This week Penguin Random House author Kit de Waal led a feature on BBC Radio 4 entitled ‘Where are all the working class writers?’, in which she explored working class representation on the UK’s bookshelves, and why there are not more working class writers or books. Tom Weldon, CEO of Penguin Random House UK, also featured in the programme discussing the “urgent commercial imperative” for making the publishing industry more diverse, as well as some of the initiatives we have launched to encourage more inclusion within our books and publishing.
This topic is one which is deeply personal to Kit. Describing herself in the feature as working class and a daughter of immigrant parents, she explains how she never expected to be a writer: “People like me weren’t even expected to go to university.” She recollects how, during her childhood in Birmingham, there were only ever two things to read in her house: the Bible and the News of the World on a Sunday. After leaving school at the age of sixteen Kit worked in a number of different jobs, before becoming a member of the employment tribunal, the adoption panel, and then a magistrate. She went to university at the age of 51, to study an MA in Creative Writing.
Kit’s debut novel, My Name Is Leon, was published by Venetia Buttervield at Viking in May 2016, and tells the uplifting story of nine year-old Leon discovering a new family where he least expects it. It was described by Mariella Frostrup at BBC Radio 4 as ‘a great read ... harks back to the likes of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird’ and by the Observer as ‘startlingly funny … balances the gritty with the feel good’. Earlier this year the broadcast rights to My Name Is Leon were acquired by Lenny Henry’s production company, Douglas Road Productions.
In addition to interviewing a range of writers and agents for her feature, Kit spoke to Tom Weldon to learn more about her own publisher’s approach to improving inclusion and ensuring that books better represent the society we live in.
Tom spoke of the “urgent commercial imperative” for making the publishing industry more diverse, but also the “real moral and cultural reasons” for doing so. Commenting that it is “wrong that culture is driven by a narrow section of society”, he outlined some of Penguin Random House UK’s initiatives to broaden the type of people we hire and the writers we attract. Amongst others, these include removing the removing the need for a university degree, banning personal referrals for work experience and paying our interns the London Living Wage.
Tom also spoke about our WriteNow programme, which seeks to find, mentor and publish new writers from communities under-represented on the nation’s bookshelves. This includes writers from BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) or LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer) communities, writers who have a disability, or come from a socio-economically marginalised background. Launched in 2016, to date the programme has welcomed 300 writers to six regional events across the UK, from Newcastle to Bristol, and received nearly 5,000 applications from writers around the country. Earlier this week we announced the exciting news of our first WriteNow mentees, Charlene Allcott, securing a publishing contract with Transworld, one of our publishing houses, for two novels.
You can listen to the feature on BBC Radio 4 here.
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