Grime star Stormzy has collaborated with Penguin Random House to publish a ‘new generation of voices.’ Aimed at increasing literary diversity within Britain, this imprint can only be a good thing. But, I wonder, will one imprint change the literary landscape when the publishing industry remains mostly white?
At the launch of #MerkyBooks in London’s Barbican centre, the excitement in the room was palpable. The 2,000-capacity auditorium was packed with BAME schoolchildren, a refreshing change from the usual overwhelmingly white and middle-class audience of a literary panel. Change was evidently afoot as a panel of Black British authors, including Malorie Blackman, outlined the need for Black British people to tell their stories.
I found myself nodding furiously at their call for greater Black British representation in the arts. How could I not? Only 1% of children’s books last year had a BAME protagonist, and in 2016, only one Black British male author made their literary debut. Stormzy’s publishing imprint is timely and necessary. #MerkyBooks will publish 2-3 books a year, accepting open submissions. Upcoming publications include Stormzy’s autobiography ‘Rise up’ co-written by Jude Yawson, as well as Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi’s ‘Taking up Space’: a guide to navigating UK higher education as black women.
Nevertheless, initiatives to improve diversity have existed before in publishing with little impact. Such failures can be explained by looking towards the ethnic make-up of the publishing industry, as only 8% of its workforce identify as BAME. Although Stormzy’s imprint is vital for inspiring a new generation of black writers, real change may only be brought about from an executive approach. Publishing companies should commit to recruiting and training executive and editorial staff representative of Britain’s diverse population.
Is it even Stormzy’s job to remedy the dearth of BAME authors in the UK? Clearly, he is a busy man. Yet, he seems to be fast becoming the philanthropist of our times. Although it is great that Stormzy uses his platform to help others, by highlighting one man’s penchant for doing good, we risk obscuring the necessity for systemic change within institutions. Both Stormzy and Penguin Random House must be credited for their collaboration. It should also be acknowledged that Penguin have pledged that their staff will reflect UK society by 2025. But, this is not to overlook the lack of BAME staff within the wider publishing industry outside of Penguin, and the changes that must be made elsewhere.
The attendees of the #MerkyBooks launch, eagerly awaiting Stormzy, were already inspired. But, ultimately, I hope that the impact of Stormzy’s imprint will be for the larger publishing industry to ‘Rise Up’ and meet the challenge that he has laid down.