We’re not asking for favours. We just want our talent to be recognised and celebrated and our stories—real or imagined—to continue to be told. Like us, the stories are not homogenous. I would like the publishing industry to create a living document of successful and inspirational Black writing, a bit like the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, but brimming with Black author names, the titles of their works, how many copies sold, the genres they write, whether their work has been sold for foreign rights, film or TV tie-ins, used in schools; you get the idea. This proposed Black Writers’ Guide or Directory, would become a valued work in itself, documenting the work of Black writers, providing evidence of the commercial and creative value of Black writing. In 2030, no-one will need to ask, “Where are all the talented Black writers?” Publishing companies have a unique opportunity to ‘grow’ in-house talent: rotating job roles, in-house competitions, book-clubs and writing away days are all creative ideas to encourage editors to sniff out unspotted talent right under your nose. Throw away your assumptions and biases, flick through aforementioned directory. You may be on to a winner. I’m grateful to Hashtag Press for the opportunity to tell my story of ADHD and autism and my journey to professional advocacy through S.E.N.D. in the Clowns. The response to my book from parents—of all races—has been incredible. If we don’t tell diverse stories, the status quo will remain unchallenged, and where’s the progress and excitement in that?
We encourage you to participate in the conversation by sharing this open letter and you are welcome to share your thoughts with us via email@example.com. Together we can achieve more, and there is a lot to be done.