Last month, Reni Eddo-Lodge was reported by The Bookseller to have become the first black British writer to top the UK’s overall bestseller charts with her 2017 book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race.
The surprise — and the challenge — is that it took the recent, incandescent wave of Black Lives Matter protests to break through this particular barrier. As many publishing sources pointed out, the only other black author to take the overall bestseller spot since 1998 (when the data were first compiled) is Michelle Obama, the former US First Lady, who enjoyed huge success with her 2018 memoir Becoming.
The reader’s world is potentially limitless, and yet there are barriers: you may never discover writers if they are difficult to find, or if they stand outside the spotlight of bestseller lists and the front stacks in a bookshop window. Or if talented writers fail to get published in the first place.
These biases might be unconscious, but they arise from the lack of diversity within the publishing industry itself. At the executive level, according to a global survey released in January 2020 by publisher Lee & Low, 78 per cent are white. There are few formal surveys of the Indian publishing industry, where the faultline is caste rather than race, but most English-language publishing houses have been dominated by upper-caste Indians for decades.
As a child, my reading universe was only as large as the few local bookshops and libraries I could access. For some years, the Russians made a great impression on me because the Indian market was flooded with Soviet books.
When I found Delhi’s Fact & Fiction bookstore as a teenager, it opened up new territories. Its owner, Ajit Vikram Singh, introduced me and my friends to writers we’d never heard of, from Naguib Mahfouz and Chinua Achebe to Simone Weil and Toni Morrison. At KD Singh’s compact The Bookshop, I discovered Japanese crime fiction and science-fiction writers such as Octavia Butler and, later, NK Jemisin.
My father nurtured a lifelong book hunger — bookshops were sparse in the small town in Odisha where he grew up. He became a voracious book-buyer when he moved to the big cities. From Gabriel García Márquez to Nadine Gordimer and Maya Angelou, a larger world slowly took shape on his bookshelves. We read widely, and yet we were limited in the way all readers are — you can only reach for the books that are available.
It’s been an extraordinary month of reckoning for the publishing industry. For the first time ever, the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list was dominated by books on anti-racism, from Ijoema Oluo’s So You Want To Talk about Race to Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad. Meanwhile, Australian artist and author Shaun Tan became the first person of colour to win a major children’s book award, the 2020 Kate Greenaway Medal. Tan, whose parents are Anglo-Australian and Chinese-Malay, breached this longstanding, invisible barrier with Tales from the Inner City, a pictorial collection of strange and moving stories.
These ripples of change are tentative, but promising, and have set off necessary and difficult conversations. As writers across the world shared their publishing advances, prompted by LL Kinney’s #PublishingPaidMe hashtag, another painful fact surfaced: the industry pays writers of colour far less across most genres than their white counterparts.
Back in 1970, when Maya Angelou became the first black woman to feature on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list with her memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, she said of the civil rights movement in an interview to the Washington Post: “We haven’t seen protest like what’s going on since the civil war . . . I think this is the healthiest time in the last 100 years. Of course, it’ll be dangerous if it doesn’t work.”
Change is often sparked by historic protests, but it will take sustained work to bring in a meaningful, lasting shift across publishing houses. In India, the faultlines over caste, class and language run deep. The majority of the books that are praised or visible outside the country are written in English. Global publishing cannot see and largely ignores writers, many of them giants to their local readers, who write in any of 21 Indian languages. As with racism, casteism is insidious, the fallout of subtle but widespread discrimination.
Most Indian bestsellers are written by relatively privileged upper-caste, English-speaking writers (among whom I include myself) and editors from the country’s larger cities. It’s still rare to see a Dalit writer, or writer from non-privileged castes, on the weekly bestseller lists. If publishing houses truly reflected the diversity of the country, and hired more inclusively, perhaps their lists would grow beyond the relatively small world of the upper-caste, English-speaking, largely metropolitan writer.
After these past few weeks, when I look at the books in stores or on my shelves, I can only see the gaps, the absences — that long list of writers who aren’t read or even published because the industry had no room for them. This moment can’t sputter out; those gaps need to be filled.
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Get alerts on Books when a new story is published