This year’s Booker prize shortlist offers the most diverse lineup ever with four female and two male writers, four of who are people of colour. But while the diversity of the 2020 shortlist for the best original novel is to be commended, the majority of the publishers of Booker-winning novels are still based in London.
This reflects that the concentration of power in UK publishing is still in the English capital. As such, non-English British writers published outside London are perennially disadvantaged by the Booker’s selection criteria.
And as it stands, of the 30 times the prize has been awarded to UK-based authors, it has only once gone to a Scottish author: James Kelman’s How Late it Was How Late, in 1994. It went once to a Welsh author – Bernice Rubens for The Elected Member in 1970 – while Anna Burns became the first winner from Northern Ireland in 2018 for Milkman. Three non-English, but UK-based winners, all of which were published by London presses.
The Booker is steeped in Britain’s colonial history, having originally been set up as an award for British and Commonwealth writers writing in the English language and published in the UK and Ireland.
Prior to this, the makeup of Booker winners was overwhelmingly male (67%), privately-educated (62%), and one-third of winners had attended Oxford or Cambridge University. No wonder, then, that Julian Barnes, former judge and winner of the prize, described it as “posh bingo”.
A publishers’ prize?
As with any literary prize, the Booker’s submission criteria has always influenced the kind of novels that are shortlisted. Its submission guidelines, which don’t allow entries from publishers who don’t publish at least two literary fiction titles a year, have created an unbalanced system.
And since a rule change in 2013, the prize is now weighted even more towards publishers with a history of having books longlisted for the prize – who are able to submitup to four entries. This change was said to be in the interest of fairness and to better “represent the levels of publishing the different sized houses do”. But many feel the changes work in favour of the bigger publishers.
In a country where publishing is so concentrated in the hands of just a few conglomerates who have acquired some of Britain’s most successful small presses, the chances of British novelists who are neither English, nor published by major London publishers, winning seems to be getting smaller. And for non-English UK novelists published by small presses (self-published works are ineligible for the Booker), the Booker is simply not a plausible option.
As Leigh Wilson, professor of English literature, has argued on this site: “Booker rules make submissions from small publishers very tricky because of the size of the print run required and the amount of money that involves.” This is compounded by the fact that: “The rules of eligibility are almost entirely now about the publisher, rather than the novel or novelist”.
Absence of small presses
The prize also often illustrates a disconnect between the publishing industry and the reading public. This gulf could be behind the surging popularity of the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize, a reader-nominated, deliberately tongue-in-cheek, rejoinder to the Booker’s perceived pomposity.
This absence or marginalisation of writers in Wales, Scotland and Ireland seems not to relate to sales successes. Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s phenomenally successful Normal People, for example, didn’t make the step from longlist to shortlist for the Booker. This is despite it having a cult following, achieving substantial sales and being touted as the favourite when the longlist was announced.
But the Booker is far from alone in not reflecting bestseller lists. In his analysis of the Pulitzer prize for fiction (broadly the US equivalent of the Booker), author and academic, James F. English notes the number of shortlisted novels that also appear on that year’s top ten bestseller lists have been in steady decline – from a high point in the 1960s of 60% to under 5% in the 1990s.
That said, winning might not be all it’s cracked up to be, given a 2014 study found that literary prizes make books less popular.
As people seek to educate themselves in response to Black Lives Matter protests, sales of books by black British authors, such as Reni Eddo-Lodge and Bernadine Evaristo, have topped the UK bestseller lists. Several recent prestigious awards have also been won by black writers, including Candice Carty-Williams who won book of the year for Queenie at the British Book Awards. Although proud of her achievement, she was also “sad and confused” on discovering she was the first black author to win this award in its 25-year history.
While these firsts must be celebrated, they also shine a light on publishing’s systemic practices, which have maintained inequalities and under-representation for black, Asian and minority ethnic writers and diverse books. Despite awareness of its shortcomings and years of debates and initiatives (diversity schemes, blind recruiting practices and manuscript submission processes) the industry has generally failed to achieve lasting change. This is because they fail to address the broader systemic inequalities faced by people of colour, which contribute to ongoing under-representation in the industry.
A substantial market
Our research on diversity in children’s publishing included an online survey of 330 responses and 28 in-depth follow-up interviews with people working across the sector. We found that a key barrier has been the engrained perception among industry decision-makers that there is a limited market for diverse books. This is a belief that books written by black and diverse authors or featuring non-white characters just don’t sell.
This perception is seen across the industry, including in children’s literature. This is despite evidence of substantial markets. For instance, a third of English primary pupils are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background. However, a report by the Centre For Literacy in Primary Education revealed that although the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic protagonists in children’s books had increased from 1% in 2017 to 4% in 2018, there is still a long way to go to achieve representation that reflects the UK population.
What we found was that the lack of role models in the books read by children and young people of colour meant that they were less likely to aspire to careers in the sector. From those we spoke to, this was compounded by the lack of diversity, particularly in senior roles, in publishing. For those who had pursued a publishing career, experiences of everyday racism and microaggressions were widespread. This added to feelings of frustration and a sense that they were not welcome or did not belong in the industry.
This all has a knock-on effect on what gets published. Authors of colour that we spoke to expressed frustration about the commissioning process. This included quotas for books by or featuring people of colour, a perceived limited appeal for these books and a feeling that authors of colour could only write about race issues.
Reliance on “traditional routes” to publishing also disadvantages black and working-class authors. Publishers reported receiving high volumes of submissions and heavy workloads led to them relying on established writers rather than seeking out new, diverse talent. This has the impact of narrowing the pool of authors from which books are published.
Our participants – including authors, illustrators, editorial assistants and agents – widely reported that a lack of cultural understanding can also lead to the view that diverse books are a riskier investment. They explained how limited promotion and marketing budgets often resulted in lower sales, reinforcing perceptions of limited demand. From their experience, miscommunication at subsequent points along the supply chain about the demand for and availability of diverse books means that those that are published may not even reach bookshop shelves.
These interconnected factors (among others) create a negative cycle which perpetuates the lack of representation of minorities across all parts of the sector, including the lack of authors of colour being nominated for prizes and awards. Recommendations from our research include ensuring diversity on selection panels for events and awards and some good work is already taking place. However, more systematic collaboration and commitment from the sector will be required to produce lasting and meaningful changes and achieve equality and representation.
Our research participants pointed out that social media was allowing individuals to more effectively come together and raise their voices in support of diversity and representation. They expressed hope that this may help to drive forward meaningful and lasting change in the sector. There are signs that this may be the case with recent campaigns emerging in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The #publishingpaidme campaign highlighted racial disparities in publishing advances. The publisher Amistad, an imprint of Harper Collins dedicated to multicultural voices, ran the campaign #BlackoutBestsellerList and #BlackPublishingPower to draw attention to black authors and book professionals and demonstrate the market for these books. The newly formed Black Writers’ Guild, including many of Britain’s best-known authors and poets, wrote an open letter airing concerns and demanding immediate action from publishers. The hope is that these campaigns can focus the industry on bringing about meaningful change.