Kia Abdullah: Why I set up Asian Booklist

by Kia Abdullah

It started with a disastrous radio slot. I was invited onto a programme along with authors Nikesh Shukla, A A Dhand and Mariam Khan to look at why British Asian authors are underrepresented in publishing. Sadly, we were asked to go over the same old ground: ‘Does diversity lower standards?’ ‘Do writers of colour sell?’ ‘Do people of colour even read?’ ‘What about what Lionel Shriver thinks?’

I didn’t want to keep fielding these questions or fighting for our right to exist. I wanted to do something positive and proactive, which is why I set up Asian Booklist, a website and quarterly newsletter that helps readers discover new books by British-Asian authors.

There are two strands to what the site aims to do: the commercial and the moral. 

Firstly, publishing is a business. Sales matter. Numbers matter. What’s interesting is that it takes only 2,000 people to buy a hardback in a given week for it to hit the bestseller list. Imagine if we could harness our collective purchasing power to propel more brilliant books by British Asian authors onto the list. We could change the narrative of ‘Asian authors don’t sell, Asian people don’t read’ in a concrete, provable way. That’s my ultimate aim with the site and our newsletter, Asian Booklist Quarterly. I urge anyone who wants better representation in publishing to sign up so that we can build a critical mass of readers. 

In terms of the moral aspect, I want to illustrate how few books by British-Asian authors are being published. Currently, we’re under-represented on the bestsellers list by about 60%. If you believe – as I do – that literary merit is distributed equally, irrespective of ethnicity, then you have to accept that there is a serious imbalance here. Asian Booklist presents the powers-that-be with cold, unavoidable data. 

The site focuses specifically on British Asians firstly because the UK has a poor track record in nurturing homegrown writers from this demographic. Secondly, British-Asians – particularly Bangladeshis and Pakistanis – suffer the highest rates of poverty in the country, which presents a significant barrier to entry when it comes to the arts. 

As one of few writers from this demographic to have secured a deal with a major publisher, I know how bruising it is to break through, which is why Asian Booklist champions writers facing the same challenges.

There seems to be a broader reckoning in the publishing industry following #BlackLivesMatter and #PublishingPaidMe. Agents, editors and publishers are questioning their role in a system that has been apathetic for a long time. There is a lot of cynicism about whether or not this momentum will last, but I feel hopeful. I think there is a real desire to discover new voices and I’m excited about that. Perhaps I’ll think differently if the 60% figure I mentioned doesn’t change in a couple of years, but for now, I’m remaining upbeat.

I’m hopeful because things are changing, particularly with regards to genre fiction. Ten years ago, Asian writers were expected to write the same sort of fiction: sweeping family sagas, stirring memoirs, state-of-the-nation magna opera. Increasingly, we are seeing authors writing crime, comedy, romance, YA. It’s slow but it is happening. In crime, we have Asian authors writing historical thrillers, police procedurals, lighthearted capers and courtroom dramas. We’re changing the narrative and that is worth celebrating. 

Kia Abdullah is an author and travel writer from London. Her novel Take It Back was named one of the best thrillers of the year by The Guardian and Telegraph and was selected for an industry-first audio serialisation by HarperCollins and The Pigeonhole. Her follow-up novel, Truth Be Told, is out in September 2020 (HQ/HarperCollins).

Find out more about Asian Booklist or sign up to the quarterly newsletter to discover new books by British-Asian authors.