This week, readers across the country are responding to the call to #BlackoutBestsellerLists as part of an effort to amplify Black voices in publishing. The social media campaign was conceived and launched by Tracy Sherrod, the editorial director of Amistad, HarperCollins’ Black and multicultural imprint. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Sherrod says the goal of the campaign is to "highlight the buying power of African American book consumers as well as the behind-the-scenes efforts of Black publishing professionals working to deliver these books to the public."
Since 2015, Lee & Low Books, a multicultural children's book publisher, has been reporting on diversity in the book industry in the United States. The results are stark: 76% of publishing professionals across the industry identify as white. 85% of editors, the gatekeepers who decide which books get published, are white. Only 1% of editorial staff identifies as Black/Afro American/Afro Caribbean. Let that sink in. One percent.
Now factor into the equation that only 3-4% of folks who promote authors and get books into the hands of readers—literary agents, sales, marketing and publicity, and book reviewers—are Black. The single biggest predictor of success in publishing is a book’s distribution, where it will be available for sale. Sales and marketing decide which books will get the biggest promotion budget, which authors will go on tour, which titles will land at Walmart, Target, or in the hands of Reese and Jenna. The outrage over American Dirt may have been sparked by the author’s million dollar advance, but it was the marketing budget that fueled the fire.
It gets worse. Since Lee & Low launched their Diversity in Publishing survey four years ago, little has changed. "The 2015 survey reported that overall, 79 percent of people who work in publishing self-report as White. Given the sample size difference, this 3 percent change in White employees does not meet the bar for statistically significant change. There is no discernible change to any of the other racial categories. In other words, the field is just as White today as it was four years ago."
And this doesn't even scratch the surface of pay inequity for Black authors. A recent social media hashtag #PublishingPaidMe exposed the vast pay gap between White and Black authors. Jesmyn Ward, the first woman to win two National Book Awards for fiction (Salvage the Bones in 2011 and Sing, Unburied, Sing in 2017), had to fight for a $100,000 and leave her publisher when they refused to pay her six figures for her next book after winning the National Book Award. Even when she and her agent found a new publisher for Sing, Unburied, Sing, she still received a smaller advance than White debut authors with no proven publishing record.
Photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
It's clear that book publishing is complicit in upholding systemic racism, and it's up to readers—the consumers who hold the purchasing power that supports this unjust capitalist system—to demand change. That's what the #blackpublishingpower campaign is about. So how can you help?
How to support Black voices in publishing
1. Read Black authors
The best way that you can support Black authors is to buy their books, read them, and share them with friends, family, and followers. Silent Book Club members have posted hundreds of recommendations in our Facebook group, and we shared a stack of some of our favorites on Instagram if you’re looking for must-reads.
2. Support Black bookstoresThe African American Literature Book Club put together a list of Black-owned bookstores across the country, and LitHub published an update with links to shop online. Marcus Books in Oakland is the oldest independent Black bookstore in the United States, but they don't have an ecommerce site so we're helping them raise funds.
3. Follow Black book reviewers
If you haven't yet diversified your social media feeds, it's time to get to work. Add Black Bookstagrammers to your Instagram feed, subscribe to podcasts like The Stacks and Black Chick Lit, and join book clubs that feature Black authors. If you're in a book club that's not reading authors of color, demand change.
4. Be an ally
March. Protest. Vote. Listen. Learn. Call your representatives. Demand justice. Speak up. If you see someone spewing hate or intolerance on social media, report their posts. In Silent Book Club's Facebook group, our small team of moderators review every post that appears on the page, but we rely on the community to help us flag comments (there have been more than 20K in the last week alone). We signed a pledge to make Silent Book Club an anti-racist business, and we are committed to promoting and upholding diversity, inclusion, equity, and anti-racism in all aspects of our work. Will you join us?