They found it in a book that happened to share the same publication date (July 14, 2015): “Between the World and Me,” a slim, passionate essay on the harsh realities of racism addressed to his young son by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a respected black magazine writer and columnist but not yet a household name. “Coates was adopted by booksellers first, and then by readers, as an antidote to a canonical writer,” McDonald explains. “It became a form of remedial reading.”
The book also proved a staggering commercial success — selling, to date, almost 1.5 million copies in all forms and convincing the publishing industry that there was a mass market for unflinching examinations of American racism. “It changed the game,” says McDonald. “The performance of that book was a major factor in what’s going on today.”
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.”
Faith Childs, an African American literary agent, recalls her experience in the late 1990s shopping a proposal by black law professor Annette Gordon-Reed for a scholarly family history of Sally Hemings, the slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson. When it was finally published a decade later, “The Hemingses of Monticello” won a Pulitzer Prize (the first for an African American female historian) and climbed onto the New York Times bestseller list. But before a contract was signed with W.W. Norton, Child says delicately, she was met at other publishing houses with “a curiosity, but also a doubt and a certain disinclination to be enthusiastic. There was a sense that it was bad taste to write about race and sex when it came to Thomas Jefferson.”
Since then, Childs says, the task of selling serious books on race to the big publishing houses has slowly been made easier, not only by events in the news but also by an expanding pipeline of talented young black PhDs and graduates of creative-writing programs who “want to see their own experiences reflected on the page.” On the buying side, meanwhile, publishers have gradually come to see that books about race are good long-term investments, yielding untold stories on a subject that will always be timely.
A decade ago, editor Bob Bender at Simon & Schuster was persuaded to pay a commercial-size advance for an academic biography of Frederick Douglass by historian David W. Blight when he realized that there hadn’t been a big new Douglass book in 30 years. When “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” was published in 2018, it won the Pulitzer Prize and became a top-seller during the all-important holiday gift season. “Black history is never a one-and-done,” Bender notes. “You know it will always come around again.”
But in the current moment, how much do sales say about social and political influence? McDonald points out that bestsellers are created by white book buyers and that right now, many of those readers may be turning to weighty studies on race primarily as a “genre of self-help book.” “The preponderance of books being bought are still by whites for whites, or by black writers educating whites,” he says. “I don’t see a lot of black people reading ‘White Fragility’ or ‘How to Be an Antiracist.’ ”
McDonald also argues that book sales say little about the engagement of young people, who are clearly in the streets protesting but are more likely to rely on viral and free sources of information. For example, a widely discussed book among millennials recently was “The End of Policing,” a 2017 study by Brooklyn College sociologist Alex S. Vitale, thanks to the current “defunding” debate but also the fact that the publisher, Verso, was giving away free e-books while out-of-print paperbacks were restocked.
Among today’s born-again bestsellers, at least one is universally acknowledged to have had profound influence: “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander. First published in hardback in 2010 by the nonprofit New Press, the book made a forceful case, in the midst of the early Obama-era talk of a “post-racial” society, that drug laws and the prison system had become a new way of making millions of African Americans permanent second-class citizens. In 2013, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin cited “The New Jim Crow” in striking down the New York Police Department’s “stop and frisk” policy. In 2018, Alexander was widely credited with having helped pave the way for one of the few pieces of bipartisan legislation signed by President Trump: the First Step Act, which eased prison sentences and created more opportunity to reenter society for thousands of long-serving felons.
Within the book business itself, the fact that the industry is profiting from today’s unrest has caused strong ripples. Recently, more than 1,300 publishing employees signed up to participate in a one-day work strike “to protest our industry’s role in systemic racism,” in the words of the organizers, and to demand that publishers hire a more diverse workforce and do more to cultivate, market and reward black authors. Meanwhile, hundreds of authors of color shared details of their royalty advances on Twitter under the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe — documenting a persistent, and at times shocking, disparity in the upfront payments that prominent black writers have received compared with what their white peers have gotten.
Outside the publishing capitals, meanwhile, talk of doing better has spread through the ecosystem of independent bookstores and book festivals. In rural New York, Martha Frankel, the director of the Woodstock Bookfest, confessed that after being called out for a lack of diversity, she realized that she had long invited widely known black authors, who often weren’t available, while routinely filling panels with less-well-known, mid-list white authors. “I had to realize that if you don’t lift people up, they don’t get lifted up,” Frankel says.
For all the current hunger for policy prescriptions, however, most publishing veterans still argue that the best books “give people a vocabulary and a way to think about a subject,” as Bender puts it, but leave it up to the imagination and creativity of readers to decide what do with that awareness. Some eight years ago, for instance, Neil Barsky, a business journalist turned hedge fund manager, read two books that shook him profoundly: “The New Jim Crow” and “Devil in the Grove,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall’s attempt to win justice for four black men falsely accused of rape in Florida in 1949. Barsky came away inspired to spend a chunk of his fortune founding a nonprofit news site, the Marshall Project, devoted to covering criminal-justice issues.
Reflecting on books with the power to change lives, Jelani Cobb cites “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Reading it did that for Cobb as a teenager in Queens, helping to fire his ambition to become a writer telling the story of black Americans. Then several years ago, Cobb interviewed Colin Kaepernick, who talked about how, a generation later, reading the same book raised his consciousness of racial injustice and helped inspire his campaign to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem.
This year will mark the 55th anniversary of the publication of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and this past week its impact reached all the way to the halls of Congress, as the top Democrats in the House and the Senate took a knee in the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall after proposing sweeping new police legislation in the wake of Floyd’s killing. As Cobb puts it: “There are books that alter your soul. Different people can do different things based on their talents, their resources and their communities. But books provide the argument for why we should do it.”