For Publishers, Books on Race and Racism Have Been a Surprising SuccessBreaking News
tags: racism, books, publishing
Now, in the midst of the worldwide protests over the death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, books about race and racism have rocketed back to the top of bestseller lists. The phenomenon runs the gamut from photography and children’s books to novels and memoirs and the “backlist” opus of legends such as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. But at the crest of the tsunami are deeply analytical works about systemic racism that would have struggled to get attention from the mainstream publishing and critical world before the success of Coates’s book. Within book circles, their resurgence has stirred a mix of hopefulness and skepticism about how long the wide interest will last. At a time when matters from police reform to personal pledges to be part of the solution are under heated debate, it also raises the question of what calming down and reading a book can do to point the way.
When “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” by historian Ibram X. Kendi, won the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction, some in the industry were stunned. Kendi, then only 34 and the youngest winner ever, was published by Bold Type Books, a small imprint of the Hachette empire, and had tackled the hardly reader-friendly topic of how racist scientific theories and other notions were deliberately invented and spread to support black oppression. But “Stamped” became a bestseller, and this past week it was back among the top five best-selling books on Amazon, along with Kendi’s follow-up, “How to Be an Antiracist.”
No. 1 on Amazon was “White Fragility,” a sociological examination of the resistance of white people to examining their own racial biases and privilege, by Robin DiAngelo, a white PhD and lecturer. In just one week, sales of “The Color of Law,” by Richard Rothstein, a deeply researched dissection of the role of government in creating housing discrimination, “exploded” sixfold, according to Rothstein’s publisher, Bob Weil of Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton. “These are serious, factual, even wonky books about race that are being embraced by the public in a way we have never seen before,” Weil says.
For writers, journalists and industry professionals who have spent decades trying to get more attention for serious books on race, it’s been a time to reflect on how hard-fought those battles have been. “I remember 1992, when Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Terry McMillan were all on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time,” recalls Jelani Cobb, a black Columbia journalism professor and staff writer for the New Yorker. “That was a great cause for celebration in the black community. But these books are different. None of them are easy books. ‘White Fragility’ is meant to make white people uncomfortable.”
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