Books by black authors have topped bestseller charts in recent weeks. Next we must ask: who profits?

From NewStatesman:

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.

. . . .

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. 

. . . .

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.”

Link to the rest at NewStatesman

PG is confused.

  1. 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”.
  2. 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.”
  3. So, is it wrong for a publisher to consider whether consumers to purchase a book when deciding on the amount of an advance?
  4. Is consumer confidence evil?
  5. Recent bestseller lists demonstrate there can be no doubt there is a market for literature by black authors. Next we must ask: who profits?
  6. If one assumes that black authors profit from the sale of literature by black authors, is that a good thing or a bad thing? If a black-owned publisher profits, is that OK? Should a conscientious reader investigate the race of the author or the race of the publisher’s owners or the race of the publisher’s top management? If two of these factors show as black and one as white, how should the reader make a decision? Does the ethnic nature of the author’s agent play any role in this decision? If a black author is represented by a white agent, who profits?
  7. This month Waterstones staff set up a petition calling for the retailer to financially support the Black Lives Matter movement. 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?”
  8. So is Waterstones supposed to financially support Black Lives Matter? Can Waterstones employees financially support Black Lives matter if their financial support originates with a salary paid by Waterstones? What does it take to purge the Waterstones’ money from its taint?
  9. So Waterstone’s social media posts supporting Black Lives Matter are repulsive if Waterstones, a bookseller, offers to sell some books to readers who wish to support Black Lives Matter? What if Waterstone’s social media posts supporting Black Lives Matter link to books by black authors? Presumably, Waterstone’s makes money from selling books written by black authors just as it does from selling books written by authors of other ethnic groups. Does mingling the sales revenue from books by white authors with revenues generated from books by black authors cleanse or taint Waterstone’s profits? What about the portion of revenues used to pay employee salaries? Does the conscientious employee refuse to accept any money Waterstone’s generated from selling books from links in its social media supporting Black Lives Matter because it’s repulsive.
  10. 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”
  11. It sounds like a committed supporter of Ms. Eddo-Lodge would refuse to purchase any of her books. Perhaps that supporter might organize a consumer boycott of Ms. Eddo-Lodge’s books and any bookstore that sells them. Perhaps organized groups of the right-minded should purchase a single copy of each of Ms. Eddo Lodge’s book and set up their own library to supplement the public library’s lending capabilities. Such groups might conduct social media campaigns urging people not to purchase Ms. Eddo Lodge’s book and, instead, provide links to a wide variety of libraries where people could borrow it.

PG is still uncertain what a sincere and socially-aware reader of NewStatesman is to do to erase any possible doubt of their virtue:

  • Cancel their subscription and borrow NewStatesman from the library?
  • Purchase a book written by a black person or not? Does this decision depend upon whether a black person has recently been wrongfully killed? Wrongful killing, no. Natural death, ok.
  • When a book financially transforms a black author’s life, is the proper response of a NewStatesman reader to boycott the book and put their name on a library’s waiting list for the book?

And, by the way, what is the race of the owner of the NewStatesman? The chief editor? The other editors? The custodial staff?

The front page of this digital issue of the NewStatesman featured a prominent headline titled, “From Our Authors” under which four authors were named and cute drawings accompanied their names. Three of the authors appeared to be female. One appeared to be male. All appeared to be white.

PG performed a quick visual scan of the many photos of people on the NewStatesman‘s digital front page. The overwhelming majority of photos depicted individuals who displayed the typical coloring of an Anglo-Saxon.

11 thoughts on “Books by black authors have topped bestseller charts in recent weeks. Next we must ask: who profits?”

  1. 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.”

    Some authors have a notion that if they consider their own book quality, then someone else has an obligation to finance it.

    But, how about consumers? If an author considers her book quality, do consumers have an obligation to buy it?

  2. As the Warden said, once upon a time, “What we have heeyah… is failyuah to communicate.” (The pathetic attempt to reproduce the dialect is part of the point I’m trying to make while distractedly waiting for a medical callback.) As quoted, Ms Jemisin was being too circumspect and brief — soundbitish, even Twitterish — when she described what advances indicate. One must unpack both the meaning and the source of “the publisher’s confidence in consumers” while correcting a capitalization that itself reveals much. (One must also wonder how much editing and/or the interview process got in the way, particularly given the… prejudices… of The New Statesman.)

    What Ms Jemisin meant was “the Publisher’s confidence in consumers.” Not the organization: The person carrying the capital-P title for that imprint/division/organization. Who is almost invariably of… a certain background. He (or occasionally she) comes from money; lives in, or has substantial experience working in the publishing industry in, the echobox of Manhattan; and, as Jessica Williams famously remarked, is always in need of sunscreen. And that has three critical influences:

    (a) Severe NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome. If the financial and sales concept didn’t originate in Manhattan among those with whom the Publisher socializes, that concept should obviously be tried out first by someone else until it does seem homegrown. That also means not looking at actual data, but at Received Wisdom, for the source of that “confidence”… and forgetting the self-fulfilling prophecy problem (if you don’t make, say, Black Romance both available and well-supported, of course there won’t be many sales of Black Romance to create “Publisher confidence”).

    (b) Living in the past, combined with “let’s not pay any lawyers to update our legal documents from their 1950s/60s roots.” Perhaps the best indicator of this is the continued treatment of the Republic of the Philippines as a “US domestic” market, which has been unlawful under both US and Philippine law — and a number of WTO proceedings — since Ferdinand and Imelda fled the islands. The Publisher got to that post by once-upon-a-time either accurately predicting, or convincing others that they were accurately predicting, future financial success of acquired titles. If this sounds like the French General Staff in 1912-14 getting ready to fight the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 again, it should: It’s the same problem. (With just about the same success level.)

    (c) Complete ignorance of what it means, and what it takes, to actually “live on” one’s writings. Remember, the Publisher is not an experienced freelance author; at best, he or she knows one or three (who probably have other sources of income). And they are all from the Publisher’s social circle (see description of who the Publisher is above). The less said about how the tax system makes things even harder for freelancers, the better (<sarcasm> that has nothing to do with class prejudices, not one little bit </sarcasm>).

    And lurking behind all of this is the immediate-profitability paradigm for corporations (especially those corporations viewed by “controllers” as their baronies), which just reinforces all of the above.

    I’m not a cynic. I’m a realist.

  3. He should care because not caring reinforces the Upper West Side echobox problem.

    One of the unstated assumptions of the Intellectual Property Clause (Art. I, § 8, cl. 8) is that creating “intellectual property” is like exploiting any other property — that is, subsistence is already assured from other resources. These kinds of assumptions aren’t just implicit in various letters among the Founders (or their equivalents) in European history — they are explicit. Creativity for hire is restricted to the upper class and the hereditarily-entrenched upper middle class. Below that, creators are “supposed to” work for patrons who have excess wealth to distribute to the truly worthy creators (usually chosen for their social characteristics as much as anything else, as a study of Renaissance Italy and Enlightenment northern Europe demonstrates).

    Now throw in the problem of historical economic barriers of people of color (sadly, I’m old enough to remember when that term was an insult; in the 1960s and 1970s, one did not refer to people as “colored”). I suppose that, if one thinks Publisher can and should be satisfied with what has always worked, and are confident oneself that that is sufficient for the foreseeable future, one need not expect Publisher to be developing other markets and other resources. If those assumptions fail, though…

    My point from cold hard post-War economics is — based on my understanding of other comments by Ms Jemisin in other forums, consistent with hers — that commercial publishing is living with a 1950s Manhattan-based view of America. That’s really not a good thing. It’s not sustainable, and it perpetuates the problems of the 1950s. The biggest object lesson of all is A Raisin in the Sun… which is (largely) a real story, and involves boring old civil procedure in the Supreme Court. The boring background stuff matters.

    • Perhaps it is living in the 1950s. Perhaps here were various names for levels of pigmentation. Perhaps people on the upper West Side think some way.

      That doesn’t give us any reason to care what it means to live on one’s writing. Maybe a writer lives on his writing, and maybe he doesn’t. So what?

      • People don’t seem to care if, say, plumbers can live off their work. Or any other self-employed.

        Sometimes authors come across as a particularly whiny people. Doesn’t mean they are but most are supposed to be educated people; you’d think they would’ve caught on to the basics of the business world. Starting with, “Nobody owes you anything.”

        • If there are many plumbers in an area, and their competition with each other drives down what they can charge, they are smart enough to move or go do something else.

          A subset of authors in the same situation have an idea that publishers and consumers have an obligation to pay enough that they can make a living from their writing. Is there some reason the writer merits consideration the plumber does not?

          • A sense of entitlement?
            Its not really a matter of competition but of expectations, most likely.
            Some folks don’t get around much so maybe they can’t quite accept that freelancing isn’t a guaranted job with a boss and full benefits, but an entrepreneurial venture and for the most part what you get is a function of what you put in.

            Ten years ago I might have been more sympathetic to poor, poor me tradpub screeds because tradpub was the only game in town. But today it not only isn’t, it isn’t a particularly good place to bet your livelihood on.

            There’s more to the world than the Manhattan Mafia’s validation by predation. Instead of tilting at windmills, go carve your own empire.

    • You’re generous.
      Given their attitudes, a 50’s outlook would be a big step forward for that business.
      It can be credibly argued that big NYC publishers aren’t operating with a 1950’s mindset, but rather a 19th century, pre-trustbusters mindset. Social consciousness isn’t part of their operational mindset. Expecting other than lip service will be a looonnnggg wait.

  4. In what time frame, and in what context? That’s the reasoning that justifies strip-mining in not just emergency, but all, circumstances. That’s also disturbingly close to the self-aggrandizing justification for systematic securities fraud…

    Publishing is not an independent, self-contained, self-sustaining system. (It’s not even a single “industry”.) The pretense that nothing done in, by, or to “publishing” has broader effects — including, but far from limited to, feedback effects in publishing itself, such as the “returns system” and what it does to author payment and selection — is at best shortsighted. I, for one, am sick to death of Gordon Gekko, because “greed is good” (and “the future is now”) denies the distinction among ecosystem, symbiosis… and parasitism. But then, I deny that economics is so “special” that what we’ve learned elsewhere about nature and human endeavor has no validity in economics, which definitely makes me not a neoclassical or classical economist.

    • Economics isn’t any more special than authors. It isn’t even “special.”

      An author is a supplier. Buyers purchase his goods. They don’t concern themselves with how he makes a living. Authors exhibit the same attitude toward the people who supply them with goods. .

      God Bless capitalism, for it has brought more prosperity to more people than any other system in history.

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