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Publishing – getting things down in black and white

I saw a tweet about using white privilege for good yesterday. The original tweet was by Nelle Andrew, literary agent at RML. It recounted  the story of how Marilyn Monroe stepped in to help Ella Fitzgerald get bookings in jazz clubs by offering to come and sit in the front row.

What a cool story I thought. Marilyn Monroe stepped up and did something to help someone get the recognition they deserved. Lots of the replies reflected that. All good.

But there’s another side to this story; that even someone as prodigiously talented as Ella Fitzgerald needed a white friend to help her get bookings in clubs that didn’t want to book a black singer. A few of the replies picked up on this aspect but not so many.

The original story and the responses made me think about my own biases, conscious and unconscious, especially from the perspective of the world of books. I wondered if I was only getting to see one side of the story.

Let’s try a little game. Put your hand up if you read Margaret Atwood‘s The Testaments or if you saw it prominently displayed in a bookshop shortly after her Booker Prize win in 2019. Keep your hand up if can name the joint winner of the prize that year. Now keep your hand up if you also read her prize-winning book. I’m not saying that if you put your hand down, you’re racist. But there’s got to be something wrong with a system, an industry, where two people jointly win a prize and one goes on to be hugely promoted in bookshops and the other becomes a pub quiz answer. I mean no disrespect by that; I was asked that very question in an online quiz during lockdown. I’ll leave you to guess whether I knew the answer but it’s Bernadine Evaristo and Girl, Woman, Other. On reflection, me and my social media bubble weren’t angry enough about that at the time. Only one side of the story again? I’ll ‘fess up straight away and say I haven’t read either of them which puts me at the very bottom of the virtue signaling pile!

So then I began thinking more about my social media feed. I follow lots of publishing people for obvious reasons. So here’s another fun game I played. Scroll through your twitter, instagram or facebook feed. How long do you have to scroll before you get to a post by someone who doesn’t look a bit like you? It took me a shockingly long time before I got to a post by a US black librarian who I bonded with ages ago over a shared love of Calvin and Hobbes and Twinkies. It’s not that I don’t want to follow BAME authors, illustrators, agents and publishers. But my feed is still dominated by people like me; white, mostly middle-aged (no offence anyone), mostly female. Of course, social media is set up to help you follow people you have stuff in common with. And the evidence suggests that’s what publishing looks like. But you can change that if you want to hear different stories. They’re out there.

Lots of people have been asking what they should do in the face of such injustice and systemic racism. I don’t know what the solution is but I know I don’t want to be part of the problem. It shouldn’t be up to BAME creatives to do all the work and promote themselves. So as a start, I’m going to actively seek out more BAME publishing folks and start following and listening to them so there’s more chance of me hearing all the story, not just part of it.

If you want to join me, the publishers Knights Of and Tiny Owl are great places to start your own journey of discovery. Through them you can open a window on a whole world of creatives. Give them a voice in your club.