Book News for May and June 2020

Gesa Stedman goes on a round-trip and gives you the latest on sales figures, endemic racism in the literary field, bookselling during a pandemic, and more. The next Book News will be published after the summer break.

The first-ever Black top-of-the bestseller list was a major news item and merited lots of media coverage. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I‘m No Longer Talking to White People About Race has come back on to the bestseller lists with a vengeance. And rightly so, as the murderous events in the US, and Black Lives Matter demonstrations and debates elsewhere have shown.

protesters at Black Lives Matter demonstration in London in July 2020

Black Lives Matter at Hyde Park July 2020
Photo Katie Crampton

image of Reni Eddo-Lodge

Reni Eddo-Lodge
Photo Donna Robertson

Here Eddo-Lodge explains in an interview with The Observer why she is somewhat skeptical of the new surge of support: link to Guardian website (last access 8 July 2020). For the German context, perhaps this interview with Saraya Gomis is helpful, she explains what structural racism actually means, and how it shows itself: link to interview (last access 8 July 2020).

That skepticism is justified, and not least in the publishing world, whose resistance to change seems endemic, is analysed in Sandra van Lente’s and Anamik Saha’s report on Rethinking Diversity in the Publishing (see Sandra’s previous post and the report itself: link to the report, last access 8 July 2020).

Further frustrating facts and figures can be gathered from those Black authors who have published their advances and payments by publishers, showing the discrepancy between their advances and fees, and those paid to white authors. There is an ongoing Anglophone debate on Twitter about this, to be found here: link to Twitter thread (last access 8 July 2020).

Somewhat surprisingly for me, even some agents in the German literary field have understood the pressing nature of the topic – at least one publisher who writes in last Monday’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, Birgit Schmitz, knows what white people in the publishing industry need to do in order to instigate change (link to Süddeutsche Zeitung, last access 8 July 2020). She uncovers the well-meaning but clueless white majority’s attitude towards racism which is perhaps less deadly than police violence, but nevertheless part of the same systemic form of racism. With the next generation of white school children who taunt Blacks on the playground because of their different hair (and worse allegations) growing up in my not very diverse neighbourhood, all of us have their work cut out for them. Read widely, and then act accordingly, would be my suggestion. How difficult that can be might be the subject of further posts…

Other news: The Jhalak Prize, founded expressly to counteract the prevailing whiteness of prize winners and dedicated to BAME writers – in spite of a few laudable exceptions of course – was won by Johnny Pitts for his entrancing book Afropean. Notes from Black Europe, published by Allen Lane/Penguin. The shortlist itself invites further investigation, comprising a children’s book, non-fiction about the ‘hostile environment‘ policy to deter immigration, and both bestsellers such as Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, and established writers such as Romesh Gunesekera’s new novel, Suncatcher. Sufficient food for thought for every kind of reader and age group! (link to prize website:, last access 7 July 2020)

book cover of Jhalak prize winner 2020

Afropean book cover

And how did bookselling fare during lockdown in the UK? Not very well – partly, because some shops were not prepared to do online selling, and partly – once reopening was on the agenda towards the middle of June – they were reticent and fearful. That is understandable but why in bookheaven’s name can UK booksellers or publishers not look to the continent to see how others did it? It is not rocket science to hang up plastic shields in front of cash desks, to provide booksellers with masks, to ask all customers to sanitise their hands and wear masks, and to mark distances on the floor with sticky tape and to count customers and close the doors once there is a certain number in the shop. And to keep the windows open.

Apparently, after a bit of humming and hawing, they did manage all of that. And how are the figures? In Germany, according to the latest news on the Tagesschau website, there was a 65,7% decrease in sales figures between late March and mid-April 2020 compared to last year’s figures. If one takes all outlets into account, including e-commerce, train station bookshops etc., then a decrease of 46% can be observed. These stark figures have steadily improved, however, over the past months. Since the shops re-opened in mid-April, figures have risen from 14,9% minus to 8,3% minus compared to last year’s figures. Bricks-and-mortar shops have an overall decrease of 13,9% decrease in the first half of the year compared to 2019. One can only hope that book lovers will continue to close the gap between last year’s and this year’s figures, and that the autumn book fair in Frankfurt, albeit a smaller version, will help to boost sales (, last access 8 July 2020). UK figures were not yet available at the time of writing, but we will update them as soon as possible.

Otherwise, many publication dates have been pushed back, which might be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you see it. I find it easier to absorb new titles and actually read them if they are spread out a bit more, rather than all being published at once either in spring or the autumn. Then again, launching books during lockdown was not much fun, as I have cause to know, and small presses will find it hard to make a difference when supermarkets and chainstores tend to stock the sure sellers in great numbers, and nothing much else. Smaller presses and less well-known authors need dedicated booksellers and quirky campaigns, preferably not only online, to make a difference. And some independent publishers are already struggling, because they have little money stashed away to fall back on. So if you want the diversity there is to continue, buy books from small presses as well as the bestsellers from the conglomerates, who will make it, no matter what.

And what else has agitated the book world?

image of author JK Rowling reading at the Whitehouse

JK Rowling 2010
Public Domain

Authors and publishers have written an open letter, cricising call-out and censoring culture in the wake of a row sparked off by JK Rowling posting a contentious contribution on trans gender law reform. She defended the legitimacy of women wanting safe spaces for women only, open only to trans people after transition, and not to everyone claiming to be a (trans) woman. This debate has a very nasty undertone, in particular on social media, and would merit a separate blog post, perhaps at a later date, when tempers have calmed down. The letter, signed by more than 100 people working in the arts, can be found here: link to The Bookseller, last access 8 July 2020.

On a more positive note, the British Book Awards were awarded digitally this year, with Bernadine Evaristo winning Author of the Year and Fiction Title of the Year with Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton, PRH). Candice Carty-Williams won Debut of the Year and Overall Book of the Year with her novel Queenie (Trapeze, Hachette), which was also short-listed for the Jhalak Prize. And Oyinkan Braithwaite won Crime&Thriller Book of the Year for My Sister, The Serial Killer (Atlantic), which was also shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Three prominent Black authors have thus been publicly acknowledged not only by readers and sales figures, but also by the industry itself. David McKee, author of the famous Elmer children’s books which defend diversity and non-conformity, was named Illustrator of the Year, and Kate Allinson and Kay Featherstone won Non-Fiction of the Year with their cookery and slimming title Pinch of Nom, which dominated the bestseller charts for weeks this year.

All the category winners can be found here: link to website, last access 8 July 2020.

Book News now takes a break and will be back in August or September – after reading my way through the wonderfully large pile in my very own book bag…