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Bittersweet success for black authors

Why the publishing industry has further to go

Since the BLM movement exploded across the US and the globe, we’ve seen it touch industries far and wide. As the latest good news for black British authors hits, we look at why they feel their success is bittersweet. By Sarah Bradbury.

What’s the latest news?

On Monday night, Candice Carty-Williams and Bernadine Evaristo became the first black authors to win the top prizes as the British Book awards aka The Nibbies.

Carty-Williams took Book of the Year for Queenie, her debut novel about a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London. At one point dubbed the “black Bridget Jones,” it’s now being adapted for a Channel 4 series.

Evaristo was named Author of the Year for Girl, Woman, Other, told from the perspective of 12 black women, which also won Fiction Book of the Year and made her joint winner of last year’s Booker prize.

Oyinkan Braithwaite was also the first black writer to win Crime and Thriller Book of the Year for her darkly comic debut My Sister, The Serial Killer centering around two sisters in Nigeria.

It follows books by black British authors storming the bestseller lists in the aftermath of the BLM protests. Reni Eddo-Lodge became the first black British author to take the overall no.1 spot in the UK’s books charts with Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Evaristo topped the fiction paperback charts earlier this month.

So why has such success been bittersweet?

In collecting her prize, Carty-Williams, while “proud of myself, yes, and grateful to the incredible team that helped me get Queenie out of my head and onto the shelves” said she was “sad and confused” to be the first black AND female author to win since it began:

“Overall, this win makes me hopeful that although I’m the first, the industry are waking up to the fact that I shouldn’t and won’t be the last.”

Evaristo equally highlighted the “unprecedented amount of self-interrogating in the publishing industry,” amid the BLM movement but also acknowledged “this has been triggered by the tragedy of George Floyd’s death and we should always remember that.”

How diverse is the publishing industry?

Just last week, a report, Rethinking “Diversity” in Publishing, found publishers assume that audiences are white and middle class and see writers of colour as a “commercial risk:”“black and Asian people are not considered to be a substantial readership, or to even be readers,” writes Evaristo in the foreword.

The latest census by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society found just 6% of published authors in the UK are people of colour. The #publishingpaidme hashtag recently saw writers sharing what they had been paid to demonstrate the gap in advances for black and white authors.

Evaristo has added her signature to an open letter from the just-launched Black Writer’s Guild demanding sweeping changes in the British publishing industry. While she said it was listening now, “I hope they don’t revert back to the status quo once the heat has left the conversation around racism, as will inevitably be the case.

“It’s high on the agenda today, but history shows us that unless there is a crisis, such as riots or the Stephen Lawrence murder, racism as a topic and anti-racism as a cause soon gets demoted.”

While the recognition for black authors is welcome, how do we make sure it’s not a passing trend? What more should be done to make the publishing industry more diverse and inclusive in the long term?