In the streets, in city halls, in homes, and offices and throughout the book business, there’s a sense that now is a pivotal moment in the movement for racial justice and for an inclusive society. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death – and others –- at the hands of police, religion publishers have been stepping up, pledging action in diversifying their workplaces and their frontlists. They’ve highlighted existing books and promoted those coming out soon that address the nexus of faith and social change.
Kelly Hughes, president of DeChant Hughes and Associates Public Relations, observed that 13 of 15 books on the New York Times paperback bestseller list this week address race issues, including three titles from religion publishers: The Color of Compromise (2019 hardback, January paperback) by Jemar Tisby from Zondervan Reflective, White Fragility (2018) by Robin DiAngelo from Beacon Press, and Raising White Kids (2018) by Jennifer Harvey from Abingdon. Even as he celebrated Tisby’s success, “at this pivotal moment in American history,” Stan Gundry, senior v-p and publisher of Zondervan Academic and Reflective, looked ahead. Tisby’s next book, How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice, is set to be released on January 21, 2021.
PW asked a sampling of other agents and editors to get a sense of how they are balancing covering important breaking news with the reality that many months will pass before any newly signed books reach readers.
Urgency is in the air, says Jenni Burke, president of the Illuminate Agency in Portland, Ore. “This moment is showing us in the publishing world that we have deep work to do. There’s been growing awareness that we need better representation. Our agency and others are actively working to include more diverse voices in our lists. I really want to see our agency and others and Christian publishers acquiring authors of color who can speak to the race discussions. I want to see us sharing the microphone better.”
Agents and publishers still face the twin tensions of time and the audience's attention span. Steve Laube president of the Steve Laube Agency and president of the Christian Writers Institute, observed, “Books about social issues have always been hard to sell to the public. Despite that, Christian publishers have been proactive for quite some time by pursuing and publishing these thoughtful books because the issues should not be ignored. For example, ECPA just recently posted a list of about 150 currently published titles related to racial issues.” Although the length of a publishing timeline could be a future marketing issue, Laube said, “The issues of racial injustice and diverse voices are ongoing. It is finding the best and most effective voices to communicate eternal truths that is at the forefront of all our minds.”
Eerdmans executive editor David Bratt observes, “You never know how long a moment is going to last but this one seems to have staying power. People have awakened to their need to be educated. People are searching for resources in the sectors in which we work—progressive evangelical, traditionalist mainline, the middle of the theological spectrum in Christianity. There’s an awakening to structural racism. There is a real sense from people that they want to do what is right and didn’t realize until now their compliancy in this system."
As a result, Bratt said interest in adding more diverse authors is high. “We are seeing bidding wars for books about race and the willingness to pay is going up," he said, a reference to the recent attention given to the disparity in advances paid to Black or white authors. "People are more attuned to opportunities and quicker to move. We have strong pre-orders for Yale Divinity professor Willie Jennings’ book After Whiteness coming this fall, looking at the effect of structural racism on theological education," Bratt said. This is Jenning’s first book with Eerdmans but he is well known among theologians. Eerdmans also has bumped from fall to July the release of the second edition of a book from six years ago, Jennifer Harvey’s Dear White Christians. Harvey is updating this with a chapter keyed to the aftermath of George Floyd’s death (in police custody) and added a forward by Traci Blackmon, an African-American minister, Bratt said.
Robert Ratcliff, editor-in-chief at Westminster John Knox Press, said that after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery (killed while jogging), and Breonna Taylor (killed by police delivering a warrant to the wrong address), the company's editorial staff met to consider ways that it could respond quickly to the heightened awareness of racial injustice raised by these tragic events.
“We’re considering a book on the death of Breonna Taylor, partly because it happened in Louisville, our home base. We are looking to journalists who have covered the story for a book that would move outward from Taylor’s death to the broader history of policing and racial injustice in our city and beyond," Ratcliff told RBL. "This gets to the question of publishing something timely. It’s a big gamble. It has to be an issue with long legs and that generally has a precipitating event that has launched a larger conversation. What is crucial here is not only telling her story but telling it in the context of racial injustice, as a way to tell a larger story.”
Attention to these issues is not a sudden move for WJK, which has three books on the topic out or due to be released in 2020: Good White Racist? (out now) by Kerry Donnelly; Anchored in the Current: Discovering Howard Thurman as Educator, Activist, Guide, and Prophet, (fall 2020) edited by Gregory C. Ellison II and including contributions from Marian Wright Edelman, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Parker Palmer and the children’s book, For Beautiful Black Boys Who Believe in a Better World (Flyaway, fall 2020) by Michael Waters.
Looking ahead, WJK is pushing up the release of revised and expanded editions of titles that deal with racial justice and the divisions in U.S. society. Ratcliff offered two examples: The 2016 book by David Maxwell, Race in a Post-Obama America will be revised and updated and reissued this fall under a new title. “Laura Cheifetz, an assistant dean at Vanderbilt Divinity is leading the revisions, with contributions by four writers who are activists and or clergy. They will add approximately 50 per cent new material on immigration, police brutality, the role of social media in both deepening racial divides and facilitating protest and activism, and on the ongoing vitality of the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Ratcliff. Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good, originally published in 2010, will also be revised and reissued this fall with new material on the racial disparities in the impact of the lethal coronavirus and address the racial justice protest movement.