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Diversity in Publishing

The winner of the prestigious Booker Prize this year is Douglas Stuart, a New York resident who originally comes from Scotland. His debut novel, Shuggie Bain, is a heartbreaking story of a mother of three sons who, after her abusive husband finally leaves her, struggles with an alcohol addiction.

Many have made comparisons to Stuart’s own early life, where he was brought up in Glasgow. His own mother was an alcoholic who died when Stuart was in his teens.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Stuart said he’d written the book for himself and had never expected anyone to ever read it. It took him ten years to publish his novel, telling himself that he wasn’t a writer, that people with his background didn’t become published authors. For many of those years, his husband was the only person to read his manuscript.

“Growing up working class in Glasgow,” he said, “feeling excluded from literature for most of my young adult life, I internalized a lot of feelings; feelings of just not belonging.”

In short, he said, he had imposter syndrome.

Familiar story

This is common for many marginalized people. Research by Professor Katy Shaw of Northumbria University in the UK found that “growing up in families with a lack of books, or receiving a poor education, can lead to a lack of confidence or imposter syndrome.”

Prof. Shaw identified this lack of “cultural capital” as one of five barriers to marginalised people who want to get into publishing. They also lack the networks of other writers and industry professional who could give moral support and feedback on their writing. And then there are the systemic problems within the publishing sector which, the research states, lacks diversity, and even when there is some effort to expand diversity, many new writers feel it is merely tokenism, “more of a box-ticking exercise than a meaningful attempt to uncover talent.”

The research also shows that more marginalised people would read more books if they recognised the voices and characters they were reading, so there is the potential of opening up a market that the publishing industry doesn’t currently target.

I recently became involved in an organization that works hard to address these problems and increase diversity in publishing. The Arkbound Foundation [1] has in base in Douglas Stuart’s hometown of Glasgow, and one in Bristol, England. They work directly with marginalized people and communities to give new writers an opportunity to publish their work and give readers a chance to hear those new voices.

Individuals and communities

Recent publications include Tick Tock: It’s Time to Listen, a collection of poems that depict life on the autism spectrum, and one close to my own interests, Beyond the Mind, a self-help by Jema Fowler that explores meditation and mindfulness as therapy and explains its practical uses for everyday life.

Getting this kind of recognition can be transformative for these authors, but Arkbound’s intention is also to change narratives and assumptions around some of the most important issues of the day. And the organization has already seen this through raising awareness to autism, homelessness and how local communities can help preserve nature. And Arkbound doesn’t just help individual authors but entire communities by supporting local community centers, small libraries and reading groups.

Current projects include an LGBTQ+ anthology of stories from the Scottish-based LGBTQ+ community to produce a book that provides a real and honest look at LGBTQ+ life in Scotland. This project is currently accepting submissions (but only from authors in Scotland); a creative writing mentoring program for minority/under-represented groups (including but not limited to BAME, LGBTQ+, neurodiverse and low-income groups); and Arkbound will be publishing a book that brings together research from diverse voices across the world to provide a comprehensive look at the environmental crisis and the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021.

The Writer Unboxed community offers very similar support, although mostly virtual, to so many authors from an incredible mix of backgrounds from all over the world. I’m sure many of you understand and have experienced that feeling of “not belonging” that Douglas Stuart talked about, and I know the frustration many of you have too about breaking into publishing. Fortunately, organizations like Arkbound can make a significant difference, just like here on WU.

Find out more about Arkbound’s work from their website: www.arkfound.org [1].

What are your imposter syndrome experiences? Do you come from a marginalized community and find it difficult to break into publishing? Do you know of organisations worthy of a shout-out? Please share in comments.

About Jim Dempsey [2]

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing [3]. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading [4] and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation [5]. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [6] website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist [7].