@LawrencePatrice nudged me during the seminar by Children’s Laureate @malorieblackman: “First non-white face I’ve seen on a panel.”
Fair point. I had seen one other, but I’d been to the full three days of #lbf14, dozens of seminars, averaging 4 speakers per panel. That’s not a pretty statistic. Of course, there were black faces to be seen. Picking up our dirty coffee cups, cleaning our toilets, but they were silent, largely invisible. What is going on? This is 2014.
Race is a visible marker of class. Where there are no black people, generally the white people will not be working class. Certainly that’s the case here. Publishing is an overwhelmingly upper middle class profession. Patrice’s comment crystalised a feeling I’d had all week, that new-kid outsider sensibility that makes me want to write for Young Adults: I don’t belong here, this is not my place.
How can it be, in the centre of a great world city, in a global industry which is seeking new markets, that our home-grown non-white and working class talent is invisible? The industry is so keen to get at the expanding Asian market, but it won’t put a black face on a book cover, unless it’s an ‘issue’ book.
There were so many union jacks in evidence, it could have been a BNP convention (apart from the literacy barrier). But it’s a fake heritage Britishness that is being sold, completely unlike the reality that surrounds us. And it’s getting worse. Publishing is a costly, and thus risk-averse enterprise. If industry wisdom dictates that black faces on covers damage sales, then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And recession and shrinking print book sales act as a multiplier, making the risks more fearful and conservatism the norm.
Then there’s the dirty secret of unpaid labour. Publishing is a desirable industry so there are always people who will be prepared to work for nothing — as interns, or producing free content in their own time, like book bloggers and Tubers. But that is not an option for working class people, however talented. How do you afford massively over-inflated London rents, without a hand-up from Mummy and Dadddy? How do you find the time to follow your passion for free, when you have to work to eat?
But I have hope. Malorie mentioned her inspiration, Toni Morrison, saying: “If you can’t find the book that features people like you, then you have to write it.” She went on to write dozens of books, and now she is, deservedly, the Children’s Laureate, and is devoting herself to encouraging young people to read and write their stories, about people like themselves.
Traditional publishing is entrenched, feeling itself under threat from the digital revolution. That same revolution has demolished the barriers to entry. It’s never been easier to publish. And those neglected audiences will find the writers who speak for them. Apparently, on Wattpad, the self-publishing platform used by millions of young people, the fastest growing category is Muslim romance. When I logged on there, out of four featured covers, one is of a beautiful black girl. Obviously doesn’t put off their readers. White publishing, this is why you’re shrinking. If you won’t provide it, they’ll get it elsewhere