Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I No Longer Talk to White People About Race has recently become the number one bestseller for non-fiction paperbacks on the UK bookseller chart. Eddo-Lodge responded that she was ‘dismayed’ with this accomplishment. As the only black woman to achieve a number one position on the list, the circumstances which enabled this achievement are not ideal to say the least. Eddo-Lodge’s book is only one of many books on the subject of racism and black activism to garner popular interest. Following the worldwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd by a policeman, many reading lists have been published and circulated online as people try to get a better grasp on how to be actively anti-racist.
Who controls what books we read? As readers we like to think that we have the freedom to read whichever books we like, but nearly all of us read books because of bestseller lists, marketing, word of mouth recommendations, etc. Nearly all books that come into our hands end up with us after a long process of vetting – and the ones at the gates, naturally, are publishers. The traditional publishing process starts with deciding which manuscripts are worthy of being published, and then a huge investment of time, money and effort as publishing teams prop up the book for publishing. From adverts, to reviews, to literary lists, to the very initial decision to accept a manuscript – it is the publishing industry that decides which books we end up reading. This seems like an obvious point to make, but a viral video of a black man getting murdered by police doesn’t seem to be a marketing tactic to increase the sales of books on black activism and race now, does it?
That’s to say that publishers are directly responsible for what we read, but Eddo-Lodge’s book becoming a number one bestseller is a direct testimony to just how badly the publishing industry is failing to support black authors. Her success after all was because of the protests, not because of the industry. Diversity and inclusivity inquiries into the industry have been carried out since as early as 2005, yet have shown poor results. One survey carried out by independent children’s books publisher Lee and Low once in 2015 and again in 2019 shows just how little the publishing industry has changed in terms of its efforts towards diversifying the books we read. From the 2014 #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign to the more recent #ownvoices campaign, people have been trying to diversify the publishing industry. But for an industry where the average ethnic makeup of employers across the board is 76% White/Caucasian, there is a point to be made about why we do not read enough books written by black authors and/or about black experiences.
We cannot go out of our way to read books by black authors, even if we may do so now as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests. To sustain anti-racist activity, to transform our society into one that is inclusive and that honours black people’s experiences, the publishing industry needs to stop making empty promises and enact changes in recruitment so that more BAME people are employed across ranks. The onus is not on the reader: publishers decide what we read, and which demographics books are marketed towards, and diversifying what books make it to readers is the publisher’s decision too.
Even if BAME readers go on to apply for entry publishing roles or decide to move into publishing later on in their careers, structural racism does not change with one person. Black publishing professionals have repeatedly spoken about the low pay, the scarcity of roles and promotion, and the lack of action (and not just talk) towards diversifying the industry and the books that churn out as a result of the industry. Many even leave publishing: after all, it is a gargantuan task to change the system from the inside, especially when microaggressions and even the very workspace culture makes it difficult to advocate for oneself given the white-majority space. Employers have to put in more effort in making sure that work spaces are diverse, that the people who decide what books get published from literary agents, to editors, to marketing teams, are reflective of the general population.
After the protests, what will the world become? Penguin Random House has already issued out a statement on the steps they will take to commit to diversifying the industry as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests. As one of the big five publishers, this process will have a direct effect on the rest of the industry. Maybe we can imagine a more inclusive space that honours black people’s stories. Maybe we can hope that something will come out of this.
Reni Eddo-Lodge was right to be dismayed. Her success is an outlier caused by a horrible event. And while eradicating structural racism won’t happen overnight, I would like to hope that we can imagine a world where increasing book sales for black authors no longer happen like this ever again. One where Eddo-Lodge, and all other black authors, can achieve their deserving success because of an inclusive industry that is wholly transformed.
We need to carry on from the energy of these protests and demand better gatekeepers of our reading, too.