When Kalima DeSuze, founder of feminist bookstore Cafe Con Libros, opened her Instagram account days after the killing of George Floyd, she was shocked to see over 99 mentions.
“I said, ‘What the hell is happening? What is going on?’” DeSuze remembers. “I realized that someone had sent the list out of books to read and someone then said invest your money in Black-owned business, Black-owned bookstores. My life has not been the same since.”
DeSuze’s “tsunami” of orders for books about race in America was a small reverberation felt across the bookselling and publishing industry in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
During the week of June 21, eight of the top 10 books on the New York Times Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction bestseller list featured books about racial inequality. Some of the most popular titles, like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, sold out locally and on Amazon.
NPD BookScan, an industry tool used to track U.S. book sales, noted that while book sales in the U.S. declined the week of May 30, books related to civil rights and discrimination saw increases.
Andy Waldron, a bookseller at Little City Books in Hoboken, sees his store as a resource against racism in the United States. “We can help be that step in combating either white supremacist logic or supplying anti-racist reading material,” said Waldron, mentioning authors such as Toni Morrison and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
But can book publishing– a predominantly white industry– adjust to the increase in demand that local bookstores have seen? And can indie bookstores such as Cafe Con Libros stand their ground in a corporately dominated industry?
When Cafe Con Libros experienced a surge in demand, it received support from 11 volunteers, mostly activists, working 24 hours a day to field some 500 to 1,000 emails and orders between May 25 and June 1. But those efforts only went so far. Demand has overwhelmed publishing supply chains. Cafe Con Libros was struggling to replenish its stock and will not have certain titles in stores for weeks because copies are not readily available from publishers.
“The book industry did not have the infrastructure in place,” DeSuze said. “That’s why we are in the predicament we’re in right now. They don’t have the books.”
Some publishers have taken unique approaches to meet the demand for reading material. Following the protests in Minneapolis and across the United States, Verso Books released a free e-book edition of Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing
But larger problems– involving not just the distribution of books, but extending to their acquisition– remain in the publishing industry. Quentin Greif, another bookseller at Little City Books, described a racially biased infrastructure that trickles down to independent bookstores.
“The publishing industry is notoriously white and I just think that that’s an industry that has long needed a huge overhaul,” Greif said.
Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the country, publishes an annual industry-wide Diversity Baseline Survey. The results of their 2019 study found that at the executive level, 78 percent of the publishing industry is currently white/Caucasian and 82 percent is straight/heterosexual.
“If you think about it, if everyone who is in a publishing house is white that’s going to result in more white authors getting their books sold for larger money. That directly affects our stock. What we have in the store. We have to sell what they are pushing.”
Earlier in the month, #publishingpaidme began trending on literary Twitter. Notable Black authors across multiple genres compared book advances with others. This kind of salary sharing has been happening across multiple industries and has illuminated pay disparities along the lines of race. Author Jesmyn Ward tweeted about fighting for a $100,000 book advance after 2011’s Salvage the Bones and 2017’s Sing, Unburied Sing, both of which received the National Book Award. Lydia Kiesling, white author of The Golden State, shared that she received a $200,000 advance for her debut novel.
Colleen Callery, Marketing and Communications Manager at Books are Magic, had been following the discussion online. Callery emphasized how prominent Black authors are harmed by financial calculations about perceived marketability.
“You see all these people who are huge cultural icons, who are writing about things that are breaking open these conversations,” Callery said. “They’re thought leaders in so many ways and they are getting paid 25, 50, pushing for 100k. Meanwhile, there are other authors who are getting very high six figures for debut novels that no one has ever heard of. Why do you feel comfortable putting hundreds of thousands of dollars behind this author and not this one?”
Compounding the problem, Amazon is an ever-looming presence in bookselling. By 2018, Amazon sold 42 percent of all books and 89 percent of all e-books, according to Bloomberg News. Independent bookstores are an alternative to Amazon and support a diverse range of business owners, but the protests have illuminated new ethical dilemmas for book buyers. On June 10, Amazon announced they would place a moratorium on the police use of their facial recognition software, Rekognition. In a blog post they wrote, “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”
Waldron is hopeful that the rush on indie bookstores represents a shift away from “monolithic companies” with questionable roles in policing. He also hopes the momentum will be sustained.
“After this big rush on these businesses and these particular authors happens, are people going to meaningfully continue to buy books from Black authors and continue to meaningfully support Black-owned bookstores?” Greif said. “I hope the answer is yes but that takes a sustained activism that I think a lot of people who are newly participating in this aren’t used to.”
Waldron thinks progress is being made.
“I think people are trying to at least start to decolonize their shelves at home,” Waldron said. “Trying to make sure that it’s not just run-of-the-mill fiction but it’s also an increasingly diverse bookshelf.”