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A branch of one of the leading supermarkets in the UK was accused of having a book selection not reflective of the market in which it sits delegates heard at the Bookseller magazine’s FutureBook conference which took place online from 16 to 20 November.

The writer and co-founder of the UK’s Black Writers Guild, Nels Abbey, noted that Tottenham in north London was a centre for black writing in the capital but asked why this was not reflected on the shelves of the book department.  “This is an area which is very, very mixed and multicultural and predominantly black. Nobody is really running out to buy the latest Piers Morgan [a white TV presenter and talk show host] book round here. They will, however, run out to buy the latest Derek Owusu [black British writer and podcaster] book. There’s a mismatch here that needs to be rectified.

“So the bookshelf here in Tottenham High Road is not reflective of anything local or even national: its reflective purely of normal. Normal commercial practices. Centralisation [where books are bought by a central office for all branches] I believe is the technical term.

He continued: “I question whether or not it works, whether it’s good for our consumers, whether it’s good for our clients, whether it’s good for our culture and indeed our industry.”  But he ended on a hopeful note:  “I understand that this is commercial practice and sometimes when something makes money it’s just deemed to work and because it works we mustn’t change anything.  But I think us becoming much more reflective of our local and national populations, as opposed to being a reflection of normal, I suspect it will work a lot better for all of us.”

Abbey co-founded the Black Writers’ Guild earlier this year, the aim of which is ‘to create a sustainable, profitable, fair and equal eco-system for Black literary talent in British publishing’.  The body notes ‘there is a worrying absence of black publishing staff in key positions in sales, marketing and publicity departments. These roles are vital in the acquisitions process and, in addition, these specific roles are focused on books reaching readers from a range of backgrounds, so diversity is essential.  This also extends to designers and illustrators who are an important part of the messaging and engagement of a book – there is a woeful lack of black talent in this area’.

The Guild adds: ‘We are deeply concerned by the absence of any black members on core leadership boards. In 2020 this is unacceptable as well as unsustainable in the modern world. We are asking publishers to address and rectify this immediately.

‘We would like publishers to help us lobby to expand the pool of literary agents and build a network of black literary agents and talent scouts for emerging black talent that reaches beyond London into black communities in the nations and regions.’