I“A literary agent and at the height of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, I was sent a list, along with photographs, of the top publishers working in major UK publishing houses. When I read it, I burst into tears. He showed a sea of almost entirely white faces, some of which were nearing retirement when I started as an editorial assistant 20 years earlier. The stagnation of the industry was blatant and filled me with despair.
Analysis of the industry since then, driven in part by pressure from BLM and an open letter from the Black Writers Guild, has only further highlighted this imbalance. Two of the world’s largest publishers, Penguin Random House and Hachette, revealed that only 2.7% of their staff – in both cases – is black; and the Guardian reported that you’re eight times more likely to see an animal as the main character in a children’s book than a person of color.
In a modern and multicultural nation, the whiteness of the industry is important. This summer, bestselling author Kate Clanchy chose to rewrite her memoir after an outcry over her portrayal of children from ethnic minorities. His book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, used racialized terminology such as “chocolate skin”, he referred to a student as “African Jonathon”, a Somali child as having a “narrow head” and in described another as being “so short and square and afghan with his big nose and premature mustache.”
I have participated in new weekly business meetings at three of the Big Five publishing houses week after week for decades, invariably surrounded by all-white teams who, among themselves, decide not only what should and should not. not be published, but also give final approval to the books before they are printed. For me, and other people of color in the industry, this was the moment we had been sounding the alarm bells for years.
The fury over Clanchy on social media left me stunned. I watched in horror as the posters argued fiercely over whether or not it was okay to comment on the shape of a black child’s skull. People raged, asking how Clanchy’s use of language could have been published. For me, the answer could easily be found in this list of white-dominated editors, and the fact that for years the strong and growing calls to diversify its teams have been pretty much ignored. No wonder the industry today finds itself in complete mess about the breed.
There is a crippling and toxic silence around everyday racism and the way it manifests itself in the media: erasure, sidelining, career delay, sheer mental exhaustion of operating in a predominantly white space on a daily basis and the routine of being marginalized. A few years ago I left one of the main publishers and now work for two in Wales, supporting talent behind the scenes.
Instead, I focused on staging David Harewood’s memoir and his important and groundbreaking discussion of black mental health. And I worked with Lenny Henry on his first children’s novel, about a black child who is able to fly – helping to fill that lack of black characters.
I sympathize with Vanessa Kingori, the black business manager of Condé Nast, who says that when she joined Vogue at the same time as editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, their common aspiration “has always been to normalize the marginalized”.
During this time, I have observed within the publication the increasing mention and use of “sensitive readers”. What the hell are they, you might ask. Essentially, a small independent cottage industry of marginalized people sprang up after Clanchy to verify that books aren’t racist, crippling, or whatever before they are sent to print.
This means that predominantly white publishers who commission and publish books featuring characters from diverse backgrounds now verify those books with readers from those backgrounds to ensure that publication does not cause accidental infringement.
And the backlist titles are being redesigned as well – a recent example of an East Asian character from David Walliams’ Worst Children in the World. It is now released without Brian Wong’s character, Who Was Never, Ever Wrong, following a complaint from a reader who had picked up on how Brian had been pictured, wearing glasses and with “tiny eyes.”
But, to me, “sensitivity readers” are an inadequate sticky plaster solution. Why hire freelancers when you could actually fully employ editors and publishers from all walks of life? Shouldn’t there be enough diversity within the industry itself to ensure that work can be properly checked for sensitivity? Since the industry seems unable to do this, it may need an independent body to advise it on equality and monitor progress.
As a black, straight woman who commissioned and edited the memoir of a white, gay man (which has sold over 450,000 copies with no sensitive readers in sight), I would say we have a lot more in common. as human beings as there are differences. I don’t feel like a minority: there are plenty of people in the world who look like me. Sharing all of our stories with respect and sensitivity really shouldn’t be that difficult.
Natalie Jerome is Literary Officer, Vice President of Literature Wales and former publisher