The nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice have set off conversations in nearly every industry about the treatment of Black workers, and book publishing is no exception.
The industry has long been criticized for hiring and retaining so few employees of color — according to a survey of the work force released this year by the children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books, only 5 percent are Black. But the calls to diversify have intensified in recent weeks, as Black professionals have publicly shared long-suppressed frustrations about how racial prejudice has affected their work. In publishing, that has included discussions of hiring practices, workplace microaggressions and publishing companies’ treatment of books by Black writers.
Publishers say they are listening. They are seeing books about race and racism dominate best-seller lists, and several companies have committed to changing their hiring practices and the books they publish.
Eight publishing professionals — working in different facets of the industry, including an author, literary agent, marketer, publicist, editors and booksellers — told us what they are seeing now and what they’ve seen before, how being Black has affected their careers, and what they hope the future will bring. Here are their responses, which have been condensed and edited.
It’s Canada Day in Canada, Memorial Day in NL, and Fourth of July down in Jesusland Plaguetown. If you love your respective country, please stay home and set off some fireworks in your backyard, unless you’re drinking, then watch the Flanderses next door do theirs. If you don’t love your country, by all means go jump into the the sea of bad decision-making that is public mingling and remove yourself or others in your gene pool out of the equation.
David Mitchell believes most writers envy musicians, and it’s true that I would give up everything I’ve done artistically just to have perfect pitch, but I also just wrote this aphorism: “Melody is just there so stupid people can remember the poem.” [ducks and runs for cover];
She’s proud of her win, but not happy. We should all be ashamed that it’s taken this long and that the state of things in our industry is robbing her of the pure pleasure of this recognition of her work and talent. All the work of reminding the White establishment of what’s going on should be done within our White establishment and not forced to appear in the acceptance speeches of lauded Black authors, editors, and artists in our field.
I know how these prizes are meant to work. Having been in the industry for a while, and with the help of Wikipedia, I knew that no black woman, or indeed black person, has won that prize since the awards were started in 1994. Ever. So apparently, in the last 26 years, there has been no book by a black author seen to be deserving of that prize. I’m not downplaying my novel, I’m mainly proud of it, but still, I can’t feel completely happy about how things have gone.
In my second acceptance speech I ended up saying how sad it was that it had taken so long not just for a book like Queenie to be published, but to be given such attention in the industry and in the literary world. The last written words in the novel are #BlackLivesMatter, and it felt important for me to remind the overwhelmingly white publishing industry of this, especially at this time of great change and heightened awareness.
Nope. I can tell you that from my days at Coles as a teen. Listen, some version of crotchety Bookninja was always inside here and I didn’t hold back on stupid customers. I regret it now, of course, but it felt fairly cathartic at the time.
A single example among many: in ’92, I came back to my old job at Coles at the request of my former manager to work the busy Xmas season for some extra cash. I was 21 and I needed the money. Sue me. Anyway, when a customer waits through the 60 person line that wound around the store to ask me a question, I still naively assumed it would be a good one. But when she reached the counter, right beside a new releases shelf with the book she was looking for stacked 50 deep, she read from a piece of paper.
“I’m looking for a book for my son. It’s called ‘It Takes a Hero’ by Stormin’ Norman.”
“Oh, yes,” I replied. “That’s right behind you there on the stand. It’s called ‘It Doesn’t Take a Hero’, by Norman Schwarzkopf.”
“No, no,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “My son said, ‘It Takes a Hero’ by Stormin’ Norman.”
[Insert a half dozen more versions of this same exchange, but with different words.]
The line had grown and people were starting to grumble with impatience. Finally, I sighed, came out from behind the counter, picked up the book and held it out to her.
“Yes, you see, ‘Stormin’ Norman’ is Norman Schwarzkopf’s nickname, and he’s being modest about his role in the war, and so it’s called ‘It DOESN’T Take a Hero’, see? That’s him on the cover.”
She blinked, looked back at her paper.
“No,” she said. “It says right here ‘It Takes a—-”
You could almost hear the twig of my last fuck snapping.
“LOOK, LADY, JUST BUY THIS BOOK AND GIVE IT TO YOUR SON AND IF IT’S THE WRONG ONE I WILL PERSONALLY REFUND YOU THE MONEY OUT OF MY OWN POCKET.”
Customer expectations that independent booksellers will do what a massive online operation does has caused deep frustration for Beverly, Mass.-based Copper Dog Books co-owner Meg Wasmer. Prior to coronavirus, most orders were placed in the bookstore, where Wasmer could put her expertise to use right in front of customers, guiding them through decisions that they might never know they have when buying online. She informs them when a hardcover is about to be released in paperback in order to save them money and helps them select the best edition of a book that will arrive fastest for a special order.
“Removing the actual experience of putting a bookseller with a customer has been a challenge,” Wasmer said. “We do this work for a reason and seeing what our industry looks like when we’re not actually involved, and how people buy books is absolutely bizarre.” For instance, since the outbreak began, Wasmer said half a dozen customers have placed orders for print-on-demand books by Mark Twain that they could have bought for a third of the price and received more than a week faster.
Like Orichuia, Wasmer stressed that the vast majority of customers are patient, but when their ordering decisions translate into delays, it has led to angry e-mails. Already feeling the effects of sustained eighty-hour work weeks, Wasmer made the decision to step away. She has posted publicly to social media about her frustration, but her business partner manages the responses to the few e-mails that are confrontational. “People are kind for the most part, once we get on the same page,” she said, “but until there’s that actual bookseller-to-customer interaction I think they forget that we’re real.”
Wives, husbands, spouses, lovers, partners, life companions, romantic friends… Call it what you will, but there’s often someone hardworking, level-headed, and reliable behind great writers… like Ms. Ninja. She has a very supportive partner who makes her coffee at 9am, reads her work during the day, and brings her glasses of wine after 9pm, I hear. Now I shall duck and run for cover while you read this article. But seriously: wouldn’t it be great to have someone to do all the domestic and administrative things for you? This is why the rich folk have assistants… It helps them get richer.
Behind so many writers and thinkers, there has been a supporter, editor, typesetter, listener, advisor, child-rearer, cleaner, cook, and lover.
Many writers’ spouses have influenced or made possible the great books we still read today. Some, it’s true, have not been quite so helpful. Below are glimpses of a few relationships, ranging from the indispensable to the disastrous.
In this list you’ll find Georgie Hyde-Lees, the subject of my first novel, More Miracle than Bird. Brilliant and independent, Georgie worked in a war hospital in First World War London, had very unusual ideas about death, and took extraordinary actions to enact those ideas. But the main reason we remember Georgie’s name now is because she ended up marrying one of the most famous poets of the twentieth century, W.B. Yeats. Theirs is one of the strangest love stories I’ve ever heard.
I both enjoy and dislike Canada Day. I enjoy it because while we don’t live in a perfect country, by any stretch of the imagination, we live in a much better one than most — socialized medicine, gun control, social safety nets, funding for the arts, etc. I dislike Canada Day because in many ways it is founded on a pack of lies, cheats, abuses, murders, rapes, and thefts from a wide variety of minorities, with First Nations peoples absorbing the majority of damage. Here in St. John’s, Newfoundland we recently changed our June holiday from “Discovery Day” to the placeholder name “June Holiday” in recognition of the fact that no one from Europe fucking discovered anything — there were already people here who we systematically wiped out. As in: EXTINCT. Because of White colonialism. (America, you need to do this with Columbus Day.) Eventually our June holiday will be renamed to something like “St. John’s Day” (also problematic) or somesuch, but really it should be named in some way after the Beothuk in recognition of the wrongs done. A remembrance day for reflecting on, not celebrating, the legacy of colonialism and genocide inflicted on the first peoples of this land. Canada-wide, I realize it will be many years before this sort of thing happens, but I really hope Trudeau will stop just talking a good game and make some real reparations and changes that make Canada Day worthy of our full attention.
I notice there’s suddenly much less coverage out there about the unrest in the USA. Got to keep up the momentum because the system is predicated on the will of the people running low, on exhausting the anger and inertia created by it. Where I live is historically a very White part of Canada, and the protests here are reflective of that, but the BIPOC population is growing in both numbers and voice and things are changing in bits and pieces. It’s odd to be so sheltered from it all when my friends in NYC, Philadelphia, Chicago, and etc., do all the work. Here are some articles for context on how our industry is facing change (not ideally, it turns out). Regardless, change is coming. We just have to make sure it happens before the newscycle tries to move on. Let’s start with an article to remind everyone that racism isn’t just an American thing:
Our daughter is moving back to St. John’s from Montreal today (her and her asthmatic boyfriend are literally fleeing the poor decision-making of that government and the bizarre behaviour of the people around this virus) so we’re going to be a bit busy. Here’s some news to see you through to Monday.