Books on Race Filled Best-Seller Lists Last Year. Publishers Took Notice.
In recent years, a strong interest in books on race and racism has accelerated. Authors, agents and editors are anxious to see how they do.,
After George Floyd was murdered last May, and protests demanding racial justice swelled around the United States, bookstores had trouble keeping “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo in stock. They couldn’t keep “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo or “The New Jim Crow,” a 2010 book by Michelle Alexander, on shelves either.
As readers rushed to buy books about race and racism, especially ones that focused on the experiences of Black Americans, publishers raced to sign deals to publish more. Now, some of those books, along with many that were already in the pipeline, are starting to come out into the world. Agents, authors and publishers are anxious to see how these titles do in a crowded fall season, and what their successes or failures might mean for future deals.
The new and coming books include “Say It Loud! On Race, Law, History, and Culture,” by Randall Kennedy, “Three Girls From Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood,” by Dawn Turner; “Social Justice Parenting: How to Raise Compassionate, Anti-Racist, Justice-Minded Kids in an Unjust World,” by Traci Baxley; “Entertaining Race: Performing Blackness in America,” by Michael Eric Dyson; and “The 1619 Project,” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine.
“It’s a tsunami,” said Kwame Spearman, chief executive of the Tattered Cover, which operates several bookstores in the Denver area.
And there are many more titles to come. This summer, Tressie McMillan Cottom, the author of “Thick,” signed a deal with Random House for two works of nonfiction, one on white identity and the other on contemporary Black motherhood. The two books together sold for more than $2 million. (Dr. Cottom, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes a newsletter for The New York Times.)
Beyond individual titles, at least half a dozen new imprints have been created since last summer focusing on books by and about people of color and other underrepresented voices. Among them are Roxane Gay Books, which the author and social commentator will edit; Black Privilege Publishing, led by Charlamagne tha God, one of the hosts of the syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club”; and Tiny Reparations Books, founded by the comedian and best-selling author Phoebe Robinson. Tiny Reparations will publish Ms. Robinson’s new book, an essay collection called “Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes,” this month.
New fiction will also take on these topics, with “My Monticello” by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, a collection of short stories, including one about a woman descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings who is pushed out of her neighborhood by a white militia. There are picture books, like “The 1619 Project: Born on the Water” by Ms. Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith. And there is poetry like “Call Us What We Carry” by Amanda Gorman.
“You’re seeing it in every category,” said Alia Hanna Habib, a literary agent at the Gernert Company who represents writers and journalists such as Clint Smith, Yamiche Alcindor and Ms. Hannah-Jones, a writer for The New York Times Magazine. “There are readers out there who may not think they are reading a book about quote-unquote race. But they are.”
Since last summer, books about race have sold especially well. In the first five months of 2021, books on discrimination sold three times as much as they did during the same period the previous year, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks the sale of most printed books in the United States.
Certain titles saw explosive growth. “So You Want To Talk About Race,” first published in 2018, sold about 34,000 copies in the 12 months before Floyd’s death. In the year that followed, it has sold more than 10 times that amount.
Publishing executives wonder who the winners and losers will be in an increasingly crowded field. Many editors, however, including Chris Jackson, publisher and editor in chief at Random House’s One World, reject the idea that the market will reach some kind of saturation point.
“The history of publishing is that when something works, people try to do the derivative version,” Mr. Jackson said. “So absolutely you’re going to get some books that really aren’t that good, that are probably derivative or repetitive or redundant of things that are already out there. It’s inevitable.”
But books about race and racism shouldn’t be lumped together, he continued. “What we’re talking about is not the category of ‘books about Black people’ or ‘racism,’ we’re talking about the category of ‘books about the American experience,'” he said. “Because that’s what these books are. They’re talking about different aspects of it.”
Take two books from One World, he said: “Four Hundred Souls,” edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain and published in February, and “The 1619 Project,” which will be out in November. “You could say, ‘Well, you just published a book that’s about 400 years of Black history,’ but they’re completely different books,” Mr. Jackson said. One is a celebratory narrative history, he added, while the other is a series of essays examining contemporary American life. “They’re no more competitive with each other than any other book about political economies is competitive with a work of history.”
Books that view race through a conservative lens are starting to take off, as well — including titles by authors like Candace Owens and Mark R. Levin — and there are more coming this fall aimed at the same audience. These books have been boosted by aggressive coverage of critical race theory by outlets like Fox News, and the Republican Party’s plan to run on culture-war issues in next year’s midterm elections.
Many in publishing bristle at the suggestion that the market can only absorb so many books about anti-Black racism and the experiences of Black Americans. Ms. Habib, the literary agent, said that for many years, publishing operated on a “scarcity model,” rooted in the idea that there could be only one successful book about Black life, for example, each season.
“When you look at the best-seller list, that is patently not true,” she said. “I think it’s slowly changing. But if you’re aware of historical trends at all, you have to be on guard for backlash. You have one big acquisition fail, and then that’s an excuse to revert to the scarcity model.”
If the ceiling is higher now, many in publishing wonder why there is a ceiling at all. Tanya McKinnon, founder of the McKinnon Literary agency, said that there is a seemingly endless number of self-help books on how to diet — but publishers and readers keep on buying diet books.
Ultimately, many say, these books shouldn’t be considered a category at all.
“If there is one thing I hope would have been addressed during the racial reckoning, it is for people to realize that Blackness is not one thing,” said Tracy Sherrod, the editorial director of Amistad. “Not Black ideas, not Black books, not Black people — we’re not just one thing. We are many.”