Riot Senior Campaigns Manager Hephzibah Kwakye-Saka on how to promote books by black authors

This article first appeared in the Bookseller on 24th July 2020

As a black publicist with more than seven years in culture and entertainment publicity, I have sat in many all-white creative meetings where the genuine answer to making a campaign diverse was to give Stormzy a call (before that it was Tinie Tempah).

If you are serious about diversity and inclusion, it needs to be thought about holistically.

While it has been very encouraging to hear the recent ongoing conversations about the need to diversify the publishing industry and to see a rush of acquisitions by black writers, fuelled by the Black Lives Matter movement, I am concerned that publishers are signing up black authors, without the knowledge and skill to market and promote these books to audiences that have historically been excluded.

Last month, the Black Writers’ Guild called on publishers to help tackle the ‘deep-rooted racial inequalities’ in the industry, and I was delighted to see that one of their requests called for the acknowledgement that emerging black authors need a specific and targeted marketing and PR campaign to reach audiences that are essential but are usually missed by approaching every book promotion strategy in the same way – i.e. going big on the Guardian and Radio 4. While these mainstream outlets are very important in reaching the masses (black people consume mainstream media too!), platforms like Gal Dem, GUAP Magazine and many more like them were created as a response to feeling excluded from the mainstream conversation and have now attracted dedicated audiences who feel heard and understood.

Currently, when such platforms are included in the media updates sent to sales teams, there is a feeling that these are ‘niche’ and won’t have the same impact on book sales as getting a piece on, say, Woman’s Hour. I wholeheartedly disagree! While these outlets are still relatively new and still finding their feet, they know their audiences and understand what they need, and there’s value in that. We see this in the recently launched Cocoa Girl and Cocoa Boy magazines by London mum Serlina Boyd, after spotting a gap in the market during lockdown. The magazines, targeting and inspiring black children has now sold out all 10,000 copies of the first issues, and has had over 50,000 visits on its website.

These platforms should work in tandem with coverage in national mainstream news outlets. It’s a strategy we regularly deploy at Riot. I just wrapped up a campaign for the National Centre for Writing, on the Desmond Elliott Prize, won by #Merky Books’ Derek Owusu for That Reminds Me. Making this announcement against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, we made sure to land coverage in The Voice UK and Capital Xtra Breakfast Show as well as typical places such as the Guardian, the BBC and the Evening Standard. This two-pronged approach resulted in That Reminds Me hitting #3 on the Amazon Movers and Shakers list the day after the announcement.

When working with our client, Mammoth Screen, (a leading TV production company) and Penguin Random House Children’s on the BBC’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses, we worked with Black Girls Book Club to curate a panel event of non-white speakers made up of some of the cast and crew to discuss the joys and challenges of taking the book to screen. We understood that for black fans of the book like me, this was one of the rare times we could see our pain and everyday struggle represented so accurately in a fictional book and now on primetime TV, making it extremely important to include and empower this demographic as part of our campaign strategy.

Major global news outlets are slowly but surely seeing the merits of investing in black audiences by creating sub-brands or sections on their wider platforms for these voices to be championed. These include Pidgin (BBC News), R29 Unbothered (Refinery29) and Cocoa Butter (BuzzFeed) to name but a few, providing even more opportunities for publicity and marketing teams (not least when mainstream media is axing supplements that have been integral to campaigns thus far). But understanding these outlets and the audience is key, and that is a specialism.

It strikes me that when publishers (by which I mean editors, designers, and sales teams as much as marketing and publicity departments) begin to value black consumers by embracing the full range of news and entertainment sources that we engage with, and which speak directly and unashamedly to us, that is when real change will be felt, not only culturally, but also positively on the bottom line.

Never-seen-before manuscript by Philip Pullman revealed on 25th anniversary of Northern Lights


“When I wrote Serpentine, I had no idea that I was going on to write another trilogy, showing Lyra as an adult, but she and her world wouldn’t leave me alone.” – Philip Pullman 

  • Serpentine, a new book featuring a teenage Lyra Silvertongue, will be published in October 2020
  • Academy Award-winning actress Olivia Colman to narrate audiobook edition 
  • BBC One and HBO’s His Dark Materials Season Two confirmed for this autumn, based on The Subtle Knife 

Penguin Random House have today, Thursday 9th July 2020, announced that they will be publishing a previously unseen manuscript by Philip Pullman this autumn. Serpentine – a novella set after the events of His Dark Materials but before those of The Secret Commonwealth – was written in 2004, but has remained under wraps until now.   

The announcement coincides with the 25th anniversary of Northern Lights, the first volume of Pullman’s ground-breaking, internationally bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy, which was published in 1995.  

The standalone short story was written for a charity auction at the request of the National Theatre’s then-director, Nicholas Hytner, during the award-winning stage production of His Dark Materials. The hand-written manuscript and printed typescript were auctioned and bought by Glenn and Phyllida Earle for a substantial sum, with all proceeds going to charity. The book is being published 16 years on, following the publication of The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust Volume Two last autumn, where readers were introduced to an adult Lyra. 

Philip Pullman says: “Why are we publishing this story now? Because with the development of The Book of Dust, especially after the events described in The Secret Commonwealth, we can see a change in the way Lyra understands herself, and her relationship with Pantalaimon, which is prefigured in this little Arctic episode. When I wrote Serpentine, I had no idea that I was going on to write another trilogy, showing Lyra as an adult, but she and her world wouldn’t leave me alone. When it comes to human affairs, a billion invisible filaments connect us to our own pasts, as well as to the most remote things we can imagine; and I hope that, above all, these books are about being alive and being human.”  

In Serpentine, a teenage Lyra returns to the town of Trollesund, the setting of her first encounter with Iorek Byrneson and Lee Scoresby in Northern Lights. Lyra and Pan are older and a little wiser, and in search of an answer to a shocking, secret condition – their ability to separate – from the witch-consul, Dr Lanselius. What unfolds is a tender, revelatory scene that foreshadows Lyra’s future struggles as a young woman, and provides insight into Pullman’s own early exploration of a previously unthinkable plot development that would emerge in his The Book of Dust sequence: the idea that a human’s bond with their daemon can be irreparably broken. 

Serpentine will be published by Penguin Random House Children’s on 15th October 2020 in hardback and ebook edition, with illustrations by Tom Duxbury, alongside an audiobook edition narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Olivia Colman (The CrownThe FavouriteFleabag). 

Northern Lights introduced readers to the parallel world of Lyra Belacqua, the truth-telling alethiometer, the concept of Dust and the idea of dæmons, the animal embodiment of a human’s inner-life and thought. Acclaimed as a modern masterpiece from the beginning, Northern Lights went on to win numerous awards, including the Carnegie of Carnegies, has sold over 2 million copies through BookScan’s Total Consumer Market and has been translated into 45 languages. The book established Pullman as one of the greatest storytellers of our time. 

25 years on, Lyra’s story continues to grip the nation. 18 million copies of the His Dark Materials trilogy have sold in over 44 languages, and the BBC/HBO television adaptation of His Dark Materials, with its all-star cast including Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy and Lin-Manuel Miranda, was the biggest new British show in over five years on any channel, with initial viewing figures of 7.2 million.  

2020 sees an exciting programme of Pullman activity, with the confirmation of Season Two of the His Dark Materials series launching later this year, as well as the publication of three new editions of Pullman titles: The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust Volume Two paperback from David Fickling Books in association with Penguin Random House (17th September), Dæmon Voices paperback from David Fickling Books (1st October) and a fully-illustrated hardback gift editionNorthern Lights: The Illustrated Edition (5th November), from Scholastic. 

Derek Owusu wins 2020 Desmond Elliott Prize with “groundbreaking” debut That Reminds Me

Taylor Beidler wins the inaugural UEA New Forms Award and Michelle Perkins receives the first Laura Kinsella Fellowship

The National Centre for Writing (NCW) has today (2nd July) announced Derek Owusu’s That Reminds Me as the winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize 2020. The novel-in-verse, praised by judges as a ‘transcendent work of literature’, is chosen as the best debut novel across the UK and Ireland this year from a strong shortlist including The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré and The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu.

In addition to the £10,000 prize money, Owusu will receive a tailored year-round platform of support and mentorship from the NCW, which is running the Desmond Elliott Prize for the first time this year as part of its new Early Career Awards portfolio.

That Reminds Me is a vivid and semi-autobiographical tale of a British-Ghanaian boy called K, whose turbulent childhood spent passing through foster homes leaves him battling with a budding neurosis. At 11-years-old, K is moved from his white foster family in a village in Suffolk and is taken back to the very different context of inner-city London after his foster mother develops cancer. Each section, told in fragments of memory, explores K’s flickering experiences of abuse, sexual awakening, depression, alcoholism, self-harm and addiction.

It was chosen as the best debut of the year by a judging panel chaired by author and previous Desmond Elliott Prize winner, Preti Taneja, who was joined by Chief Lead Writer at The Observer, Sonia Sodha, and writer and editor Sinéad Gleeson. Preti Taneja said: “That Reminds Me is written with a rare style that wrings pure beauty from every painful, absurd moment K must face. Despite the terrors around him, this young black man has an instinctive love for the world that burns at the core of the book. The judges and I were as shattered by the truths of the story as we were moved by the talent of its writer. Derek Owusu has given us a unique, profound and transcendent work of literature: we want as many readers as possible to discover it – once they do they will return to again and again.”

Owusu is a writer, poet and podcaster from north London who, before turning his hand to fiction, collated, edited and contributed to Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space (2019), an anthology of writing by 20 Black British men. He was a co-host of the literature podcast Mostly Lit up until 2017.

That Reminds Me is published by Stormzy’s #Merky imprint. It is the first title in a two-book deal for Owusu, and the first book published by the imprint to have won any major literary prize. The TV and film rights to Owusu’s second book with #Merky, Teaching My Brother to Read, have already been sold to Idris Elba’s production company, Green Door Pictures.

The new Early Career Awards portfolio also includes the University of East Anglia (UEA) New Forms Award for an innovative and daring new voice in fiction and the Laura Kinsella Fellowship which recognises an exceptional writer who has experienced limiting circumstances or is currently underrepresented in literary fiction.

The UEA New Forms Awards was judged by writer and poet Inua Ellams, with Professor Henry Sutton and Dr. Claire Hynes of UEA and NCW Programme Director Peggy Hughes. It is awarded to Taylor Beidler, whose project explores non-traditional storytelling and aims to synthesise her work as a playwright, performance artist and creative non-fiction writer.

Of Beidler’s entry, Peggy Hughes said: “This is an impressive project with exciting potential, using a personal story to powerful, measured effect.”

The Laura Kinsella Fellowship was judged by doctor and author Roopa Farooki and novelist and playwright Alice Jolly with Chief Executive of the NCW, Chris Gribble. It is awarded to Michelle Perkins. Perkins originally trained as a nurse and was the first person in her family to go to university when she studied at Goldsmiths in the 90s. After experiencing some major life challenges, she rediscovered writing as a means to make sense of her difficult family history.

Of Perkins’ work, Roopa Farooki said: “There is a poetic pragmatism that is the writer’s own, and I feel there is great potential for this writer to be a bold and brilliant voice.”

Beidler and Perkins will both receive £4,000 to support them at the beginnings of their careers as well as a bespoke programme of support provided by the NCW, supported by Arts Council England. All three winners have also been invited to choose a selection of ten books which NCW will gift to a library or school of their choice.

Running in parallel to the Early Career Awards is an online digital programme providing free resources for anyone, anywhere wanting to progress with their writing. Every two months NCW releases a bespoke support package with advice from established and new voices. Supported by the Arts Council England, this element of the Early Career Awards aims to widen the impact of literary prize culture.