Black British writers, books

Black British Writers Face Inequality In Publishing

Black books by British authors remain underrepresented in England’s book market despite efforts at increasing equity from figures in publishing.

Publishing in the U.K. is undergoing a continuation of the call for more equality. Black books by British authors remain underrepresented in England’s book market despite efforts at increasing equity from figures in publishing.

As The Bookseller reports, according to data from Nielsen Bookscan’s Total Consumer Market Data, only 23 Black bestsellers were among the top 1,000 authors in 2023. Their sales totaled $12.1 million, compared to the $834.9 million generated by all book sales. 

Fleur Sinclair, the new president of the Booksellers Association and owner of Sevenoaks Bookshop in Kent, told The Bookseller that the pathways for Black authors need to be broadened because they face unique barriers in the publishing industry. “With Black authors being still in such a minority, if you like, they can’t afford to have just the same old publishing model… If we’re trying to change the offering, and we’re trying to change the landscape, then we’ve got to think about different ways in which those authors and their books will be better supported.”

The book printing type, that is, a paperback or a hardcover book, also matters for authors in the British market. If a book is well presented with an attractive cover, it can buck the trend of paperbacks tending to be preferred over hardcovers. The book then stands a better chance of getting picked up off the shelf and purchased than a similar book that is not as well packaged. 

Will Smith, the co-owner of Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere, told the outlet that Black British writers are underpromoted compared to even their Black American counterparts. “While we now see more books published by Black British writers, we often see publishers promoting Black American authors rather than Black British writers,” Smith said. “It’s often surprising how being a rural bookshop shapes publishers’ perception that we will sell fewer Black writers.”

Nels Abbey, the co-founder of the Black Writers Guild, added that it is not uncommon to field calls from Black writers in England who feel left out by their publishers. “It is far from unusual to receive distress calls from Black writers who have been all but deserted by their publishers,” Abbey said. “We are aware of situations in which publishers have performed well beneath the most basic of expectations: failing to send out proofs for quotes, near no promotion whatsoever, refusal or inability to engage with the author’s concerns, etc.”

Some publishers, like HarperCollins, have implemented programs like its Ethnicity Development Circle, which promises to mentor every employee of color in its company and works in concert with its senior sponsorship program for “ethnic minority leaders.” 

As The Guardian reported, in 2020, the Black Writers Guild in the U.K. called for change through a letter addressed to HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan. 

The letter stated in part: “The protest movement sweeping the world since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has forced an international soul-searching to understand the pervasive racial inequalities that haunt most sectors of our society – including our own major institutions and industries.”

The letter continued, ”Publishers have taken advantage of this moment to amplify the marketing of titles by their Black authors and release statements of support for the black communities who have been campaigning for equality for decades.”

In 2023, the Black Writers Guild wrote an op-ed for The Bookseller, calling for more representation to join its fight for equality in the publishing industry. 

“The Black community has long shown the world what we can achieve together and the Black Writers’ Guild is an example of how we are affecting the publishing industry. There’s a well-known African proverb that says: ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ We couldn’t have achieved all we have without the dedication, commitment and support of you, the members. We can achieve so much more together, so we call on you writers – the romantics and poets, come with your beautifully crafted stories of love, joy and pain.”

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