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UK Literature Needs to Get Its Swag Back By Appreciating Diversity

01/05/2015 11:27 | Updated 29 June 2015

It might be 2015, but the current state of book publishing looks like a throwback to Jane Austen. According to the Writing the Future report, recently commissioned by writer development agency Spread the Word and backed by a number of publishing heavyweights, the number of BAME agents and editors in publishing is much lower today than it was 10 years ago. The Writing the Future report puts a figure on this lack of cultural diversity, estimating that ethnic representation within the publishing industry is just eight percent. Another key statistic highlighted in the report regards UK literary festivals; at Edinburgh, Cheltenham and Hay festivals, a measly four percent of the programme was made up of UK Black and Asian writers. If this doesn't change, the report concluded, the UK publishing industry is at risk of becoming culturally irrelevant.

Of course this is not a new point of contention; you only have to look back through archived articles on The Bookseller to see that the subject of diversity within the publishing industry is a topic that arises again and again. Why has nothing changed? More to the point, why are things regressing?

Back in 2013, Lee and Low Publishers convened a panel where they asked agents what they could do to help shift the troubling lack of diversity in publishing in the US, also suffering from the issue. The general consensus was that the change is going to have to come from within the industry, which Daniel Jose Older, in an article for BuzzFeed, describes as "the language of privilege". He argues that the disproportionally white, middle-class publishing industry places agents and editors steadfast between writers and readers. Those in the publishing industry are gate keepers, saying who can and can't enter and the terms by which they should enter - if you're BAME cultural stereotypes please!

It's not just publishers who are churning out the same old; many readers are guilty of occupying a 'safe' place too. Earlier this year, I had coffee with a successful writer of books from China. The author, who will remain anonymous, is white, middle aged and male aka a member of the literary ruling class. He offered me advice on how to write that perfect China book (I feel I have a thriller in me). It went along the lines of this - don't write about Chinese people. If the names are too alien and hard to pronounce, and if the characters are too divorced from the reader's reality, the book simply won't sell much. Readers will switch off. You won't get a future publishing deal. The trick is to write a book set in China, not a China book, a subtle distinction that is the key to success. Oh and again stereotypes please!

As writer's wages decrease - the average professional author earns £11,000 a year now - can we afford to write something we know isn't commercially viable?

It's a viscous cycle - the worse we are paid, the less daring we become and then the more readers become lazy and less used to a challenge (and from that the more publishers feel justified to shun 'different' writers and themes).

It's a sad state of affairs to think that a British person cannot grasp a foreign name or concept or appreciate literature that moves beyond common tropes, and - perhaps optimistically naïve - I'm not entirely sure it's true. Just look at the recent and growing success of Scandi crime on TV, which show that we are fast to adapt, to subtitles, to different contexts, to different characters. I believe the same can happen with literature - and must happen if we are to reflect an increasingly diversity UK where BAME communities are expected to represent 30% of the population by 2050.

The CEO of The Publishers Association has commented in response to the report that it "highlights the urgent need to make the publishing industry more reflective of its writers and readers." Some are working on this already. HarperCollins, for example, has an apprenticeship scheme which seeks to find talent "from different socio-economic and educational backgrounds" and Penguin Random House runs the annual Helen Fraser Fellowship to support the development of editorial talent from the BAME community.

At Asia House - my day job - we run an annual literature festival, which offers a programme of activities as diverse as the authors featured. This year from 7 May through to 18 May, we have a large number from Asia and the UK's BAME community, talking about their work and the wider contexts within which they write. The list is impressive, featuring award-winners and amazing emerging talent. And yet they weren't easy to find as I waded through catalogues almost exclusively occupied by non-Asian names.

What's more, at a time when literature festivals are multiplying at dizzying speed, the festival remains the only one devoted exclusively to literature from across Asia. As a literature festival manager, I can't complain too much about occupying a niche; as a general interested party, I can.

I hope the festival does its bit to help take the publishing industry in the right direction; that being towards diversity and encouraging readers from all backgrounds to engage with the wider world around them. In the meantime I am going to get on with writing my own China novel. It will include a cast of Chinese characters if that works best artistically - whether the UK publishing industry like it or not.