Turning Over a New Leaf

Just how multicultural is the world of publishing and bookselling in the UK? For an industry generally regarded as liberal, publishing is overwhelmingly white and middle-class. It may want to represent ethnically diverse literary talent, but does it succeed? Do bookshops adequately cater to the preferences of all their customers, or only to the majority? Can home-grown black and Asian writers make their voices heard, not just on the cultural fringes, but above the noise of the mainstream? And what can we, the consumers, do about it?

Until the early 1990s, black British writing remained marginalised and undernourished while the volume of imported books by black American writers distorted the market. It took one book – Yardie – to trigger change. North London publisher The X Press picked up Victor Headley’s tough UK-Jamaican hood fable in 1992, after it had been rejected by many mainstream publishers. The book’s phenomenal success opened up new relationships in the book trade. X Press publisher Steve Pope recalls the initial enthusiasm of W H Smith, who became the first bookselling chain to introduce special ‘Black Interest’ sections in the early 1990s. As other booksellers followed suit, small presses saw their new literary discoveries snapped up by bigger publishing houses: Alex Wheatle, for example, was bought by 4th Estate (now an imprint of Murdoch-owned HarperCollins) after Black Amber published his debut novel Brixton Rock. The big houses began to adopt more writers from ethnic backgrounds (Asian as well as black – although the growth of Asian writing was less dramatic, and came later), not just as fashionable accessories, but for solid commercial reasons.

Today, established authors such as Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith and Meera Syal have the branding and resources of big publishing conglomerates to bring their writing to a wider audience. The success of these writers has created new opportunities for publishers and booksellers to support ethnically diverse writing, and the vogue for multicultural literature continues unabated. However, a glance at the UK bestseller lists reveals a different reality. Of the top 100 selling books of 2003 according to Nielsen Bookscan, none are by black or Asian writers. Monica Ali’s Booker-shortlisted Brick Lane, at 179th, was the highest ranked. In March this year, The Bookseller magazine conducted an illuminating survey into cultural diversity in book publishing, which concluded that, even if the industry was eager to change, it had some way to go.

Meanwhile, some feel that the true hotbed of diversity – the literary and cultural fringes – is under threat. In today’s tighter, more centralised book world, competition and sheer over-production are squeezing out variety and risk-taking among publishers and booksellers alike. ‘There isn’t the kind of support there used to be,’ says Steve, claiming that X Press sales have been affected by what he sees as a ‘one size fits all’ ethos in the book trade. Groups and companies that exist on the outskirts in the first place will be hardest hit by any extra financial pressure. While the heavy-hitters hog the limelight, it becomes harder than ever for first-time writers – whatever their background – to find a publisher.

It is probably true that fewer bookshops now devote exclusive space to minority writing than used to be the case in the mid-1990s. Big book selling chains now dominate the trade, and over the last decade booksellers have tended to hand over some of their former autonomy to the control of Head Offices. Dedicated ‘Black Interest’ sections now appear only in designated inner-city branches. Not even Waterstone’s in trafalgar square has one. However, such sections have always provoked mixed reactions: they may be a useful buyers’ tool and they may indeed encourage people to enter bookshops who otherwise wouldn’t, but many argue that they ghettoise minority writing, and that they offer an incoherent, disparate selection. To place ‘Black Crime’ next to ‘Black Erotica’ and ‘Black Social History’ does, after all, seem a bizarre concept. What remains true is that only when writers arrive at a certain level of prestige – Ben Okri, Toni Morrison et al – do they ‘graduate’ into general Fiction A-Z.

Yet we must tread carefully with our zealous cultural fringe theory. Before we rush to damn the bookselling chains, we should remember that it is often the larger stores and those with the higher turnover that can afford to take risks and stock books that they cannot guarantee will sell. While they can never replicate the dedication and range of such specialist stores as New Beacon bookshop in Stroud Green, North London, certain chain branches in areas with high proportions of minority ethnic groups – Ottakar’s in Clapham, South London is one example – do offer larger, well-tended ‘Black Interest’ sections to provide for local custom.

In publishing, as in other areas of our culture, the mainstream today is doing what the fringes struggled so hard to do 15-20 years ago. Authors start small and grow bigger. As their works become commercialised, more widely read – and thus more influential – the more space they occupy in the cultural airwaves. This process must continue, and only by allowing independent publishing room to breathe today will we preserve and promote the creativity and innovation that will forge the mainstream of tomorrow. So read widely, but be selective. Unlike in other retail sectors where manufacturers’ brands dominate, most of us are not influenced by the publisher’s logo in our decision to buy a book. Perhaps we should be. When you pick up a book, check the imprints page at the front: if it doesn’t say ‘subsidiary of’ on it, then chances are this independent firm needs your bucks more than a multinational giant. If a book on a 3 for 2 table catches your eye, just remember that the publisher paid the bookseller to put it there. If we want to prevent publishing from becoming monolithic, notwithstanding the strength and quality of those writers stabled at bigger houses, and instead allow many different publishers the space to cultivate the true breadth of multi-ethnic literary diversity in the UK, we, the consumers, need to go the extra mile.

The author works in Sales & Marketing at Serpent’s Tail, an independent publisher in Finsbury Park, North London

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