In an effort to understand how the public outcry over systemic racism has impacted publishing programs, PW contacted a wide range of publishers, soliciting commentary from editors at big New York trade houses, independent presses, university presses, and self-help, religion, and lifestyle publishers. The responses suggest how social justice publishing is changing and give context for works acquired years ago that are arriving in the market at a pivotal moment.
We spoke with the following editors and publishers in adult and children’s publishing: Ellen Adler, publisher of the New Press; Shabnam Banerjee-McFarland, an editor at Berrett-Koehler; Walter Biggins, Robert Lockhart, and Laura Waldron, editor-in-chief, senior editor, and marketing director, respectively, at the University of Pennsylvania Press; Justin Chanda, senior v-p and publisher at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, and Margaret K. McElderry Books; Megha Majumdar, an editor at Catapult; Tim McKee, publisher of North Atlantic Books; Ryan Pazdur, associate publisher of Zondervan Reflective and Zondervan Academic; Yaddyra Peralta, associate editor at Mango Publishing; Maura Roessner, senior editor at the University of California Press; and Alicia Samuels, editorial director at Flyaway Books.
What is your house’s history of publishing social justice–related titles?
Adler: Throughout its nearly 30-year history, the New Press has published hundreds of books that challenge racism and amplify progressive voices in order to build a more inclusive, just, and equitable world. We typically publish authors who are journalists, scholars, activists, and organizers working in criminal justice reform, progressive education, immigration and border issues, labor and environmental movements, marginalized histories, and more, including an award-winning dedicated program of international fiction.
Samuels: Since its inception in 2017, Flyaway Books has been committed to publishing books that raise awareness of social justice issues. In fact, we formed Flyaway Books in response to such a need in the marketplace. As one example, our recently published book For Beautiful Black Boys Who Believe in a Better World—which won the Goddard Riverside CBC Youth Book Prize for Social Justice—was acquired shortly after we began our program three years ago. We also focus on publishing books that represent many races and ethnicities of characters, even in non-race-focused books, to ensure that all children can find themselves represented in books from Flyaway.
McKee: Social justice has been a thread in our publishing since the beginning of the press in 1974, but over the last five years it has really emerged as one of our cornerstones. Key for us was recognizing that some of our traditional publishing areas like health, spirituality, and somatics were not separate from social justice—that in fact those fields are themselves shaped by how our society manifests inequality. I also think that receiving organizationwide racial equity training from [the nonprofit social justice organization] Race Forward and creating a racial equity committee on our staff two years ago have been instrumental in our evolution, in terms of the books we acquire and many other parts of our collective.
Banerjee-McFarland: Because of our mission to create a world that works for all, Berrett-Koehler has a long history of publishing in the space of moving toward greater equality, focusing on economic systems, building healthy communities, and addressing rampant wealth inequality.
Majumdar: We’ve been really proud at Catapult to publish socially engaged literary fiction and nonfiction for a while now. Last year, for instance, we published Chris Terry’s novel Black Card and Dina Nayeri’s book of reportage and memoir, The Ungrateful Refugee, which was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and an L.A. Times Book Prize.
Roessner: The University of California Press has long had a reputation as a progressive university press with an editorial program that engages deeply with issues of social, racial, economic, and environmental justice. Against that backdrop, I acquire books in criminology and law, so my lists are animated by questions of equal access to justice, and many of my books and authors work as catalysts for change. I’ve been publishing on the sorts of topics that are burning up in the contemporary public discourse around criminal justice reform and that scholars and activists have been working on for decades—from parole and cash bail to police brutality and abolition, for starters.
Biggins: Within our larger anthropology list are two series: Contemporary Ethnography and the Ethnography of Political Violence. Titles in these series often intersect with social justice movements, activism, and human rights from both practical and theoretical perspectives.
Pazdur: Zondervan has published a variety of books on social justice topics over the past 10 years, addressing topics of sexuality, race, poverty, the environment, and the broad question of what it means to be a Christian committed to justice in America today. In 2019 we launched Zondervan Reflective to more intentionally focus on books that address today’s pressing issues at the intersection of faith and our culture. This new imprint builds on our past and demonstrates that we’ve been preparing for this moment for several years. We feel we are ready with new titles that speak a timely message to today’s questions about racial and social justice.
Peralta: Social justice has always been threaded through Mango’s publishing program since the company’s inception. One of our earliest titles was [2016’s] Racism in America by Pulitzer Prize–winning Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, who has been writing about the African American experience and race for close to 30 years. Another Miami Herald legend we published in 2018 was the paper’s former publisher, David Lawrence. His book, A Dedicated Life, an autobiography about a life in the newspaper business, also focuses on his work to create equal access to early childhood literacy in the state of Florida. As Mango has grown and brought in more acquisition editors of Latinx and Afro-Caribbean descent, the program on social justice–related titles began to organically grow. Having an inclusive editorial team plugged in to the nation’s social and political concerns has kept social justice at the forefront at Mango.
How will the protests and movements calling for racial justice that erupted in 2020 impact your acquisitions in the social justice category?
Chanda: I have to honestly say that little has changed in terms of the books we are looking to acquire, because we are always looking for titles that tackle the issues our world is facing from the point of view of young readers, or elucidate the past in such a way that it allows those readers to contextualize their world. Most books that seem perfectly targeted for the current discussion have been in the pipeline for some time!
Banerjee-McFarland: Berrett-Koehler’s publishing program seeks to identify the roots of our social, cultural, and economic problems and to work with authors who have solutions. This means that recent consciousness movements bring us to work with frontline organizers, organizational leaders, and change agents who are working full-time to bring about meaningful change. With the rise of Black Lives Matter and with more organizations looking for resources on diversity, equity, and inclusion, our list has taken this specific focus. Oakland, where BK is based, is a site of many of the largest demonstrations, which brings a hyperawareness of the complexity and history of racial justice movements that have national resonance.
Majumdar: There is great enthusiasm in-house at Catapult for books that contribute to current conversations, push back against simplistic understandings, and help us think about social justice in nuanced ways. This year has reaffirmed how much we need to hear from BIPOC writers, and, may I say, part of what I personally am excited about is opening up room for such writers to chase their curiosity and follow what interests them and brings them joy. For instance, we’ve recently acquired Spirit Run author Noé Álvarez’s second book of nonfiction, which will be all about the accordion.
Adler: As a public-interest publisher, the New Press acquires books that serve the public rather than a particular market. We have seen an unprecedented surge in sales across our list since the movement to protect Black lives accelerated this summer, including Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Paul Butler’s Chokehold, Monique Morris’s Pushout, and more. It’s been particularly gratifying to see books in our deep backlist—such as Dorothy Roberts’s essential Fatal Invention from 2012 or Mica Pollock’s comprehensive 2008 guide for K-12 educators, Everyday Antiracism—take off, as institutions from medical schools to public schools reckon with long-overlooked racism. We were also thrilled to see some of our books, like Cutting School, The Lost Education of Horace Tate, and Rap on Trial, are serving as foundational texts for high-profile podcast productions, including Nice White Parents from the New York Times and Serial and Louder Than a Riot from NPR. We hope our books provide the historical context and intellectual scaffolding for the movements that are literally changing our world right now.
McKee: The public’s interest in social justice books is long in coming but nonetheless encouraging. Some publishers have been publishing social justice titles for decades or even centuries, but there is no question that the surging public interest is uncovering voices that have long been marginalized and generating scores of new titles. That is good.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as a social justice market; social justice is a goal our larger society may one day reach and should be continually striving for. Publishers have a very important role in that. Our publication of Lama Rod Owens’s Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger two weeks after the death of George Floyd could not have been more timely; the need in that moment was clear, in terms of healing wounds and pointing a way toward collective liberation, and the fact that we had signed the book two years prior shows the need for healing and liberation long before that moment.
Overall, I would stress the fact that centering historically silenced voices matters. The subject of social justice is essential, but social justice is also actualized by which writers are being published, as well as which editors are doing the acquiring. Systemically and intentionally expanding [the diversity of] who is at the table is core work for us.
Roessner: Our longstanding presswide focus on justice, activism, and social change has positioned our lists and our authors at the forefront of the current national reckoning with structural racism. In that sense, we don’t consider the social justice market to be new to our core mission. At the same time, we recognize that we have more to do—our entire industry does. Our acquisitions team, for example, is engaging in a yearlong focus on Black Lives Matter, with an emphasis on diversifying our authorship, building long-term sustainability and accountability, and cementing UC Press as a top destination for scholars of color.
Lockhart: Penn Press has been publishing books on social justice for years, but recent events and movements have certainly made our existing publishing program more attractive, both in terms of attention and sales.
Pazdur: In these divisive times, people tend to talk past one another, and as a publisher we hope to be a bridge occupying the center, mediating voices from both the right and the left to enable further dialogue and healthy discussion. We seek out voices offering a prophetic challenge to the status quo, as well as authors who have concerns about today’s justice movements. Our aim is to publish authors who speak beyond the latest crisis or headline of the day to the deeper trends and ideas driving these movements—to encourage thoughtful reflection you don’t get in social media comments or Twitter responses.
Samuels: Prior to recent events we had several books already under contract that address topics of social justice, including another book from Michael W. Waters, the author of For Beautiful Black Boys Who Believe in a Better World. Liberty’s Civil Rights Road Trip, which will publish in September of 2021, tells a story through the eyes of a young girl visiting several important sites for civil rights with her family and others, including a Muslim family. It also features additional information regarding why these sites are important for our history and our continued fight for justice. We feel that resources such as these are integral to our place as a publisher, and with recent events we feel a renewed immediacy to get stories such as these into the hands of people who need them.
Peralta: The recent social consciousness movements—which have released a torrent of unheard voices on police violence, systemic racism, and misogyny—have reminded the rest of the team that we can always do better on representation of BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled authors in publishing. And we’re not only looking for books that address anti-racism; we’re looking for books that BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled readers want to read from members of their own communities: books on Black joy and Black pregnancy, books on female Latinx entrepreneurship, and books that celebrate the everyday BIPOC experience for children.
What have you heard from your publishing partners—agents, distributors, or retailers—about demand for social justice titles in the current marketplace?
Banerjee-McFarland: Our focus on meeting readers where they are in their journeys—whether they’re just getting started or are lifelong advocates—has enabled a deep relationship with distributors and partners because we have a variety of titles that can solve specific problems. We’ve also been significantly investing in direct-to-consumer channels through our digital products. This includes our summits, such as our recent summit Leadership for a Changing World, which had nearly 27,000 registrants, and our From Self to Systems training series. In these digital products, we partner with authors to deliver actionable and practical trainings about responding to real-world problems that work in tandem with the frameworks in their books.
Digital products are another way our mission to train leaders and change agents to build a more equitable world is made possible. They also allow us to build deep relationships with readers who are telling us exactly what they need help with, and to give them direct access to our expert authors.
Adler: Our distributor, Ingram’s Two Rivers, is enormously proud of the books we publish and our share of this market. They were thrilled by the surge in our backlist sales over the summer, and feel very optimistic about the important role our books can play in the nation right now. Remarkably, despite the pandemic, 2020 will be our single best year ever in terms of revenue.
One of the first anti-racist reading lists we saw this summer that included The New Jim Crow was from our friends at the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kans.—and indeed, analysis of our sales in the past few months reveals a significant percentage has gone not only to obvious national accounts but to independent booksellers and Bookshop. This is so encouraging—despite the challenges of the pandemic, the independent bookstores really rose to the challenge of getting necessary books into the hands of their customers. Our partners at Two Rivers have been particularly thrilled to see that Target has begun to carry The New Jim Crow, stocking it alongside other racial justice bestsellers of the summer.
McKee: I certainly notice more and more bookstores carving out special sections of their stores for social justice. It would be progress if social justice was so integrated into our industry and our content areas that bookstores and consumers wouldn’t even need a special section for it; it would be a vital part of every shelf. But there’s no doubt booksellers are ordering more of our books about social justice and ways to embody it. And certainly the birth and growth of Bookshop, which has elements of economic justice built into its business model, bodes well. And finally, our distributor Penguin Random House has specifically highlighted to their accounts the books of ours that relate to social justice, and has also been giving us extra feedback on elements such as cover and title for these books.
Our country is clearly in a “moment” for social justice books. My sincere hope is that this is not ephemeral, because justice itself won’t come overnight—raising awareness right now is critical, but publishers have a duty to sustain the larger public’s 11th-hour understanding of something that is centuries old and an emergency situation for many people.
Roessner: Because the UC Press catalog is brimming with the sorts of books that readers are turning to for guidance in understanding and engaging with today’s most urgent questions about racial justice, we are seeing strong sales of backlist titles such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag, Barbara Ransby’s Making All Black Lives Matter, and Josh Bloom and Waldo Martin’s Black Against Empire.
Pazdur: Books on this topic have had mixed sales success in past years, but this summer we saw an unprecedented increase in demand—especially for books on racial justice. The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby was a New York Times bestseller for several weeks, and my inbox was quickly flooded with proposals from agents on similar topics. Our sense is that this demand will soften over time, but this past summer brought these matters to the public consciousness in a way that publishers cannot ignore going forward. The interest in social justice is here to stay—but readers want books that go beyond what they can find on their Facebook feed, and those are the books we want to publish.
Chanda: Books of this nature have always done well in the school and library market, but we have noticed that all accounts—from the smallest indie to the largest chain—are seeking these titles out. There is a need for content that helps contextualize all that is happening, and because of that, these books are getting much wider distribution.
Samuels: The industry indicates that the market for books that tell stories relevant to social justice movements will only continue to grow, particularly as families, schools, and libraries seek out resources to facilitate these conversations with children. In particular, race relations and violence against the Black community are difficult topics to discuss with young children, but picture books that tell stories similar to For Beautiful Black Boys Who Believe in a Better World can lead the way—especially since this book includes a discussion guide written in partnership with the Muhammad Ali Center. Additional resources like discussion guides seem to be an extra selling point with our retailers and distributors.
Peralta: Our distributor Ingram and special markets are definitely interested in books that celebrate diversity, including titles such as M.J. Fievre’s Badass Black Girl and Empowered Black Girl, coming up in January 2021. Both are self-care titles aimed at Black female YA readers looking for acknowledgement of the unique challenges they face and advice on boosting self-esteem.
Laura Waldron: In terms of sales, our books that provide historical context for current events and social justice movements have become some of our bestsellers, including Kellie Carter Jackson’s Force and Freedom, Jessica Marie Johnson’s Wicked Flesh, and Keisha N. Blain’s Set the World on Fire. Additionally, it is worth mentioning that the e-aggregators with whom we partner are now presenting social justice as a category collection to sell into libraries.
What are your plans for titles in this category in the future?
Banerjee-McFarland: Next year, we will be spending a significant amount of time bringing our bestselling titles into new editions, such as The Body Is Not an Apology, which will be accompanied by an interactive workbook, Your Body Is Not an Apology in April, and Decolonizing Wealth in August. Our list also has a heavy focus on inclusive leadership and organizational transformation. I am also currently working on two books with Tamara Winfrey Harris, who has dedicated her life to uplifting Black women. The first book, Dear Black Girl, coming out in March, is an epistolary work that features letters from Black women to Black girls on topics such as family, mental health, identity and relationships, and tougher topics like violence and sex. We are also working on a new edition of her bestselling book The Sisters Are Alright, which dismantles oppressive stereotypes about Black women and will feature a provocative new chapter on the role of Black women in politics.
Across our future list, we follow the problem and partner with authors with solutions. We will also be partnering with authors in ways beyond books, including digital products and online trainings that will enable us to buckle down and build a world that works for all.
Majumdar: Two books we’re publishing in early 2021 are Craft in The Real World by Matthew Salesses—which is part craft book, part manifesto asking us to reimagine the teaching of craft and the structure of writing workshops in order to invite diverse storytelling traditions into these spaces—and Love Is an Ex-country by Randa Jarrar, which is a memoir of an Arab American woman claiming joy in a hostile country.
Adler: In addition to progressive education books—like Lisa Delpit’s Teaching When the World Is On Fire and Kathleen Cushman’s Fires in Our Lives, which contains advice for teachers from today’s high school students—key areas for the New Press currently and in coming seasons include books about policing and criminal justice reform, immigration, and environmental justice. We have recently published Migrating to Prison, a powerful, in-depth look at the imprisonment of immigrants by César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández; Prison by Any Other Name by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law, which looks at the harmful consequences of popular alternatives to incarceration such as electronic monitoring and house arrest, and which was recently a Noname Book Club pick; and Waste, by 2020 MacArthur grant winner Catherine Coleman Flowers, the Erin Brockovich of sewage, which tells the riveting story of the fight to ensure human dignity through a right most Americans take for granted: basic sanitation.
Next spring we’re thrilled to publish Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman; Immigration Matters: Movements, Visions, and Strategies for a Progressive Future, edited by Ruth Milkman, Deepak Bhargava, and Penny Lewis; The Atlas of Disappearing Places: Our Coasts and Oceans in the Climate Crisis by Christina Conklin and Marina Psaros; and The World We Need: Stories and Lessons from America’s Unsung Environmental Movement, edited by Audrea Lim.
McKee: No matter what happens with public interest and the market, we will continue to publish books that reimagine ways all parts of our society can be more just and meet the needs of readers who come to us for deepening their knowledge and practices of healing and transformation. When we look to publish a title that amplifies a topic within social justice, we’re looking for authors who are themselves frontline participants in whatever realm they are writing about. Many older books on the market feature the voices of academic experts who study social justice topics, but we really want to highlight the important words and actions of people who are contributing to these movements and moments.
Along these lines, I am excited about several books on our 2021 list, including Alice Sparkly Kat’s Postcolonial Astrology: Reading the Planets through Capital, Power, and Labor, Breeshia Wade’s Grieving While Black: An Antiracist Take on Oppression and Sorrow, Amy Torok and Risa Dickens’s Missing Witches: Recovering True Histories of Feminist Magic, and Da’Shaun Harrison’s Belly of the Beast: Addressing the Wounds of Anti-fatness as Anti-Blackness.
Roessner: I have a great cluster of titles on wrongful convictions, including Mark Godsey’s Blind Injustice and Brandon Garrett’s upcoming Autopsy of a Crime Lab—and then Jessica Henry’s Smoke but No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes That Never Happened drops an absolute bombshell on what we think we know about wrongful convictions by showing us how many of these cases never even happened in the first place. It’s unthinkable, and that’s just the sort of approach I look for in this area: something that really challenges our assumptions, that shakes us out of complacency and calls us to action.
I’ll be publishing more work specifically around reparations, abolition, and restorative and transformative justice. And I acquire broadly in law, so I have a keen interest in books that illuminate how the law shapes and constrains opportunity, particularly in the realms of labor, housing, the environment, technology, and most definitely gender and race. For example, I signed up Teri Gerstein to write about how improving labor conditions for the most marginalized improves everyone’s lives, in Bound Together: How Other People’s Rotten Jobs Affect Our Shared Well-Being. This was literally right as the pandemic came crashing down and the “essential workers” she advocates for became part of our lexicon overnight. I’m also developing a number of projects that inject a critical race perspective into all corners of the law, challenging the paradigm of colorblindness in arenas such as property or contracts and establishing a critical pedagogy.
I am always looking for authors from diverse backgrounds with strong voices on how we can identify and dismantle structural inequalities wherever we encounter them.
Lockhart: We intend to build on our recent successes by publishing more books especially around racial and economic justice, in both history and the social sciences.
Biggins: These focal points have long been active in our editorial program, sometimes serving as key contextual resources for these issues, so we are extremely interested in continuing to expand in these areas.
Pazdur: We have several titles coming out this next year. Subversive Witness by Dominique DuBois Gillard, publishing in August 2021, addresses the controversial topic of privilege and offers biblical wisdom to help readers steward their privilege and power for the sake of others. We are working on several 2022 titles, including one by Isaac Adams on how to have the difficult conversations about race we tend to avoid, a new book by Abdu Murray on why Christianity is not just a white man’s religion, and a fresh book by New Testament scholar Michelle Lee-Barnewall on her experience being racially marginalized as an Asian American woman and how to live as racially distinctive people in a fallen world. I think the diversity of our authors and the topics they address are a good indicator of where we are heading in the future.
Samuels: The market is hungry for these resources, and Flyaway Books will continue to provide them as part of our mission. Unfortunately, the concerns about race relations and racial violence are not ceasing any time soon, so in the future we will particularly feature books that tell related stories, in addition to titles that feature children with disabilities, children involved in care for our world, and the like.
Peralta: We are publishing M.J. Fievre’s Raising Confident Black Kids, her advice to parents of Black children that’s part of a planned series on advice and wisdom for Black readers of all ages. Publishing in June 2020, Edwidge Danticat’s Beginnings and Salt: Essays on a Journey Through Writing and Literature grounds her journey to award-winning novelist and short story writer in the unique challenges of a Haitian immigrant experience. And we are currently scheduling children’s books that celebrate diversity and untold true stories for early and middle grade readers.
Chanda: In 2021, we are publishing How to Change Everything, on environmental activism, by world-renowned environmental activist Naomi Klein, and We Are in This Together, an autobiography of Linda Sarsour, a co-chair of the Women’s March and organizer associated with BLM. Most recently, we have had great success with The Black Kids, an unforgettable debut young adult novel by Christina Hammonds Reed that explores issues of race, class, and violence through the eyes of a wealthy Black teenager whose family gets caught in the vortex of the 1992 Rodney King riots. The novel went on sale in August 2020 and is a New York Times bestseller.
Maybe the clearest example of a book that is of the moment is Together We March, an illustrated book publishing in January that details some of the most influential civil rights marches in history. The book itself was in the works for over two years, and before going to press we were able to add a spread covering the BLM marches in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders.
Our job remains the same: find high-quality, authentic, expertly written and researched work that will resonate with our target audience. Our pipeline is filled with books that talk about social justice for all age groups and explore the topic in fiction and nonfiction alike. Established authors and brand-new authors are writing about their authentic experiences and their hopes for the future—and we have a marketplace that is eager to read and share in their journey. It’s a great time to be in children’s publishing!
Below, more on race and social justice books.
New and Forthcoming Social Justice Titles
The following is a list of books focused on anti-racism, inclusivity, and related matters of racial, social, and criminal justice.