By Jared D. Childress | OBSERVER Staff Writer
When Angela Joy goes to authors conferences, the lines for White ones are “out the door” while only a few line up for Black authors.
This wouldn’t have been the case two years ago. Black authors were a hot commodity at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
“Why was it that after George Floyd all the books by authors of color shot to the top 10s of everything?” Joy asked a crowd of about 50 mostly White booksellers attending the Allyship and Activism in Children’s Books panel at the Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel on Sept. 11. “It couldn’t have just been the tragedy because we’ve had the tragedies before. Was it the guilt?”
Joy was one of three Black authors on the panel that also included Lesa Cline-Ransome and Doyin Richards. The event discussed inequity in the book industry and how independent bookstores can be allies to authors of color. It was organized by the California Independent Booksellers Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting independent bookstores.
Moderator Linda Sherman-Nurick, who owns Cellar Door Bookstore in Riverside, put the conversation in a national context.
“Pull up the New York Times’ bestseller list for picture books,” Sherman-Nurick said. All of the picture book authors were White on the top-five list Sept. 11. “Not one author of color. Not one.”
This is a far cry from the summer of 2020 when books like “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson and “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo ranked No. 3 in hardcover and paperback nonfiction, respectively. Ibram X. Kendi charted in two genres simultaneously, with “How to Be an Anti-Racist” charting on nonfiction and “Anti-Racist Baby” charting on children’s picture books in mid-August 2020.
Sherman-Nurick also revealed that Barnes & Noble came under fire after multiple authors reported the book giant would put only the top 2% of each publisher’s children’s books into their stores. “That’s book banning on the supply side,” she said.
Cline-Ransome said the policy, reported by several sources but unconfirmed by Barnes & Noble, is likely to disproportionately impact authors of color.
“If you can’t get your books in a large number of stores, you can’t get the sales,” Cline-Ransome said. “If you don’t have the sales, you’re either not going to get published again or you’re going to get a very low advance.”
Given the current landscape of the book industry, the role independent bookstores play is more important than ever. Unbound by corporate machinery, indie bookstores intentionally stock their shelves with diverse titles.
But stocking the shelves is only half the battle.
No, Not That One
Sherman-Nurick’s bookstore has many books written by marginalized authors, but she said those books can be a hard sell.
“We as booksellers can put these books in people’s hands and we can change the world,” Sherman-Nurick said. “But we sometimes have to do a lot of work to do that [because] sometimes people don’t respond all that well.”
She described scenarios in which she recommended books based on a customer’s expressed interests, only to have the customer retort, “No, not that one,” after seeing Black characters on the cover.
“There’s something disturbing to me about having to pitch quality literature to people who are turned off because it features people of color,” Cline-Ransome said. “[The themes in my book], are the same themes that you see in ‘classic’ literature.”
Joy admitted she didn’t “have all the answers,” but said these topics shouldn’t be avoided.
“I know a lot of these topics are difficult to approach,” Joy said. “What I ask is for you to consider what the other side is learning and when.”
Richards piggybacked on Joy’s comments, sharing his earliest memories of racism.
“I was called [the n-word] by a White person for the first time at 9 years old,” Richards said. “I went to my mom and I told her and she started breaking down and crying. Do you think I was ready for that?”
Richards also took issue with usage of the terms “co-conspirator” and “accomplice,” which recently have gained popularity in allied spaces.
At the beginning of the panel, a definition was read from W. Kamau Bell’s book, “Do the Work.” The book defined the terms as “getting down and dirty on the field” in solidarity with people of color, as opposed to “allies” who root from the sidelines.
“I cannot stand this co-conspirator nonsense,” said Richards, who is also an anti-racist consultant with a 2020 TEDx Talk that has racked up more than 15,000 views on YouTube. “Trying to stand up for someone should not be equated with a crime.”
No Quick Fix
The authors also suggested practical solutions to introducing and recommending books to customers. Cline-Ransome challenged indie bookstores to partner with predominantly Black and Brown community spaces.
“Don’t be afraid to leave the safety and comfort of your store,” Cline-Ransome said. “Perhaps go meet people outside of the community … partner with churches, or community centers, or apartment-building community rooms.”
Joy echoed Cline-Ransome’s comments. She compared the idea of indie bookstore community pop-ups to the Scholastic Book Fair, which for decades has helped schools earn millions in funds and resources by bringing books to schools that appeal to all interests and reading levels.
“To see an indie show up with books we don’t see at other stores would be really cool and it might help sales,” Joy said. She added that finding new audiences would not only benefit the community, but it would financially benefit indie bookstores, publishers and authors of color. “It might take some time, some gas, some extra muscle, but that might be something that would work.”
Richards advised indie bookstores to do staff anti-racist trainings and to feature books by authors of color in window displays and throughout stores.
“If you put [our books] in the window … people are going to think [it is a] really important book,” Richards said. “Put it in multiple, different places, not just in the ‘diverse author’ section.”
While the approximately 50 booksellers asked three Black authors ways to mitigate blows to Black books, the authors acknowledged there is no quick fix.
“You can’t put up a display or have a panel with underrepresented authors and [think your work is done],” Cline-Ransome said. “There has to be a recognition that this work is ongoing.”