In June, as the country reckoned very publicly with racial inequality and police brutality after the killing of George Floyd, PW’s bestseller list offered a glimpse into Americans’ altered reading habits. Among the 10 books on overall bestseller list for the week of June 7–13, five dealt explicitly with race. They included So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, White Fragility by Robin DeAngelo, and two by Ibram X. Kendi: How to Be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning.
The list was remarkable for its cohesion, showing that race had become the central focus of the national consciousness. (Two months later, strong sales for several of the books continue.) It was also remarkable for including several backlist titles. White Fragility and So You Want to Talk About Race were both published in 2018 and Stamped from the Beginning in 2016. An even older title, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum, was first published more than two decades ago. Clearly, backlist titles have as much capacity as frontlist titles to speak to present predicaments.
That idea is motivating publishers to put promotional efforts behind numerous backlist titles, particularly ones dealing with such pressing issues as race and climate change. The continued relevance of these books speaks as much to their staying power as to the dispiriting fact that the problems they address are still with us.
With the world’s economy rocked by the Covid-19 pandemic, many have wondered, if perhaps overoptimistically, whether the lockdown might offer a chance to reconsider the environmental impact of business as usual. A June BBC headline, for example, called the pandemic “a ‘mass experiment’ for the climate.” This fall, publishers are surfacing backlist titles that take on environmental matters, ranging from the broad effects of climate change to our daily interactions (or lack thereof) with nature.
In November, Algonquin will reissue, with a new cover, journalist Richard Louv’s 2008 book Last Child in the Woods, along with the paperback edition of 2019’s Our Wild Calling. In Last Child in the Woods Louv coins the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe children’s increasing alienation from the natural world. Louv’s concept figured recently in a New York Times article that suggested this alienation has only worsened amid the pandemic.
Amy Gash, executive editor at Algonquin, says the book continues to sell because the problem Louv diagnoses won’t go away. “There’s this deep human need for nature connection,” she says. “Our kids are losing out on something vital.” She adds that encouraging children to spend more time in nature abets the broader climate change movement. “If kids connect with nature when they’re young, if they appreciate the natural world, they will care about saving it. You don’t care about saving things that you don’t know.”
Reuniting people with the outdoors is also a central concern of John Judge, president and CEO of the Appalachian Mountain Club and author of The Outdoor Citizen, which lays out a plan for how people can cultivate an outdoor lifestyle and how municipalities can frame the outdoors as a central component of their communities. Apollo published the title in December and will continue to promote it this fall.
Alex Merrill, Apollo’s publisher, says the book felt newly relevant “after we started hearing about what was happening worldwide to the environment during quarantine” as well as amid “the focus on racial inequality and access to opportunities that’s been taking place.” In the September/October issue of Backpacker magazine, Judge will publish an op-ed in which he discusses how greater access to the outdoors benefits communities of color. The book features a blurb from Rue Mapp, the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit organization that aims to connect Black communities with the outdoors.
This season will also see the paperback release of scholar and farmer Deborah Fleming’s 2019 book Resurrection of the Wild (Kent State, Sept.), a collection of climate essays that won the 2020 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Kent State plans to promote the paperback release on social media and to bundle deeply discounted e-books with print copies when customers purchase the title from its website.
Other climate titles vying for a second look come from the deeper recesses of the backlist. In August, Chelsea Green will promote two books by science journalist Judith D. Schwartz, Cows Save the Planet (2013) and Water in Plain Sight (2016), in conjunction with the release of Schwartz’s new book, The Reindeer Chronicles, which PW’s review calls “a worthwhile look at conservation” that’s “bolstered by a hopeful tone.” And in November the Experiment will release a 10th anniversary edition, with a new preface and new photos, of outdoorsman Tristan Gooley’s The Natural Navigator, the first in the author’s Natural Navigation series and a “compelling guide,” per PW’s review. The anniversary edition will also be packaged with two other titles in the five-book series, in a boxed set due out the same month; the bestselling Natural Navigation title, The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, has sold 138,000 print copies since its 2015 paperback release.
Past is prologue
As more readers seek books about racial inequality and social justice in the U.S., publishers are refreshing and repromoting past-season titles that look at race relations and justice movements at different points in American history.
In August, as part of the commemoration of Feminist Press’s 50th anniversary, the publisher is releasing a second edition of Celebrate People’s History, a social justice–focused poster anthology edited by activist Josh MacPhee that was first published in 2010. The 2020 edition includes 92 new posters (along with the 100 from the first edition) by various artists and a new foreword by Charlene Carruthers, a Black queer feminist activist and organizer. It will also include the original foreword by Rebecca Solnit and a new introduction from MacPhee.
Lauren Rosemary Hook, senior editor at Feminist Press, says the book’s posters, which include one of a Confederate statue being pulled down in 2017 and another of a veteran who was injured by police at an Occupy protest in Oakland in 2011, will help readers contextualize current social justice movements. “What’s the history there?” Hook says. “What came before?”
Further historical context comes from Dixie’s Daughters (Univ. Press of Florida) by Karen L. Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The book, which was originally published in 2003 and reissued in 2019, tracks the history of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a women’s organization founded in 1894 that sought to preserve Confederate culture and what’s known as the “Lost Cause” mythology, including by erecting monuments. The 2019 edition includes a new preface by Cox that addresses the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., which resulted in the death of a counterprotester, and the author recently published an op-ed on CNN asserting that Confederate statues represent the “legacy of white supremacy.” In recent weeks, BookScan has noted an uptick in sales.
Fiction and poetry, too, can illuminate the history of race relations, and in the coming months several publishers are paying extra attention to such titles on the backlist.
In January, Northwestern University Press will conduct a 10th anniversary social media campaign for Nikky Finney’s poetry collection Head Off & Split, which won the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry. Finney focuses her verse on “Black women who let no one tell them what to do,” PW’s review said. Northwestern is also discounting by 26% Finney’s spring 2020 book, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry, on August 26, the author’s birthday, and will promote the sale on social media. The volume, PW’s starred review said, sees Finney “artfully interweaving memories from her life with episodes from throughout Black history.”
The desire to resurface relevant storytelling has prompted Fantagraphics to reprint Bttm Fdrs, an Afrofuturist graphic novel set in Chicago, in October. Written by Ezra Claytan Daniels and illustrated by Ben Passmore, it’s a “sharply observed satire,” PW’s review said, that “stars a monstrous physical manifestation born of the evils of racism, gentrification, and cultural appropriation.” Currently, the book, which was published in 2019, is available only digitally; to promote the new printing, Fantagraphics is planning virtual author-illustrator events, and Passmore has work forthcoming in such publications as the New Yorker and the Nib that connects to the book’s themes.
This season also sees the promotion of several novels that take on race. They include Bernice L. McFadden’s Sugar (Plume), about characters in a Black community in Arkansas, which received a new cover to mark its 20th anniversary in June, and the August paperback release of Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s 2019 novel, The Revisioners (Counterpoint), which PW’s starred review called an “excellent story of a New Orleans family’s ascent from slavery to freedom.” Catapult is promoting the paperback release on social media in the Bookstagram community, where it is the publisher’s most customer-requested title, and the author will be participating in the virtual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in October.
At Anchor, this year marks the conclusion of a robust backlist project. The publisher has been reissuing the works of Black novelist and short story writer William Melvin Kelley, who died in 2017 and whose fiction explores race relations by means of surrealist plots and, in some cases, highly experimental language. Anchor began in 2019 with Kelley’s first and most famous book, the 1962 novel A Different Drummer. The novels A Drop of Patience (1965) and Dem (1967) followed last month, and in September the publisher will release the remaining two books, his story collection Dancers on the Shore (1964) and his novel Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970).
Kelley had been largely overlooked until a few years ago, when writers at publications such as Public Books and Okay Player began revisiting his work. Perhaps most notably, in 2018, New Yorker staff writer Kathryn Schulz published a profile of Kelley in which she reported (as earlier outlets did) that he is credited with coining the term woke. Until Schulz’s piece ran, LuAnn Walther, editorial director at Vintage and Anchor, was unfamiliar with Kelley’s work, even though A Different Drummer was still in print. “It was deeply buried in the backlist,” she says. Even academics who might otherwise be interested in Kelley’s place in Black American literary history or his formal experimentations didn’t know of him. Sales of A Different Drummer are now growing steadily, she says, but “we still have our work cut out for us.”
For Walther, the Kelley project ties in with a broader renewed interest in previously published titles amid the country’s reckoning with racial inequality. “It’s been very clear, during all this, that people are coming to the backlist,” she says. After all, as she suggests, the average reader probably cares less than publishers do about the distinction between back and front: “A book is new if you haven’t read it.”
Correction: A previous version of this article listed the incorrect imprint for The Revisioners (Counterpoint).
Below, more on backlist titles.
Revisiting ‘Brideshead’: Backlist Backbones 2020
In November, Little, Brown will release the 75th anniversary edition of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited.’
Orwell Aeternum: Backlist Backbones 2020
On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of ‘Animal Farm,’ Berkley is giving the ever-contemporary George Orwell a fresh look
Big Ideas and Fresh Looks: Backlist Backbones 2020
Timely themes, cover makeovers, and creative promotions boost children’s backlist titles.