Anti-racist literature sales are up but differ by region

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https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/business/black-owned-bookstores-anti-racist-literature/?tid

Demand for anti-racist literature is up.
These black bookstore owners hope it lasts

Library and book sales data show how interest in anti-racist
and social justice titles exploded after George Floyd’s death

The Fire Next Time book coverHow to be an antiracist book coverI'm Still Here book coverBetween the world and me book coverStamped from the beginning book coverJust Mercy book coverThe Color of Law book coverStamped book coverWhy are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? book coverThe New Jim Crow book coverThe Hate U Give book coverBy Brittany Renee MayesLauren Tierney and  Dan Keating July 2, 2020HomeShare50

In the days following the killing of George Floyd, unrest erupted in Minneapolis and across the country. But this time, people seemed to be taking to a new form of protest and support: Anti-racist reading.

As protesters gathered in U.S. cities, demanding justice for Floyd and other black victims of police brutality, black-owned bookstores were flooded with requests for anti-racist and social justice literature.

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“We’ve probably sold more books in the last month than we sold our entire first year in business,” said Jazzi McGilbert, owner of Reparations Club in Los Angeles. “Since the protest started, we are seeing pretty overwhelming support from what, based on the reading list, appear to be well-intentioned white folks that are trying to educate themselves about race in America and anti-racism.”

(Photo of Jazzi McGilbert, owner of Reparations Club/Daniel Redwood, courtesy of the owner)

“I’m careful [not] to over-acknowledge people just reading books by black people. … I don’t think it should be a revolutionary act. It’s something people should have been doing for a long time.”

—Jazzi McGilbert,
owner of Reparations Club in Los Angeles

None of the books on the June 7 New York Times Best Sellers list, which was based on sales data from the week of Floyd’s death, were about race. Two weeks later, two-thirds were.

There was no similar spike in anti-racist and social justice literature after the killings of Trayvon Martin in 2012 or Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice in 2014.

Amazon Charts data shows a similar pattern. The week of May 24, no anti-racist books appeared in the week’s top 20 most sold books. Two weeks later, there were 11. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Amazon’s most sold books by week

Anti-racist book

Social justice or biographical book written by a black author

Week of May 24Week of June 7Week of June 21
1Untamed1White Fragility1The Room Where It Happened
10Can’t Hurt Me10Untamed10Becoming
9If You Tell9Just Mercy9Untamed
2Becoming2How to Be an Antiracist2White Fragility
13American Crusade13Becoming13Born a Crime
3The Decision3Unreported Truths about COVID-19 and Lockdowns3How to Be an Antiracist
4Relationship Goals4So You Want to Talk About Race4Too Much and Never Enough
5Atomic Habits5Me and White Supremacy5So You Want to Talk About Race
6The Splendid and the Vile6The New Jim Crow6Stamped from the Beginning
19Limitless19The Splendid and the Vile19If You Tell
14The Four Agreements14Born a Crime14The Splendid and the Vile
7My First Learn to Write Workbook7Between the World and Me7Countdown 1945
8The Ride of a Lifetime8Stamped from the Beginning8Between the World and Me
17The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down17If You Tell17I’m Still Here
11Educated11The Color of Law11The Color of Law
12Rich Dad Poor Dad12Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?12I’m Your Emotional Support Animal
15The Great Influenza15Stamped15Just Mercy
16The Fatburn Fix16I’m Still Here16The New Jim Crow
18Big Preschool Workbook18The Fire Next Time18Me and White Supremacy
20Medical Medium Cleanse to Heal20Blackout20Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

One thing is clear from these charts: Black anti-racism educators are gaining new audiences.

Ibram X. Kendi, a historian and scholar on race, has multiple books in the top lists. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and How to Be an Antiracist both stayed in the top half of the list once they appeared. A version co-written by Jason Reynolds that was reimagined for young adults, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, appeared on the list for a week.

Ijeoma Oluo’s So you want to talk about race and Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy aim to give readers the language to talk and think about race and racism.

White Fragility and The Color of Law, by white authors Robin DiAngelo and Richard Rothstein, respectively, have grabbed and maintained spots on the list as well.

“Nationally, it’s a surge of people thinking about systems that they’re ignorant around. The response to that ignorance was to go get some knowledge, which I think is the right response.”

—Jeannine A. Cook,
owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in Philadelphia

(Photo of Jeannine A. Cook, owner of Harriett’s Bookshop/Brianna Bolden, courtesy of the owner)

Some books topping these lists were written years and even decades ago, but they returned to bestseller lists recently.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander was published in 2010 but jumped to the top 10 the week after Floyd’s death and still remains in the top 20 as of the June 28 list. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, released in 1963, showed up on Amazon’s most-sold list two weeks in a row.

Image: The Reparations Club bookstore in Los Angeles.
The Reparations Club bookstore in Los Angeles. (Adam Davis)

A handful of newly popular books written by Black authors are biographies and memoirs.

Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime are the only two books in the top 20 that have been on the list for 50 weeks or more. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Bryan Stevenson and Austin Channing Brown all wrote memoirs that appeared and stayed in the top 20.

“Since the George Floyd protests began, I’ve been making a concerted effort to buy books by BIPOC authors from black-owned bookstores, namely Books and Crannies in Martinsville, Virginia,” said Sarah Lawson of Afton, Va. “I’ve tried to have a very genre-agnostic approach to the specific books I’m purchasing … because black stories are wide-ranging and cannot be told through one voice or one type of writing.”

(Photo of Rick Griffith, co-owner of Shop at MATTER in Denver/Sandra Ramos, courtesy of the owner)

“This is the work at hand. It starts with education. It starts with books. … I’ll take every person who wants these books. I’ll take every person that wants to join in this work.”

—Rick Griffith,
co-owner of Shop at MATTER in Denver

Thanks to the rise in e-books, particularly during the pandemic, we know that people aren’t just buying these books, they’re reading them, too.

Amazon tracks the average number of daily Kindle readers and Audible listeners. As anti-racist books took over the top 20 list of most purchased e-books on Amazon, several of those same books began appearing on the Amazon Charts top 20 most-read list.

Becoming was the most-read book for four weeks straight until the week of June 7, when White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist knocked it to the third spot. Me and White Supremacy and So you want to talk about race entered the most-read list in the seventh and 16th spots.

The New Jim Crow and Between the World and Me joined the most-read list the following week.

Amazon’s most read books by week

Anti-racist book

Social justice or biographical book written by a black author

Week of May 24Week of June 7Week of June 21
2Untamed2How to Be an Antiracist2How to Be an Antiracist
4Can’t Hurt Me4Untamed4Untamed
1Becoming1White Fragility1White Fragility
3The Splendid and the Vile3Becoming3Becoming
18The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck18The Decision18Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
20Unfu*k Yourself20Never Split the Difference20The Decision
6Atomic Habits6Can’t Hurt Me6Can’t Hurt Me
9If You Tell9Atomic Habits9Educated
10The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People10Talking to Strangers10Atomic Habits
5Educated5The Splendid and the Vile5The Splendid and the Vile
11The Great Influenza11If You Tell11If You Tell
8Maybe You Should Talk to Someone8Educated8Born a Crime
1312 Rules for Life13Unreported Truths about COVID-19 and Lockdowns13The New Jim Crow
7Sapiens7Me and White Supremacy7Me and White Supremacy
16Hidden Valley Road16So You Want to Talk About Race1612 Rules for Life
15Born a Crime15Born a Crime15So You Want to Talk About Race
12Talking to Strangers12Sapiens12Talking to Strangers
14Never Split the Difference14Maybe You Should Talk to Someone14Sapiens
17How to Win Friends and Influence People17The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People17The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
19Open Book1912 Rules for Life19Never Split the Difference

The range of books dominating the lists shows an overall increased interest in literature — anti-racist or not — written by nonwhite authors.

Libraries, e-books filling in gaps in supply

The sudden increase in demand didn’t only catch bookstore owners by surprise. Publishers weren’t ready for the spike in interest, either.

“The case is the publisher didn’t expect it,” said VaLinda Miller, owner of Turning Page Bookshop in Charleston, S.C. “And because of covid … they’ve had to reprint and they have been reprinting and reprinting for weeks.”

The result was a backlog at many bookstores, including Frugal Bookstore in Boston, which sent a letter to customers asking for patience with fulfilling orders.

“I want you to come back and not just because of protest. I want you to come back because whatever you buy, whatever you come in and do, you do have an impact on this community.”

—VaLinda Miller,
owner of Turning Page Bookshop in Goose Creek, S.C.

(Photo of VaLinda Miller, owner of Turning Page Bookshop in Goose Creek, S.C./Ruta Smith, courtesy of the owner)

Readers have also been swamping library websites, clamoring for e-books and audiobooks on similar topics. Overdrive, a digital reading distributor for libraries and schools, saw a significant increase in checkouts of e-books and audiobooks with anti-racism and social justice titles.

Demand increased as much as tenfold between May 26 and June 15 compared to the previous two weeks. Overall, the anti-racism category’s circulation increased an average of 297 percent in that time period.

U.S. public library anti-racism and social justice checkouts by day

Percent change in year-over-year e-book and audiobook checkouts

1,000%

800

600

May 25

George Floyd killed

in Minneapolis

400

200

0

May 11

June 22

Among both e-books and audiobooks, White Fragility, How to Be an Antiracist, Me and White Supremacy and The Hate U Give had the highest rates of library checkouts nationally. While these titles, along with others such as Between the World and Me and So You Want to Talk About Race are in high demand across the country, there are regional differences in library demand for other less-ubiquitous books.

Panorama Picks, an initiative by the Panorama Project and led by Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, conducted an analysis for The Post to highlight these unique regional differences in library demand for anti-racism and social justice books. The analysis excludes the 10 most popular anti-racist and social justice titles, to surface those with the most unmet demand — titles that are popular but for which regional libraries do not have enough copies. Regional groupings align with American Booksellers Association groups, and some states can belong to more than one.

Anti-racism and social justice titles with unique demand by region

Based on library checkout data by region. Excludes top 10 most popular national titles.

Pacific Northwest

Midwest

• My Grandmother’s Hands

• Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting

• The End of Policing

• Hood Feminism

• The Color of Law

• Fearing the Black Body

• Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting

• My Grandmother’s Hands

• White Awake

• Radical Dharma

Together in the Cafeteria?

Together in the Cafeteria?

California

New England

• The End of Policing

• Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting

• Freedom Is a Constant Struggle

• Sister Outsider

• The Compton Cowboys

• Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting

• Rise of the Warrior Cop

• Sister Outsider

• My Grandmother’s Hands

• Hood Feminism

Together in the Cafeteria?

Together in the Cafeteria?

New Atlantic

Mountain Plains

• Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting

• The Burning

• White Awake

• Be the Bridge

• The End of Policing

• Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting

• Chocolate City

• Sister Outsider

• The End of Policing

• All About Love

Together in the Cafeteria?

Together in the Cafeteria?

Southeast

Great Lakes

• Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting

• Freedom Is a Constant Struggle

• White Awake

• Hood Feminism

• Killing the Black Body

• Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting

• Shame

• Hood Feminism

• White Guilt

• My Grandmother’s Hands

Together in the Cafeteria?

Together in the Cafeteria?

Hawaii

• The Color of Law

• Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting

• America’s Original Sin

• Biased

• Heavy

Together in the Cafeteria?

Some titles, like Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? appear in multiple regions, while other titles are uniquely in-demand from libraries in specific regions. The Compton Cowboys is popular in California, while Chocolate City, focused on the District, is popular in the New Atlantic region. The Burning, about the Tulsa race massacre, is a title of interest in the Mountain Plains library region, where Oklahoma is located.

Several public libraries contacted by The Post gave specific examples of appetite for the books.

The Boston Public Library, which has a curated list of 20 Black Lives Matter titles on its home page, said they have had a 500 percent increase in demand for titles including White Fragility, So You Want to Talk About Race, Between the World and Me, Stamped from the Beginning and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

In the past few weeks, the wait list for some e-books topped 1,200 people. The library just spent more than $75,000 for an additional 2,000 copies of books related to Black Lives Matter and anti-racism.

The Los Angeles Public Library had more than 5,600 people waiting for copies of White Fragility two weeks ago, more than 4,000 waiting for access to How to Be an Antiracist and more than 1,000 apiece for Between the World and Me and The New Jim Crow.

The surge in interest went beyond major metro areas. Smaller libraries, from Savannah to Quincy, Mass., reported astronomical growth in interest as well. The Metropolitan Library System surrounding Oklahoma City reported that overall demand for anti-racist titles was up more than 600 percent.

To help libraries meet demand, Overdrive launched a new program, “Black Lives Matter: Community Read,” which makes some titles available for digital checkout without wait lists in the United States and Canada.

(Photo of Pamela and Jeffrey Blair, owners of EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore/Courtesy of the owner)

“Part of the do better is supporting black-owned businesses. I’m hopeful that beyond the education piece … that they go and continue to make commitments going forward, even when this may be out of the headlines.”

—Jeffrey Blair,
owner of EyeSeeMe Bookstore in St. Louis, Mo.

Black bookstore owners said they hope people continue to patronize their shops even as the protests inevitably dwindle.

“Before the end of May, it was always something I thought of as more of a plus if a restaurant or business was black-owned,” said Shelby Wenner, a D.C. resident. “Now it feels more urgent to seek those businesses out. Instead of buying from Amazon and having the book here the next day, I’d rather support something that means more to me and have the book come in a week.”

Image: Harriett's Bookstore owner Jeannine Cook hands out books at a protest in Philadelphia.
Harriett’s Bookstore owner Jeannine Cook hands out books at a protest in Philadelphia.

As time passes, though, some stores are seeing a decrease in demand.

“It’s bittersweet that it took black death and black trauma to get to this point,” McGilbert said. “This hasn’t happened before. Something has definitely shifted and I’m excited about it and I hope it continues. … You don’t know how long anti-racism is going to be trending.”

About this story

Book jacket photos provided by the publishers.

Sales data from Amazon Charts and the NYT Best Sellers list for Combined Print and E-Books Nonfiction.

Amazon’s Most Sold ranking is according to the number of copies sold and pre-ordered through Amazon.com, Audible.com, Amazon Books stores, and books read through digital subscription programs. The Most Read ranking is by the average number of daily Kindle readers and Audible listeners each week.

OverDrive’s analysis of book trends on anti-racism and social justice categories consisted of the following BISAC categories: Family & Relationships/Prejudice, Juvenile Fiction/Social Themes/Prejudice & Racism, Juvenile Nonfiction/Social Topics/Prejudice & Racism, Law/Civil Rights, Law/Discrimination, Political Science/Civil Rights, Social Science/Discrimination & Race Relations, Social Science/Race & Ethnic Relations, Young Adult Fiction/Social Themes/Prejudice & Racism, Young Adult Nonfiction/Social Topics/Prejudice & Racism.

Panorama Project’s analysis of book trends on anti-racist titles consisted of the following BISAC categories: Social Science/Ethnic Studies/American/African AmericanStudies, Social Science/Race & Ethnic Relations, Social Science/Discrimination, Biography & Autobirgraphy/Cultural, Ethnic & Regional/African American & Black, and Political Science/Civil Rights. A customized version of Panorama Picks was generated for this project using aggregated, anonymized U.S. public library ebook demand data provided by OverDrive, looking at the previously listed BISAC codes curated by the Post, across 8 ABA regions including Hawaii, examining 15 titles per region published at any time and available in print to libraries and booksellers—trade or self-published, and filtered to exclude the top 10 most in-demand titles in the U.S. The analysis measures public library activity from March 1 – April 21, 2020, encompassing the days right before the video of Ahmed Arbery’s murder went viral through Juneteenth weekend which is when the majority of “anti-racist” book lists were published and widely shared. In regions where Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? appeared twice due to multiple editions, it appears at its highest ranking, and an additional title was moved up.

Headshot of Brittany Renee Mayes

Brittany Renee MayesBrittany Renee Mayes joined The Washington Post as a graphics reporter in June 2018. She previously worked at NPR on the visuals team as a news applications developer. Follow

Headshot of Lauren Tierney

Lauren TierneyLauren Tierney is a Graphics Reporter and cartographer at The Washington Post. Before joining the Post in 2017, she was a Graphics Editor at National Geographic Magazine. Follow

Headshot of Dan Keating

Dan KeatingDan Keating analyzes data for projects, stories, graphics and interactive online presentations. Follow

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