It has been an extraordinary fortnight. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in America have spread around the world and have put diversity in the publishing industry at the forefront of people’s minds, even temporarily eclipsing Covid and bookshop re-openings.
Major groups like Hachette and Penguin Random House issued statements of support and Hachette donated £10,000 each to the United Families and Friends Campaign, a coalition of families and friends of those who have died in the custody of police and prison officers, and the Inclusive Indies Fund, which helps diversity-led independent publishers during the coronavirus crisis.
Penguin Random House put this message on its homepage: ‘We stand against racism and violence towards the Black community. And we commit to listening – to our readers, our authors, and to our teams – as we work toward becoming part of the change’. Waterstones’ staff began a petition calling for the company to make a donation to BLM and related bodies.
In the US, more than 1,100 workers across the book and media industry took the day off work on 8 June “in solidarity with the uprisings across the United States in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and the many, many others in the long history of Black people murdered by the state”. A statement from the organisers continued: “We protest our industry’s role in systemic racism, its failure to hire and retain a significant number of Black employees or publish a significant number of Black authors, and its pursuit of profit through books that incite racism.”
Publishers Weekly said: ‘As an industry, we must come together not just to support the rights to freely assemble and publish, but to stand against the systematic and historic victimization of people of colour in substantial ways.’ The magazine said that it was committed to increasing its efforts to promote diversity and that, as a first step, it would ‘hire a black journalist to write a regular magazine column and report for our other vehicles, covering diversity and all other topics related to the book business’.
But this was called out, with Nevin Mays at the organisation Editors of Colour, commenting: “[This person] will likely write about issues of diversity and social justice because these writers are more likely to be awake to those issues. But they should also be allowed to and invited to and expected to write about the broader publishing industry and the variety of stories happening within it and around it. Only by treating all writers as equal members of the community and equal members of staff can we begin to break down our biased treatment of oppressed members of our publishing industry and community.”
Many booksellers are supporters of the BLM movement. Indies in the US have been offering sanctuary and first aid help where they can. Jeanine Cook, owner of Harriet’s Bookshop in Philadelphia, went to City Hall with members of her family to hand out free books to protesters, among them The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Some positive news concerning independent bookshops came from India where a new industry body has been formed. A group of independent booksellers including Leonard Fernandes of Dogears Bookshop in Goa have formed the Independent Bookshops Association of India whose objectives include ‘actively promoting the role of independent bookstores in the publishing industry, being a bridge between independent bookstores and other stakeholders in the book publishing and book retail industry, fostering a network of members who share resources and best practices and being a forum where members can voice their concerns regarding the book publishing and book retail industry’.
Let’s end where we began. Looking at the marches, one publishing commentator said: “Good will, to be sure, has been expressed [too]. Counter to the terrible episodes of burning and looting and shooting, there have been spontaneous demonstrations of friendship and concern. A fine example was the ‘Walk for Understanding’ in Newark, New Jersey, which brought out 25,000 people, white and black, from the homes and churches of the city and all its polite suburbs, to march through riot-torn areas.”
What makes these words interesting is that they were written more than 50 years ago, in the 15 April 1968 edition of Publishers Weekly by editor Chandler B Grannis, following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Grannis, who died in 2002 at the age of 90, would surely have been both heartened by the numbers calling for change today but disheartened that all these years later such movements should still be necessary.
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.