Stories of Blackness — Chapter 3: Publishers
“There’s a black girl here who says she has an appointment”
Those were the words spoken to Margaret Busby, the first black female publisher in the UK. As a new graduate, she applied for a job with a big publisher “and was granted an interview — only to turn up and have the doorkeeper call upstairs: ‘There’s a black girl here who says she has an appointment.’”
Granted, that was a number of years ago, and Margaret went on to co-found her own successful publishing company, Allison & Busby. However, it seems clear that not enough has changed with the author a recent report characterising the British publishing industry as at risk of becoming “a middle class ghetto, increasingly out of touch with 21st century British and global culture”.
In the 1980s, Margaret was at the forefront of a campaign to diversify the publishing industries. That movement led to the establishment of traineeships for Black and Asian candidates in the early 90s. Yet, problems persisted and similar schemes were set up more than 10 years later. Today, we find ourselves in pretty much the same position with the Writing the Future report revealing that the number of BAME agents and editors in the publishing sector is significantly lower than 1o years ago.
The situation in the US is similarly concerning. In a survey of staff at 34 American publishers, conducted by Lee & Low Books, 79% were white and only 3.5% were Black/African American. Whilst not exactly correlating, these percentages match the proportions of books representing each group.
These figures are pretty bleak. Alongside my previous chapters on black readers and writers, no one can deny that the current state of play is unacceptable. This matters because, as Daniel Jose Older wrote in his article Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing the ‘disproportionally white publishing industry matters because agents and editors stand between writers and readers. In that article, he goes on to quote Anika Noni Rose who said:
“There are so many writers of color out there, and often what they get when they bring their books to their editors, they say, ‘We don’t relate to the character.’ Well it’s not for you to relate to! And why can’t you expand yourself so you can relate to the humanity of a character as opposed to the color of what they are?”
Given the clear passion for literature evidenced in those previous chapters, it is simply incomprehensible that black people are not better represented in the publishing industry, given that they are so personally invested in it. What seems clear is that we cannot replay the diversity initiatives of the nineties and noughties. The Jeli is a clear departure from these initiatives. It is a statement of intent: a publisher for Africans and people of African descent. Our aim is not to ‘tackle’ diversity, our aim is to empower our community to tell stories. The readers are ready to the read. The writers are writing. All that is need is passionate group of people with the skills and talents to bring these two groups together. The Jeli is that final piece.