What an amazing sight this is for a sunny morning – How Far We’ve Come, the debut novel from the third Megaphone mentee to be published, just arrived through my letterbox! I’m so excited to read it and see how it has evolved from the first draft I read back in 2016. Joyce’s voice stood out back then and clearly nothing’s changed there – it’s still written in a powerfully distinctive first person voice, telling an original time-slip story that holds not just the past but the present up to scrutiny. Congratulations Joyce – and thanks for the shout-out in the acknowledgements!
We are delighted to be partnering with Spread the Word, RCW Literary Agency, and Dialogue Books to support a free 90 minute publishing workshop and feedback opportunity for aspiring authors of colour of adult commercial fiction or children’s and YA fiction. Megaphone will be offering membership of its Community group and all the writer development activities and opportunities available in it, to any attendees who are people of colour writing for children or teenagers. To apply, head to: https://www.rcwlitagency.com/workshops/ by 29th May, 6pm. The workshop itself is on July 5th at 1 pm.
Joanne Harris, Charlotte Vassell and Tanya Byrne are among the speakers confirmed to attend, and they will be joined by editors and agents from across commercial adult fiction and young adult fiction publishing for a panel covering a range of topics: including the submissions process, the role of agents and editors, and building an author profile.After the workshop, the authors will receive one-to-one feedback sessions with an editor or agent to discuss their manuscriptsA summary of the workshop and a series of resources will be made available online after the event. Applicants must be UK based.
So exicted to see the announcement of this news in The Bookseller! Joyce was one of our first mentees and is represented by Lydia Silver at Darley Anderson. Her YA novel, How Far We’ve Come , which explores the legacy of slavery in a truly beautiful narrative voice, has been bought by Amina Youssef at Simon and Schuster. Huge congratulations to Joyce and her team!
Happy new year! We’re delighted to start the year with the great news that ALCS, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, has awarded us funding to help support the next Megaphone Writer Development Scheme. We are enormously grateful for this, and we’ll post more news about the next scheme as soon as we have it!
The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) is a not-for-profit organisation started by writers for the benefit of all types of writers. Owned by its members, ALCS collects money due for secondary uses of writers’ work. It is designed to support authors and their creativity; ensure they receive fair payment and see their rights are respected. It promotes and teaches the principles of copyright and campaigns for a fair deal. It represents over 117,000 members, and since 1977 has paid over £600million to writers.
For more information visit alcs.co.uk
We’d also like to recommend the ALCS’ recent research into author earnings, which found, among other things, a significant earnings gap for authors of colour:
We are absolutely delighted that another of our 2020 intake of mentees, Abimbola Fashola, has signed with Saffron Dodd at ASH literary agency to represent her writing for children. Congratulations Abimbola, we’re so happy for you!
“I want to say a huge thank you to both of you as without Megaphone I
would have not have got to this point! The scheme helped me so much
with my writing and also having access to agents via the scheme and
the open door session in the Community helped me to make this decision
with some prior knowledge on what to look out for in an agent. “
The most recent Book Trust Represents report has been published. This research collects statistics on the number of people of colour who are creating published children’s literature in the UK.
A few quick thoughts on the findings:
– The comments and insights given by so many writers reinforce facts we already knew, both good and bad. It’s clear that publishers are taking active steps to make sure they publish a greater diversity of voices. It’s also clear that there’s anxiety around how deep the change goes. The graph below, taken from the report, shows a sharp increase since 2016. It also shows that when my first book came out in 2008, I was one of just FOUR people of colour to have a first book for children published that year. There is really only one way: up!
– There are still very few British children’s book creators of colour. According to the report, in 2021, 11.7% of children’s book creators were people of colour. Only 4.5% were British. The Book Trust target of 13% of children’s books to be created by authors and illustrators of colour by 2022 looks a lot harder to reach if you consider only British writers.
I just don’t understand why this is the case. We have talented creators right here, who are both British and people of colour. Not choosing to publish them only reinforces the idea that, both at home and abroad, people of colour somehow can never be ‘really’ British. Yes, but… where are you really from? I would like to know if the majority of white creators of children’s books in the UK are also non-British. We need to value the voices and stories of British people of colour who create children’s literature. The fact that 34.5% of pupils of school age in England are from a minority ethnic background makes this even more imperative.
My warm thanks to everyone who contributed to this important research, especially Book Trust, Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, Arts Council England and all the children’s literature creators who expressed their honest thoughts.
– Leila Rasheed
– Read the full report here: https://cdn.booktrust.org.uk/globalassets/resources/booktrust-represents/2022/research-reports/booktrust-represents-representation-of-people-of-colour-among-childrens-book-creators-in-the-uk.pdf
Huge congratulations to our 2021 mentee Nazima Pathan, who has signed with Chloe Seager at Madeleine Milburn Agency! This puts her in the same agency as her mentor, Maisie Chan (a mentee on the first Megaphone Writer Development scheme, and now the winner of the Branford Boase award, among other accolades).
We’re a little late with this one (blame August) but very excited to hear that one of our Megaphone mentees in 2021 – 2022, Zareena Subhani, has secured agent representation from Kemi Ogunsanwo at The Good Agency. Congratulations to both parties!
Carnival! It’s a familiar word and many children will have been to one, but how did it all begin? Author and illustrator Ken Wilson-Max brings to life the roots and the meaning of this celebration of freedom, which stretches all the way back through the memories and traditions of enslaved people, to Africa.
Jump Up! starts with a fiction story told through a little girl’s eyes, about the first carnival. At the end there is a non-fiction section which gives more information on the topic. It includes a useful vocabulary list with the meaning and origins of common Carnival words. I learned lots of new things – the steel pan drums are very familiar to me from Birmingham streets, but I didn’t know that their origins were from when enslaved people were forbidden to use drums and instead created rhythms on pans and other things.
That’s another important element of this book: it celebrates creativity. Jump Up! is a story of resourcefulness, hope and inspiration, which tells us how people living in the most dehumanising circumstances were able to create a new and enduring human celebration.
This picture book will inspire curiosity and interest in children about the world around them, whether they have a carnival tradition in their area or not. It would be a fantastic book for schools and teachers in particular to use with KS1 children to bring added value and understanding to the carnival period, perhaps to coincide with a class trip. The illustrations are richly-coloured, affectionate and warm. Ken Wilson-Max says: “This book, in a small way, connects the past with the present and hopefully helps readers consider a more inclusive future.” I’m sure it will do that, and in no small way.
Jump Up! is part of a range of black history books for children in the same format, called Reaching New Generations. It is published by The George Padmore Institute, drawing on their wealth of archives. You can find more information at their website: https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/discover . Publication was supported by a grant from Arts Council England.
Review by Leila Rasheed
- Age range: 3 – 7 (but could be used with older children too)
- Words and illustrations by Ken Wilson-Max
- Published by the George Padmore Institute
- ISBN 978-19996198-5-5
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.
We hope you’ve found these learning blogs useful – here are the links to the other two.
You can contact us: megaphone.write AT gmail.com