OverDrive reports books written by Black authors increased 200% between March and September of 2020. Anti-racism titles increased 297% between May and June, following the murder of George Floyd. This spike in anti-racist titles selling occurred when foot traffic and sales were slim to none for many independent bookstores; the increased demand for books written by POC authors and anti-racism titles were much needed.
Black-owned bookstores and businesses also saw a positive spike in profitability and exposure during the summer. As Katherine Morgan reports, Semicolon, Loyalty Bookstores, Subtext Books, and Astoria Bookshop all saw a marked uptick in sales during this time of civil unrest.
During the second half of 2020, there was also a surge of articles listing popular titles like this Business Insider listicle that shares 22 books centering on race and white privilege. Titles such as So You Want to Talk About Race, White Fragility, and How to Be an Antiracist are among the most common to appear in such articles, which contributed to the same anti-racism books being backordered.
Katherine Morgan notes a negative aspect of this surge in bookselling relating to disingenuous allyship: “Seeing photograph after photograph [on Instagram] made the whole situation feel… trendy.” Morgan continued, “Even though I’d like to believe that many of these people were acting with good intentions, my general sense was that most of these cases could be summed up as performative allyship.”
Danielle Mullen, owner of Semicolon, a Black-owned Chicago bookstore, shared via email with Morgan that white customers would “cry about the work they wanted to do on themselves but were completely uninterested in buying titles that were NOT trending.” Mullen also said, “I’d say that more than half of the purchases were completely performative, and we could feel the general disinterest.”
Mullen shared some customers frustrated about backorders went so far as to say, “This is exactly why I don’t support Black businesses,” or “I went out of my way to patronize your Black business and you can’t even get a simple thing right.”
A Subtext Books representative speculated many buyers saw purchasing trending titles as “chance to put their order confirmation on their Instagram story to show off to their friends.” Events Coordinator for Astoria Bookshop Christian Vega called it a case of, “look at this on my bookshelf, I’m a Good White™.”
Once the complex issue of racism was no longer trending, bookstores began to see stacks of books pile up. Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of Loyalty Bookstores said, “We have two full walls of orders not picked up between the two stores, and the vast majority are titles from this summer.”
Following the summer of 2020 came the presidential election. While over 50% of white women were estimated to have voted for Trump in 2016, we still wait to see how that percentage changes or stays the same. Unlike with placing book orders or showcasing popular covers on Instagram, ballots can’t be shared on social media with a trending hashtag attached. Voting is a private act, not a public performance.
When the dust settles, will there be a marked change in how self-professed allies voted?
You can read more of Katherine Morgan’s dynamic and thought-provoking article on bookselling to white “allies” here.