Snapshot for 29 October 2020

Snapshot for 29 October 2020

There are more diversity initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic.  At the same time as Penguin Random House UK announced its Lit in Colour programme to address the white bias in the authors that are studied at UK schools, in Canada the country’s largest bookstore chain, Indigo, signed a pledge committing itself to stocking more books by authors who are black, indigenous or people of colour.

Indigo is now the first major Canadian retailer to sign the 15 Percent Pledge, a movement that started as a way to support Black-owned businesses in the U.S. in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.  Indigo CEO Heather Reisman said: “We are pleased to be joining the 15 Percent Pledge.  We are looking forward to further growing the number of brands and authors that we support through our platform and continue to look for opportunities to ensure that all Canadians see themselves in Indigo.”

The number behind the pledge is based on the black population’s approximate share of the overall U.S. population. Retailers signing on to the pledge in the U.S. agree to source 15 per cent of their products from black-owned businesses.

According to PRH’s Lit in Colour campaign, across the three exam boards in England for GCSE English, 56 of the 65 novels and plays that can be studied are written by white authors. Of the nine books written by authors of colour, four were introduced just last year and are unlikely to have been widely adopted. Only one GCSE English Literature course features a novel or play written by a black author. PRH UK says: “As a publisher, we have a critical part to play in publishing more books by writers of colour for all ages.”

Both initiatives come just a few days after the British black writer Bernardine Evaristo told the Frankfurt Book Fair that “publishing in the UK is almost entirely white, which has long been unacceptable to many of us”.

The black American crime writer Walter Mosley has just been given a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s virtual Bouchercon crime fest in Sacramento California.  Publishers Weekly asked him if organisations such as the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) – of which Mosley is a Grand Master – and Bouchercon itself had made ‘appropriate progress addressing diversity concerns’.

“Yes they have,” Mosley said.  “And I must say that I’m a little surprised by this national windfall. For years it was my belief that the nearly invisible, mostly unconscious racism of organizations like this would have to wait for a generation or three to die out before we could achieve the meaningful changes necessary for America to come to an understanding of itself. And let me say here that MWA and Bouchercon aren’t anywhere near being the only culprits. From literary organizations to TV shows the doors have been shut for centuries.”

Sad news from New York where one of the world’s most famous bookstores, the iconic Strand Bookstore on Broadway and its outpost on the Upper West Side, is facing closure due to the pandemic.  Third generation owner Nancy Bass Wyden is asking customers to help keep the store afloat saying “the next few months will determine the future of the Strand”.

Its revenues have dropped nearly 70% compared to last year and Bass Wyden says: “Because of the impact of Covid-19, we cannot survive the huge decline in foot-traffic, a near complete loss of tourism, and zero in-store events (compared to 400 pre-pandemic) … As the third generation owner, I have tried to imagine what my dad and grandfather would do right now after they spent their entire lives–six days a week–working at the store. I don’t believe they would want me to give up without a fight and that’s why I’m writing you.”

What makes the story further upsetting is the unkind reaction of some on social media who have – perhaps understandably – pointed out that Bass Wyden has substantial personal wealth and investments in a number of companies, including Amazon.  She defended her purchases of an estimated $115,000 in the latter’s stock this year by saying its appreciation had helped support the store.  But there will be many who wish her investments had not included the online giant.

Master, Mehta, Mayer and now Maschler.  With the death of Cape giant Tom Maschler, another figure from a golden age of publishing has left us.  In amid the glittering rollcall of names and anecdotes, one quiet sentence from his 2005 memoir Publisher (Picador) stands out.  ‘Strange as it may sound’, he writes, ‘when I look back at my publishing life I think the Booker Prize may well be my most useful and lasting contribution.’  It will be interesting to see if his name is mentioned at November’s virtual ceremony.

Roger Tagholm Photo

Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.

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