Black British authors are severely underrepresented within UK publishing. This lack of representation is felt amongst publishing in general, but also within the reception of prestigious British literary prizes, such as the Booker prize, the Walter Scott prize, and more.
An analysis by The Guardian of the racial diversity of nominees for the 8 leading literary prizes between 1996 and 2020 showed interesting findings. The prizes examined were: the Booker prize, Women’s prize for fiction, Folio prize, Orwell book prize, Baillie Gifford, International Dylan Thomas prize, Carnegie medal and Costa book awards (which include the Costa first novel award, Costa novel award, Costa biography award, Costa poetry award and Costa children’s award).
This analysis showed that Black authors made up 6% of shortlisted authors for the UK’s top literary prizes in the past 25 years. Over the same 25-year period, Black Britons made up 3.1% of shortlisted nominees. Between 1996 and 2020, there were 1,357 entries, of which 82 were Black authors (7.1%). In the years 1996, 2001, 2002, and 2009 there were no Black authors shortlisted across any of the prizes. This shows that disparities remain between prizes, with some awards announcing more diverse shortlists than others.
Even Black British authors who are celebrated have received less recognition within the industry. Between 1996 and 2017, Malorie Blackman, author of the young adult novel series ‘Noughts & Crosses’, was the only Black author shortlisted for the Canergie medal out of 150 authors. Between 2018 and 2021, having made an effort to increase racial diversity, Black authors made up 37.5% of shortlisted nominees for top literary prizes. Yet, the Carnegie medal to this day, 85 years down the line, has still not managed to be awarded to a Black British writer.
It can be observed that there has been a gradual increase in the racial diversity of nominees, and this is as a result of pressures for literary prizes to diversify their nominees and address their racial inequalities. The Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020 also drew attention to the lack of diversity and representation of Black British authors within the publishing industry. After the protests in June 2020, Bernardine Evaristo and Reni Eddo-Lodge became the first Black British women to top the UK’s fiction and nonfiction paperback charts.
When Bernardine Evaristo became aware that she was the first and only Black British woman to top Britain’s non-fiction book bestseller chart she tweeted that she could not help but be dismayed at the tragic circumstances in which this achievement came about – the killing of Goerge Floyd,. She went on to state in her tweet that this was ultimately a horrible indictment of the publishing industry. That same year of 2020 saw the Booker Prize announce its most racially diverse shortlist to date. Bernadine Evaristo became the first black British writer to win the award, which she shared with Margaret Atwood.
The Black Writers’ Guild (BWG), a then newly formed association of Black authors within the UK, comprising over 200 published writers, including literary figures and bestselling authors, wrote an open letter expressing concerns that British publishers were “raising awareness of racial inequality without significantly addressing their own”. The letter was published on 15th June 2020, and was addressed to leading publishing companies in the UK, urging them to tackle the industry’s systemic inequalities and the ‘chronic’ under-representation of Black authors, commissioners, and senior decision-makers. The letter can be found here.
The children’s publishing industry is no better, with only a handful of Black British authors being published between 2007 and 2017. Benjamin Zephaniah, a Black British author assigned to students and member of the Black Writers’ Guild, shared some sentiments surrounding his work when he was at the beginning of his career: “I had publishers saying, ‘We don’t publish [B]lack and Rastafarian poetry. We don’t know what to do with it’”. This reveals that publishing companies are unaware not only of the importance of Black poetry, they may also deem it to be ‘unprofitable’ and may even be unsure how to market it and give it the exposure that other non-Black publications receive. These sentiments that Benjamin Zephaniah revealed that he heard are not uncommon.
In delving into the racist and exclusionary UK publishing and literary prize industry we are aiming to highlight and emphasise that superficial engagement with Black British authorship is not simply enough. The reality is that there are numerous Black British writers who have not been or will never be published because the UK publishing industry is biassed, and discriminatory against Black authors. Black British authors are not represented, their work is not engaged with, and they do not receive the same amount of campaigning and recognition for their work.
It is not enough for the UK publishing industry to be superficially more representative of Black British and non-white writers, it also must address its systemic barriers that result in racial inequalities. It must see racial diversity at all levels, from published writers, to nominees, to senior decision makers, as expressed in the BWG’s open letter. Black British literary talent is rich and plentiful, and their stories must be heard.