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The threat by staff at Hachette Children’s in the UK to refuse to work on JK Rowling’s new book The Ickabog because of her recent comments concerning the transgender community is just the latest in a new activism sweeping the world of books.
It follows similar direct actions elsewhere. On 8 June there was a sudden ‘out of office’ Black Lives Matter Day of Action in the US which saw more than 1,000 staff across publishing and the media industry take the day off “in solidarity with the uprisings across the United States in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and the many, many others in the long history of Black people murdered by the state.”
Organisers said: “We protest our industry’s role in systemic racism, its failure to hire and retain a significant number of Black employees or publish a significant number of Black authors, and its pursuit of profit through books that incite racism.”
On 5 March, staff at Grand Central Publishing in New York staged a walk-out when they learned that it would be publishing Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing. They were joined by staff in Boston at Hachette sister imprint, Little, Brown.
On 3 February Latinx writers, publishers and members of the literary community met with Macmillan in New York to protest at what they see as the narrow and cliched view of the Latinx community and migrant experience portrayed in Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt.
One of the organisers, writer Roberto Lovato, said: “At this stage in the crisis in U.S. publishing, Jeanine Cummins is irrelevant. This is not about Jeanine Cummins. This is about us. Reducing the fight of 60 million people in the United States to the doings of a single white woman who steals and screws up our stories is not just simplistic but racist. Our fight is against the systemic racism and exclusion of the industry that created her, while also denying us the opportunity to tell our stories.”
In the UK, the Black Writers Guild, issued a strong open letter to publishers which included a number of demands. ‘We are deeply concerned by the absence of any Black members on core leadership boards,’ it says. ‘In 2020 this is unacceptable as well as unsustainable in the modern world. We are asking publishers to address and rectify this immediately….
‘We would [also] like publishers to help us lobby to expand the pool of literary agents and build a network of Black literary agents and talent scouts for emerging Black talent that reaches beyond London into Black communities in the nations and regions. This should also extend to buyers and booksellers to ensure the whole supply chain is knowledgeable and committed to working with our narratives.’
The letter also calls on publishers to take action over an audit of the books published by black authors and the publication of data on the roles of black staff across their businesses. It also urges publishers to make a number of financial commitments to help improve the status quo,. The letter wants to see “the deep-rooted racial inequalities in the major corporate publishing companies” challenged.
What is harder to get at is why these protests are happening. Some commentators are suggesting that, particularly with Black Lives Matter, we are seeing one of those ‘moments in history’. There is more than a hint of the revolutionary Sixties in the air. Perhaps it is partly due to social media. An image can go viral with alarming speed now, as with George Floyd. Perhaps too, when noises to make change remain just that, simply noises, then people take matters into their own hands, as with the toppling of the statue of the UK’s former slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.
Publishing and bookselling remain key responders to changes in society, but they cannot afford to sit apart from those changes. As the time-honoured phrase has it, they have to be the change themselves – and these protests are a step in that direction.