14 May 2006

Books for all

A report by the Bookseller and the Arts Council in England states that the book trade is ignoring the potential of the black and ethnic minority (BME) market. Michelle Pauli of The Guardian (UK) writes that the “Books for All survey of publishers, booksellers, agents and librarians found that a ‘fear factor’ was holding back the book trade from pursuing a growing market and a huge potential source of writing talent.” Since then, “new research published this week found that only one per cent of the 5,000 bestselling books sold so far this year were written by black or ethnic minority writers." Another study, Spread the Word, found that only 8% of BME poets get published although they are popular at poetry readings.

In passing, we should note that the term “black” in Britain is used Bikoesquely. It includes South Asians, Chinese, and other groups that have been discriminated against because of their skin colour or racial heritage. Ironically, publishers and publicists have been ringing the death knell of South Asian fiction in English for the last two years. Every misstep such as Kaavya Viswanathan’s plagiarism is said to underscore this. Moreover, it’s hard not to fulminate over being told (usually by marketing folk) that “we already have a South Asian writer” as if we were all alike. Is a similar census of writers of European heritage ever undertaken? When was the last time we heard a Polish writer being told that their Eastern European quota was filled because they already had a Hungarian?

Regardless of the conclusions, the Arts Council in England does do some research on these issues whereas the Canada Council for the Arts or the Ontario Arts Council have yet to deliver anything on that scale. A study is needed for Toronto where people of colour are numerically the majority but who remain underrepresented in every constructive realm. Perhaps, such a study here would lead to equitable publishing policies. We suggest that any survey include an attitudinal analysis and an analysis of barriers. Penguin Canada states a commitment to publishing new South Asian writers but it no longer has an open-submissions policy. A handful of European asset-stripping conglomerates have taken over major publishing houses in North America. As these giants don't have a stake in the cultural life here, their approach has been to discard or trim less profitable lines such as fiction. Yes, there are some small indie presses but not nearly enough to make for a level playing field. And so it goes.

No comments: