For years, the publishing industry has been regarded as out-dated, unwilling to modernise, and incredibly exclusive. Some have branded it as ‘pale, male and stale’. Despite diversity initiatives, traineeships and internships targeted towards BAME candidates, and employee networks set up to eradicate this label, the industry is still in need of change. I wrote a piece this year on the need for literary festivals to be more diverse and inclusive, after attending Bare Lit Festival, which was set up to counteract the lack of representation at large-scale literary festivals. Outside of literary festivals, despite the numerous discussions on diversity and panels on inclusivity, there are still changes that need to be made. Particularly when it comes to attitudes.
Lionel Shriver’s recent controversial article, entitled ‘When diversity meets uniformity’, published in the Spectator on 9 June, hit a nerve for many. In her piece, she accused Penguin Random House UK of being “drunk on virtue”, in response to their WriteNow scheme, a programme aimed at finding and championing new talent that publishing houses would not find through the typical agent route. Schemes such as WriteNow are incredibly competitive, and her piece was met with derision by the inaugural cohort of writers on the scheme, who highlighted that “you are much more likely to get into Oxford than onto a Penguin Random House mentoring scheme”. I, too, am a product of a ‘diversity initiative’. Despite obtaining good grades, studying at a Russell Group university, and having interned at an events publisher, tech publisher, major trade publisher, alongside my voluntary and work experience, I was unable to gain any entry-level role in publishing. Had it not been for Hachette’s BAME traineeship, I would most likely have given up on my publishing career ambition.
Over the past year, there have been significant changes when it comes to diversity and inclusivity, not only in the acquisition of books, but also within the industry itself. Little, Brown Book Group acquired Dialogue Books, a stand-alone imprint dedicated to inclusivity. Former Scholastic employees Aimée Felone and David Stevens left the company to form commercial children’s fiction publisher, Knights Of, with a focus on commissioning writers and illustrators from a diverse range of backgrounds. Author, Nikesh Shukla and agent, Julia Kingsford, set up The Good Literary Agency, in a desire to increase opportunities for representation for all writers under-represented in mainstream publishing. The agency then received a £500,000 grant from the Ambition for Excellence programme, which is funded by the National Lottery. 4th Estate have partnered up with The Guardian for the third year for their BAME Short Story Prize.
On July 6, it was announced that grime artist, Stormzy, would be introducing a new imprint with Penguin Random House UK, dedicated to publishing new fiction, non-fiction and poetry. As of November 2018, the imprint will launch with Stormzy’s own title Rise Up, then proceed to publish two to three books per year, forming a home for a new generation of voices. Alongside this, the imprint will launch an open submission (allowing writers without literary agents to submit their entries) as well as providing a paid internship in 2019.
For some, a celebrity-headed imprint might not sound so ground-breaking. Of course, there are the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Gwyneth Paltrow who have launched imprints with US publishing houses. Stormzy’s #Merky Books, however, is revolutionary in the British publishing sphere. Many grime artists have made names for themselves in the industry, such as Wiley with his Eskiboy memoir and DJ Target’s insider account, Grime Kids, as well as social commentary on the scene from journalist Dan Hancox in Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime and Jeffrey Boakye’s Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millenials and the Meaning of Grime. However, Stormzy’s venture into the book world shows that British publishing houses are truly taking notice of the reach of the likes of Stormzy and his counterparts. Through launching an imprint, this is a publishing house putting its money where its mouth is. It shows grime artists like Stormzy are more than a trend for the year; they are influential figures worth making a long-term investment in. With #Merky Books, Penguin Random House UK are recognising Stormzy’s market not only as a valuable audience to the industry, but also an asset. In searching for young writers who may not have previously had a platform to become published authors, or had an outlet to have their work seen, and working on developing and nurturing this talent, Penguin Random House UK is offering the same acclaim to Stormzy as that of Allen Lane and William Heinemann.
Stormzy appears to be one of the very few grime musicians to infiltrate the mainstream, from receiving radio play on the likes of Heart FM and Magic FM, who have for years snubbed both grime and so-called ‘urban’ music, to collaborating with musicians of all different genres, from Jorja Smith and Little Mix to Kehlani and Lily Allen. Never one to settle, he formed his own label, #Merky Records and founded #Merky Festival, making history as Ibiza’s first festival dedicated solely to the grime music genre. Alongside being named BBC Music’s artist of the year in 2017 and scooping two BRIT awards for Best British Male and Best British Album, the artist has also been featured in British Vogue. Stormzy remains unapologetic and ever-critical, calling out Theresa May’s lack of care and consideration for the Grenfell victims who remain unhoused over a year after the disaster, attending the memorial service held for the victims of the fire, and repeating his scathing condemnation for the government at Wireless Festival. To many, Stormzy represents the best of both worlds: successful but without compromising. With more ventures like this, we will really start seeing diversity and inclusivity.
Written by Mireille Harper