Could the New York Times’ Best Seller book list ever be filled entirely by black authors?
As industries undergo reckonings around race, in the wake of international demonstrations calling for racial justice, prominent black writers have been sharing #BlackoutBestsellerList, a campaign encouraging readers to buy books by black authors between now and 20 June to push them to the top of bestseller lists.
“Buying books by black authors does matter in encouraging publishers to publish more books by black authors,” Gay explained on her Twitter page.
Oprah Winfrey has joined the challenge too. The talk show host asked her massive social media following to buy two books by a black writer this week “to lift their voice”.
“This campaign is not just about getting black authors more sales,” said Kosoko Jackson, writer of the upcoming novel Yesterday is History, told the Guardian. “It’s also about tilting the metrics of publishing in our favor.”
He explained: “Publishers look more critically at sales of black authors. They say, ‘Oh, we took a chance on one black author four years ago, and they didn’t perform well, so we can’t take a chance again.’”
Jackson said this kind of thinking resulted in fewer opportunities for black writers, leading editors to believe that black narratives lacked “universal appeal”. When he submitted a manuscript to publishers, Jackson said he repeatedly heard that the draft was “not relatable”.
“What is ‘relatable’ to a room of white gatekeepers?” he asked.
The #BlackoutBestsellerList campaign comes after last week’s NYT Best Seller list almost exclusively featured books about race and privilege. Books on the lists included Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book The Color of Law and Why Are All the Black Kids Still Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum.
The dramatic spike in book sales by black authors is echoed internationally. In the UK, Reni Eddo-Lodge became the first black British author to land the #1 spot on the UK’s official book charts with her 2017 work, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.
In the US, some bookshops are struggling to keep up with the surge in interest.
“I’m seeing a huge increase in sales that I’ve never seen before,” says Deborah Day, owner of Ashay By The Bay, a black-centric bookshop in Oakland. “It’s never been this busy. It’s as if people just discovered me. And a lot of that business is from non-black customers.”
Day says Ashay has run out of multiple titles, including Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and How to Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X Kendi. In the children’s section, Day says “everyone wants books about skin color”, leading to the popularity of such titles as Sulwe by actor Lupita Nyong’o and Skin Like Mine by Latashia M Perry. She’s had to press publishers for more copies, repeatedly. “I’m just trying to keep up with the demand,” she said.
In the last year the US publishing industry has faced a series of embarrassing missteps over representation and diversity. #BlackoutBestsellerList is just one piece of a publishing industry where only 1% of editors are black.
The industry faced intense criticism around the publication and promotion of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The immigration novel sparked a heated debate over what kind of marginalized narratives receive million dollar payouts. In 2019, the Romance Writers of America faced serious accusations of racism and discrimination against its POC members.
One black staffer at a major publishing house, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Guardian that senior white staffers had been struggling over how to support the Black Lives Matter movement. “The reaction was just very slow. The few black employees here had to push a lot to get our CEO to make a statement. But it should be as simple as saying you stand with Black Lives Matter.” One proposal the company finally drafted: for every book by a white author the company acquires, it will also acquire one by a person of color.
“The fact is it took a social uprising for publishers to finally focus on titles by black authors and that’s unfortunate,” the staffer said.
Author Jackson, meanwhile, said he did not believe the ills of publishing will be solved by one campaign. But it is a step in the right direction .
“Publishing is always five to ten years behind the curve,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll see change instantly, but I think with each conversation, we’re getting closer and closer to shifting the needle. We need more black decision makers at the table in positions of power. A few high six figure advances, or strong marketing budgets won’t change the systematic issues.”