How Book Publishers Can Help Promote Social Change

The events that unfolded in America following the death of George Floyd has led to an international discussion about battling racism. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement formed six years ago, but has taken on a new prominence in 2020 and become a rallying cry against systemic racism.

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BLM protests have taken place across the globe this year and the movement has been met with increased support throughout the world, with more and more people having their eyes opened to the inequality and discrimination that so many black people have had to, and continue to, face.  

Everyone has a part to play in promoting the social change necessary to level the playing field for everyone – and the publishing industry is no different.

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Giving black authors a break

We think nothing of a bestseller book list being dominated by white authors – but, the Guardian poses, could we ever see a bestseller list be filled entirely by black authors?

The #BlackoutBestsellerList campaign, encouraging readers to buy books by black authors, underlines the disparity in the number of published black authors compared to white writers.

“Buying books by black authors does matter in encouraging publishers to publish more books by black authors” 

American writer Roxanne Gay

Kosoko Jackson, writer of the upcoming novel Yesterday is History, suggested that publishers “look more critically at sales of black authors”.

“They say, ‘Oh, we took a chance on one black author four years ago, and they didn’t perform well, so we can’t take a chance again’,” he told the Guardian.

When he submitted a manuscript to publishers, Jackson said he repeatedly heard that the draft was “not relatable”.

“What is ‘relatable’ to a room of white gatekeepers?” he asked.

The message is clear from Jackson and others to publishers: ensure there is diversity in your organisation. And give back authors equal time and budget when it comes to marketing their work.

black woman writing in a cafe

Fuelling a book-driven empathy movement

While the BLM movement has fuelled a new interest in books by black authors, it’s on publishers to ensure this endures. We can’t go back to how things were before, with black voices going unheard. We’re at a pivotal moment, and mustn’t fail to seize it.

The EmpathyLab suggests that the publishing industry should put a focus on empathy as a way of bringing about social change. As Barack Obama says, “empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.”

EmpathyLab builds children’s empathy and social activism through a more conscious, systematic use of books, pointing out that the quality is a “learnable skill”. Science shows that books can play a direct role in building empathy skills – but it needs to be put at the front and centre of publishers’ strategies, argues EmpathyLab’s founder Miranda McKearney.

“Imagine if every child had access to the diverse books which helped them understand and value others’ lives and perspectives,” she added.

Bloomsbury’s Nicola Hill says that the publisher is looking to bring back that “empathy expertise” into its house and urges others to do the same.

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Final word

The publishing industry has undoubtedly benefited from the Black Lives Matter movement as people look to educate and inform themselves with books by black authors; with marketing budgets conservative right now, the influx of new readers has been very timely. It underlines just how influential the industry can be in bringing about social change. By diversifying its workforce and creating an ‘empathy strategy’, publishers can truly help to change the world.


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