The Publishing Industry’s Issue With Black Women

“Could I get one milk and two sugars with my tea love?” – is not the best way to introduce yourself to the founder of a company when you mistakenly thought she was the tea lady. You might not think these things happen in real life, but it’s one of many anecdotes from black women in Elizabeth Uviebinene and Yomi Adegoke’s book Slay In Your Lane due to be released in July 2018.

Uviebinene got the idea for the book after she felt self-help books failed to give her advice on how she could handle specific situations as a black British woman. “I got myself all of these books written by women like Sophia Amoruso, but when I entered the world of work there were challenges that the book couldn’t help me navigate as a black woman,” she said. Things like deciding between natural or relaxed hair to being perceived as threatening instead of ambitious.

Slay In Your Lane is filled with interviews with influential black British women who offer advice based on their own experiences in different areas of life such as work, relationships and dating. “Today, tomorrow and in the future there are always going to be black women that have these issues that are outlined in the book,” Uvibeinene said.

Despite this, Almost three quarters of London’s publishing industry believe the sector lacks adequate diversity, according to a survey by Spread the Word . The writer development agency for London published their survey in November 2016 which revealed that the majority of the workforce is “unaware that their own cultural bias affects what makes it into print” and whom gets published. The cultural bias stems from the editors, agents and writers in the industry being White and because they cannot relate to non-White experiences it leads to black writers not getting published. It isn’t a matter of there not being enough black writers, but not enough representation higher up in the publishing industry.

So, whilst the subject matter was plentiful, initial opportunities to publish the book were not. When Adegoke and Uviebinene decided they didn’t want to self-publish, they sent their 30-page book proposal out to publishers and they got nowhere. Yet when Nikesh Shukla, the author of The Good Immigrant, tweeted asking for proposals from writers looking for representation he fuelled a nine-way publisher bidding war for the book. The initial struggle to publish Slay In Your Lane reflects the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, specifically BAME writers. The fact that it took another BAME author to source and push their proposal further demonstrates this. Despite the precedent for the publishing industry being White and male, Adegoke and Uvibeinene prove that “The market for black women will always exist.”

In response to this, Patrice Lawrence, the programme manager, connects underrepresented emerging writers in London with agents and editors. She believes that acknowledging bias in the industry and “how a specific organisation develops a culture that includes a certain bias” will help bring about change.  Lawrence agrees there is an upward trend of publishing more BAME writers, but warns this could only be a trend or a fad. Of the in-depth interviews that are part of the survey, many BAME writers share concern of this trend because they feel that the best chance of getting published is to write literary fiction that conforms to a stereotypical view of black or Asian communities or some other image that conforms to White preconceptions.

A majority of BAME novelists reported in the same survey that their ethnicity was the central focus of their publisher’s publicity campaign instead of the content of their book. One respondent said that unless things change from the top-down, writers will continue to be pigeon-holed.

There is a need for […] book[s] like this to exist,” Adegoke said.

Written by Alahna Kindred


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