The tragic killing of George Floyd has sparked protests across the world supporting organisations such as the Black Lives Matter movement and addressing longstanding diseases such as police brutality, systemic racism and racial injustice. The protests have reached far and wide, in countries around the world. One of those is Britain, which has its own issues with embedded systemic racism and racial injustice. Peaceful protests have been filling the streets of cities, and have gone as far as to pull down statues of historic slave traders.
As discussions around black lives and racism take place online and offline, many are hungry to educate themselves on topics such as white privilege more thoroughly. This has led to a boom in book sales on the topic and literature from authors of colour. Recently, female authors, Bernardine Evaristo and Reni Eddo-Lodge took first place in the British Book charts, becoming the first black British authors to do so. An achievement that is well-deserved but perhaps should have been reached earlier. So, does this achievement say more about the systemic racism within the publishing industry?
Bernardine Evaristo’s novel Girl, Women, Other, has received many accolades, including the 2019 Booker Prize. ‘Girl, Woman, Other follows a cast of twelve characters on their personal journeys through this country and the last hundred years’ and interweaves race, identity and womanhood into its narrative. Evaristo became the first black female to top the UK non-fiction charts. Award-winning journalist, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s released her brilliant book Why I am no Longer Talking to White People about Race in 2018, after beginning the discussion on a highly popular blog post of the same title. The book sparked a national conversation on race. It addresses topics such as class, privilege, white dominance, whitewashed feminism, overlooked black history and intersectionality in Britain against the backdrop of modern everyday racist occurrences. ‘Every voice raised against racism chips away at its power. We can’t afford to stay silent. This book is an attempt to speak’ Reni outlined in the blurb.
After The Bookseller announced Reni-Eddo Lodge’s achievement of number one in the non-fiction charts she voiced her opinion on social media, making the very astute and accurate observation: ‘Well, the numbers are in. I’m the first and only black woman to top Britian’s non-fiction book bestseller chart. Can’t help but be dismayed by this – the tragic circumstances in which this achievement came about. The fact that it’s 2020 and I’m the first. Let’s be honest. Reader demand aside, that it took this long is a horrible indictment of the publishing industry.’
Reni Eddo-Lodge continued on Instagram writing:
‘I want to elaborate on why I’m ‘dismayed’ at what many perceive to be an historic achievement. I understand why some of you might consider my reaction to this news to be unduly negative. But I can’t just uncritically celebrate breaking a barrier without asking why the hell the barriers were there in the first place. It pains me to be the first, to know that the present is still history, that we are making it, with our hands, right now. To know that injustice won’t be uprooted unless we throw ourselves and everything we have against it. To know that people in the past put their lives on the line and that the work still isn’t finished. That white society had to watch a man have the life squeezed out of him in order to wake up to black humanity. My emotions are conflicted at this time. If Angela Davis is feeling hopeful about this moment, then so will I…but I can’t stop being distressed about injustice just because I’m having individual success.”
It is a valid and eye-opening observation, which will hopefully open up further discussions about the systemic racism within the publishing industry. In the wake of George Floyd’s death publishers have been publicizing the works of that tackle racism, showcase non-white writers and are expressing their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. However, some Black authors have been revealing the disparity in their book advances compared to their white counterparts. BuzzFeed reported that Tochi Onyebuchi and L.L. McKinney began the twitter campaign, calling out that publishing industries solidarity did not extend to their advances. McKinney began the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe that quickly took off.
BuzzFeed wrote: [Jesmyn] Ward, a two-time National Book Award winner for 2011’s Salvage the Bones and 2017’s Sing, Unburied Sing, tweeted that even after she won the award for the former book, she had to fight for a $100,000 advance for her next book deal. In contrast, white literary fiction author Lydia Kiesling sold her debut novel, The Golden State, for $200,000; a year and a half after publication, she tweeted, she is still “very far from selling that many books”.
In an open letter to the publishing industry, fellow author Dorothy Koomson wrote on Twitter that ‘publishing is a hostile environment for Black authors’ specifically addressing the major players rather than the ‘inclusive indies’. Koomson goes on to outline the obstacles black authors faces, such as having being limited to certain ‘tick-box’ qualities.
She writes: ‘Let me also be clear: Black Writers do not want special consideration, we do not want special treatment, we want a level playing field, an equality of opportunity, the chance to write books and explore as many subjects and genres as our white counterparts. We want to look around and see other black people being as successful as us in all different genres in all branches of the publishing business. And that is not the experience of most of us when we come to write our books or have them promoted or see them on the shelves.