What we learned about: how publishing can do better

Sharing what we learned: a series of blogs

At intervals during the 2021 – 2022 Megaphone Writer Development Scheme we asked the 50 + writers in Megaphone Community to share their views on how we, and publishing, are doing. We also carried out surveys at key points. We’re sharing our learning in a bid to amplify the voices of children’s and YA writers of colour. We would love other projects to share their learning too, so we can all improve. To give writers the confidence to speak, all quotes are anonymous (except where permission was given).

How can publishing do better for writers of colour? Eight take-aways from a discussion.

Last year, Stephanie King hosted feedback sessions where our Megaphone Community members could speak freely, honestly and anonymously, asking them specifically: “How can publishing do better for children’s writers of colour?”

Here, in summary, is what our members told us. Direct quotes from participants have been anonymised and placed in quotation marks. This is a long read, but a must-read, if you want to do more work with writers of colour. Click the arrows to read the detail!

1) Publishing can communicate better with writers of colour

Editors say we should write what we want to write…but is that true? It feels like we have to conform to a certain model if we are going to get noticed.”

When writers of colours ask editors – “what do you want?” – they don’t feel they get a transparent answer. It’s not helpful for an editor to say “I’ll know it when I see it”, because perhaps that editor doesn’t know what to look for when it comes to books by authors from under-represented groups.

Are agents and editors being honest about their expectations? When writers of colour receive rejections, they currently don’t feel confident that it isn’t simply because there’s “too much culture” in the book (something a white writer will never have to consider). Can rejections be more honest? If the writing is not good enough, our writers say they need to know so they can improve.

Submitting work to agents and not receiving any reply or follow-up, or receiving generic rejections from editors, leaves all writers in the dark. We know the entire industry is overworked, but some brief but considered and honest feedback could go a long way to help foster trust between agents, editors and under-represented writers.

2) Publishing should do more to ensure writers of colour trust it to publish them in good faith, with the same aspirations that it has for white writers.

As a Chinese writer, I find I’m being asked to write books about dragons or Chinese New Year.”

If you are a Black writer, it’s harder to get your story out because there’s a certain gap you’re meant to fill, and if you’re not filling that gap, you’re considered too niche. There’s a certain kind of
Black person /Asian person who will ‘pass’…”

The inclusion of diverse authors on lists still feels like a bit of a tick-box exercise to many writers. Do publishers really feel that there is room for more writers of colour on their lists? Or is there a subconscious thought that there is only room for one Black/Brown/East Asian author at a time? Are they being seen as a commodity or trend?

In the course of the discussion, some of our Megaphone writers framed their book as being “diverse”, as if this was a genre in itself – they had absorbed the idea that books featuring characters of colour were somehow grouped together in the eyes of the industry.

3) Publishing can do more to avoid writers of colour feeling pigeonholed

Always getting approached to write about our culture – but we want to write all different sorts of stories – THIS IS A CONSTANT CATCH 22.”

Our Megaphone Community members want to be given space to explore classic narratives (adventure, fantasy, friendship etc.) but from diverse perspectives, as opposed to issue-based books.

However, our members also say that everybody should be trying to write stories with diverse characters, and not be pigeonholed by their own ethnicity.

Publishing houses have a tendency to turn away from issues with nuance from writers of colour – they can’t or don’t recognise the element that makes a perspective unique or fresh. Publishers being aware of their own gaps in their knowledge and experience, and being willing to explore, accept and rectify that is key.

Writers of colour also have the sense that there is additional scrutiny on them. For example, that they are expected to provide a level of authenticity which white writers are not; that simply telling a great story is not enough. Our Community members are concerned they are not given as much freedom as white authors because of the burden of being in a minority and seen as a representative. Alongside this, there is the added burden to be ‘the’ Black/Asian author for the publisher, and the spokesperson for conversations on racism, equality, inclusion.

4) Publishing must do more to show that it wants to know writers of colour and their readers, not just sell them

Agents need to come to us! Not to talk to us, but to listen to us.”

Does the industry know who their readers are? And by this we mean all of their potential readers? Do agents and publishers know who wants to read these books and why, beyond the theoretical need for representation? (Note: Spread the Word’s Rethinking Diversity in Publishing report is a must-read on this topic. https://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Rethinking_diversity_in-publishing_WEB.pdf )

And if publishers know who they are publishing for, how do they make sure readers can find these books? Not every high street has a bookshop, and not all children have easy access to books. How can publishers ensure books by writers of colour find their ways into schools and stand out above the big-brand authors?

Books written by authors of colour are for ALL children, not just children of the same ethnicity as the author, and this needs to be a driving force in the submissions pile, at the acquisitions meeting, in the sales pitches and in the bookshops. Everyone needs to get used to seeing a whole rainbow of stories on the shelves.

Writers are constantly asked to be brave and persevere – and so should publishers! It takes time to break through as a writer and it may take more time to break through an author from an under-represented background. Publishing houses need to be prepared to invest big in debut authors from under-represented groups if things are going to change. If there is room for another magical middle grade story or an animal adventure there HAS to be space for more writers of colour. Publishing has a habit of seeking out tried and tested successes. Every writer of colour who tries to break into publishing is taking a risk – it’s time for publishers to do the same. And are publishers truly giving writers of colour the freedom to fail?

Are there opportunities for publishing houses to collaborate with writers of colours – not just in fiction, but on non-fiction projects, creative non-fiction, or commissioned series? Our Megaphone Community members are asking, why not create WITH us?

5) The whole publishing industry needs to do better at transparency

Let’s ask some tough questions, that publishing needs to provide honest answers to:

Do books from writers of colour sell well?
Are they supported by booksellers?
Who is selling the books, and to whom?

How much is the success of a book determined by the initial advance?

Who decides if a work by an author of colour “is not commercial enough”?
Does publishing really understand or know all its potential readers?

Megaphone believes that readers will diversify their reading if a wider variety of stories is promoted. Let’s move away from pushing the same big-brand authors and classics – let’s work to build NEW classics.

6) Publishing needs to provide sustained support for writers.

Diverse writers are winning competitions for unpublished authors, being invited onto schemes to help them learn more about the industry and being told they can write – but aren’t getting further than that. Competitions, mentorship, schemes and initiatives are all welcome – but publishing needs to provide sustained support for writers, as opposed to one-off successes.

After a competition win or commendation, writers can feel abandoned, as there’s often no follow-up or meaningful progress made to bring writers into the industry as a result of some of these initiatives. There was also a sense from our writers that authors of colour were expected to ‘be grateful’ for these opportunities, as if children’s publishing were a space that belongs predominantly to white writers and where authors of colour are merely invited guests. For example, we’ve seen mentorships and schemes only available during working hours, making them inaccessible to writers who are unable to reduce their hours or take holiday.

Some writers in Megaphone Community had actually felt they had to leave other writers’ groups due to growing resentment of the opportunities currently being offered to authors of colour. Some have been told by their peers that they would definitely get published just because of their ethnicity.

Writers of colour want advocacy from white writers, in particular those with power. Phillip Pullman’s position on Kate Clanchy’s memoir (which occurred at the time one of these conversations took place) was very much something the Megaphone Community were aware of. Writers expressed a concern that if they publicly disagreed with a prominent figure, or called out racism or prejudice publicly, they could be sacrificing their potential career or putting their mental health at risk.

7) Publishing could do more to acknowledge and capitalise on the fact that storytelling is international

““Mummy – let’s find a book that has a Mummy that looks like you in it!’” And we searched the shelves and couldn’t find one.”

More tough questions from our writers, who though based in England, are a very international group.

Why are so many books with Black main characters buy-ins from the US? Black British children are still almost invisible in fiction. This sends the message that they don’t matter.
Why is America so much warmer to diversity than the UK? What can we learn from the US?

How do stories from UK writers of colour sell abroad? How are their stories received in Commonwealth countries/Europe etc?

What can UK publishing do to promote writers of colour internationally?

8) Publishing could do more to ensure writers of colour are sensitively edited

Our writers are concerned about whether a white editor will “get” their book, and asked us, how willing are editors to diversify their reading, as there are still not enough editors of colour.

Writers in the Megaphone Community do not expect their editors to know everything about their culture and heritage – and they know that very few editors will be from the same background as them. The most important thing is to engage in a two-way conversation – and perhaps editors need to consider the fact that they can learn a lot from their authors.

Our writers – surely all writers – want their books to be as accessible to as many readers as possible, and a good editor will help with that. But no writer wants their books to be misunderstood, and editors may have to listen harder to their children’s writers of colours to help them communicate exactly what it is they want to say through their work. The Megaphone writers trust the editorial experience, but agents and editors need to ensure their writers feel able to stand up to some edits and to know they will be listened to. The energy an editor brings to the table can be so transformative – but if an editor is always questioning an author’s choices, it might be because they do not know the gaps in their knowledge and their own biases. People in the publishing industry need to be open and willing to be educated by their writers of colour.

If a writer feels that an editor does not get their work, or their experience, but theirs is the only deal on the table, our Community members asked us, should the writer take the deal anyway? Should they speak up in that early editorial meeting and express their reservations? Can publishing foster an environment where this is no longer a question? Perhaps editors can become nervous about topics they are unfamiliar with, but ultimately ignorance and a lack of familiarity cannot be an excuse. In fact, it should be even more of a reason to reach out, as children’s publishing cannot grow if publishers just continue to do what they’ve always done.

Finally, any writer who begins working with any editor, no matter what their background or ethnicity, cannot assume to start off knowing and understanding each other – it’s a relationship that every writer and editor has to negotiate. Therefore, with this in mind, there’s no reason to make difference a barrier.

How lovely would it be for us to all be on a panel and just talk about writing, not ethnicity.”

– anonymous Megaphone writer

We hope you’ve found these learning blogs useful – here are the links to the other two.

What we learned about: why Megaphone matters.

What we learned: who does Megaphone reach?

You can contact us: megaphone.write AT gmail.com

Published by Leila from Megaphone

Writer and runs Megaphone: a writer development scheme for people of colour who want to write for children. Tweets @MegaphoneWrite and @LeilaR

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