A couple of weeks ago I was a guest on BBC Asian Network radio to talk about Penguin Random House's new initiative to find, mentor and publish new writers from communities under-represented on the UK's bookshelves.
The WriteNow scheme aims to find and publish new writers who are "under-represented in books and publishing". Targeted groups are writers from socio-economically marginalised backgrounds, writers who come from LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer) or BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) communities, or writers with a disability.
On the radio show, it was agreed that writers from these backgrounds are under-represented. As they are not being successfully represented by literary agents, the following question popped up: Was WriteNow a form of 'charity' on the part of the publisher? Were PRH planning to publish these writers because they belonged to minority groups, rather than the fact that they were exceptional writers whose work deserved to be published and shared with readers?
The answer is simple. PRH is not a government body which has a legal requirement to tick equal opportunity boxes. It is a corporate company which is successful purely because it understands profit. They produce books which they believe the market of readers will want to read, and they provide all the support they can to make it a success. The publisher market the book; they send copies to national newspapers/magazines/online media for reviews, arrange for the author to speak at literary festivals and put the title forward for book awards.
What the publisher will not do is publish books which they believe might have even a 1% chance of gathering dust in their warehouse, or ending up in the 50p bargain-bucket in bookshops. If a publisher decides to publish your book it is because they believe their investment will turn a profit in order to keep them in business.
As Tom Weldon, CEO for PRH UK, says: "Books and publishing simply do not reflect the society we live in. Not only is that bad for the future of books, reading and culture, but it's also a commercial imperative for us to change. If we don't, we will become increasingly irrelevant."
My own publishing deal with Puffin Books, part of PRH, was also secured outside the traditional route of the literary agent. It was a friend who worked in the publishing industry who advised me to forget the literary agents (after years of rejection letters) and enter writing competitions. His words: "Publishers are always keeping an eye out for new writers through competitions."
I entered the Muslim Writers Awards, a competition for unpublished writers, and to my absolute surprise and joy my children's story was shortlisted. It was the most recognition I'd ever had for my writing and although I did not win, I was invited by the MWA organisers to a meeting at Penguin's offices in the Strand. I still remember walking into that building. This was the place where they had produced my favourite childhood author Roald Dahl's books. After years of being rejected by lit agents, it felt like I was walking into Charlie's Chocolate Factory.
I met senior editor of Puffin Books, Shannon Cullen (now Publishing Director at Penguin Random House UK Children's Books) who had read my story and was interested in my writing style. She asked me if I had any other story, preferably something for teenagers. I pitched an idea that I'd had for a while. I wanted to write a novel about a British Asian girl's forced marriage but one which was a story about hope and courage, about a teenage girl standing up to a form of bullying which is inflicted in the name of family honour. I wanted my novel to be about hope and empowerment.
Shannon was intrigued and requested to see a draft. This was the part where I wanted the ground to open up to swallow me whole. Here I was in front of a senior editor at one of the leading publishers (one to which I had directly sent my first manuscript at the age of 14) and I had no completed work to show her. Shannon was of course lovely about it, reassuring me that she would look forward to seeing the first draft when it was ready. I spent about a year on that manuscript and it that time Shannon nurtured my work. She advised me how to further develop my characters, and highlighted the parts where I had lapsed into telling the story instead of showing it. It was invaluable advice and made a huge difference to my writing.
About a year after that first meeting, Puffin Books acquired Secrets of the Henna Girl and we launched it on International Women's Day with the support of the Forced Marriage Unit at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London. The novel won a couple of awards and was translated into Arabic, Polish and Spanish. Four years on I'm still earning my living from the book. I now do author visits in schools where I raise awareness of forced marriages, Girls Rights and bullying. As an author there is no better feeling than when a teenager tells me that he/she enjoyed my book or THAT particular chapter made them cry.
If you're an aspiring writer then you should apply to WriteNow. All you need to do is visit www.write-now.live and submit a sample of your work. 150 writers will then be invited to attend one of the events. Of these, 10 "exceptional" writers will benefit from a year of mentoring with the goal of having their book published.
Tom Weldon adds: "One of the many joys of reading is being able to make a personal connection with an author's distinctive voice, but we know some voices aren't yet being heard. Our job at Penguin Random House is to connect the world with the stories, ideas and writing that matter. So if you are sitting on a fantastic manuscript, we want to hear from you."
Personally, I can't wait to read the new talented writers which Penguin Random House will discover and publish.
The deadline for the WriteNow scheme is 28 October 2016
Sufiya Ahmed is the author of Secrets of the Henna Girl