After the recent Black Lives Matter protests, Instagram and Twitter feeds were filled with recommendations for books by black authors. As well as classics by the US writers James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, two contemporary British titles have been at the top of book-stack photos everywhere: Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which won last year’s Booker Prize, and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (2017).
Bestseller lists from the first week of June show these posts are not purely performative: Evaristo has become the first woman of colour to top the paperback fiction chart (fellow Booker winner Marlon James is the only other writer of colour to have done so), while Eddo-Lodge is now the first black British writer at No 1 on the paperback non-fiction list (Why I’m No Longer… jumped 155 places from the previous week, according to data from Nielsen BookScan). These positions were maintained for a second week, with Eddo-Lodge now the first black British author to top the overall UK book chart.
But these firsts should hardly be praised. “I can’t just uncritically celebrate breaking a barrier without asking why the hell the barriers were there in the first place,” wrote Eddo-Lodge in an Instagram post explaining why she felt “dismayed” at the news.
She’s not the only one. On 15 June the newly formed Black Writers’ Guild, led by authors Afua Hirsch and Nels Abbey and publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, issued an open letter to the UK publishing industry. “Publishers have taken advantage of this moment to amplify the marketing of titles by their black authors,” they wrote, but “we are deeply concerned that British publishers are raising awareness of racial inequality without significantly addressing their own.” The UK’s five largest publishers (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, Harper Collins and Simon & Schuster) all separately welcomed the demands and said they would address the points in the letter, which include carrying out audits of books by black authors and of black publishing staff.
The disparity in commercial success between white authors and authors of colour starts at the beginning of a writer’s career. Authors have recently used the Twitter hashtag #publishingpaidme to share the advances they received for their books, in an effort to highlight racial disparities. The white British author Matt Haig revealed he received £600,000 for his tenth book. The Noughts and Crosses author and former Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, wrote, “I have never in my life received anything like the sums being posted by some white authors”.
Advances are not indicative of a book’s quality. “What, then, do they indicate?” asked the US novelist NK Jemisin. “Let’s call them an indicator of ‘consumer confidence’. Specifically the publisher’s confidence in consumers.”
As recent bestseller lists demonstrate, there can be no doubt there is a market for literature by black authors. Next we must ask: who profits?
“All of these issues are long-lasting, and therefore one would hope that the books that encourage understanding remain popular and at the forefront of what we sell,” Waterstones’ managing director, James Daunt, told me over the phone. This month Waterstones staff set up a petition calling for the retailer to financially support the Black Lives Matter movement. It now has over 6,000 signatures. The firm has said loss of revenue because of Covid-19 means a charitable donation is not currently possible.
One of the letter’s authors, a Waterstones bookseller, told me they saw the company’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement as “optical allyship”: “All of our social media posts in support of Black Lives Matter include links to buy books from our website. How repulsive is that?” The employee said they learned that on 2 June alone, Waterstones sold 7,943 copies of Why I’m No Longer… online. “And they’re saying that we don’t have money to give to the Black Lives Matter movement? I find it morally reprehensible.” Waterstones has since announced to staff that Why I’m No Longer… will be July’s Book of the Month, and 10 per cent of sales, matched by the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury, will be given to Black Lives Matter organisations.
Eddo-Lodge has asked interested readers to borrow her book from a library or a friend; if they must buy it, she asks that they match its cost with a donation to the Minnesota Freedom Fund. “This book financially transformed my life and I really don’t like the idea of personally profiting every time a video of a black person’s death goes viral”, she wrote.
The small political publisher Verso has made a number of e-books, on topics of racial justice and police abolition, free to download from its website, and asks that readers who take up this offer donate the cost of a book to a Black Lives Matter cause. Over the phone, Jennifer Tighe, Verso’s marketing and publicity director, noted that the publisher often makes e-books available for free. “We think it’s really important that everyone can access work critiquing policing and the other structures of power that uphold systemic racism.”
Tighe said Alex S Vitale’s The End of Policing, which was available for free up until the end of last week, “absolutely exploded online”, having been downloaded more than 210,000 times in recent weeks. “We’ve always had a very informed, politically aware readership,” she said. “But these numbers show that the book has gone beyond our immediate readership. There has been a seismic shift in the mainstream.”