Like so many people around the world, our team reacted with horror and despair to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many other Black people killed by police or denied swift justice by the state after being killed. These dehumanizing tragedies reinforce much broader statistical data that the U.S. persists in not valuing the lives of Black people as highly as other individuals. Such racial inequity is antithetical to our company values, and our organization fully supports the movement to make sure Black Lives Matter.
This latest string of deaths has led to demands for law enforcement reform, but has also brought about a much needed surge of awareness and discussion around systemic racism, leading so many of us to examine how we as individuals, businesses, and society are empowering the status quo.
Our team is no exception. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been reading, listening, learning, and scrutinizing everything we do as a company, looking for places where we and the publishing industry are perpetuating problems, or where we see opportunities to effect positive change.
Books are powerful. Through their stories and ideas, they can help people learn and gain empathy for others, challenging our overt and unconscious biases. However, if readers stick to narrow lists of books featuring homogenous perspectives and characters, their biases will be reinforced.
We’ve always worked to make sure we’re not promoting books with racist perspectives, but these past few weeks we’ve been reflecting on what we’re doing that more subtly perpetuates systemic racism and white supremacy in the book world. Are we failing to identify books that perpetuate problematic stereotypes? Are aspects of our book selection process or categorizations stifling Black and other underrepresented voices from gaining a wider audience? Could we be doing more to elevate such voices on our platform, or influence change within the industry to get more voices published and promoted? Asking these questions has increasingly made us realize we have shortcomings that need to be addressed.
We don’t have all the answers to these questions, but the purpose of this post is to share some of our early thinking and to publicly commit to taking action. We’re also hoping to get our community’s feedback on these ideas and initiatives. We believe we will do our best by listening to input from our members, authors, and publishers (especially those in our community who are Black or from other underrepresented backgrounds) about how we can make impactful and lasting changes to address systemic racism.
To that end, here are five initial areas of action we’re pursuing:
- We’re working to break the echo chamber. Our industry invests most heavily in authors who have historically sold well, or books that the industry feels are “comparable” to those that were popular in the past. This practice reinforces the same (generally white) authors and types of books hitting bestseller charts while Black and other underrepresented voices struggle to get published or earn promotion budgets. We’ve realized our practices can perpetuate this echo chamber since we too decide which books to feature based on historical performance with our audience. We’ve started exploring ways to revamp how we select, categorize, and merchandise our books to break this cycle and start widening exposure for Black and other underrepresented authors. We believe taking these actions will not only lead to more voices being read, but will ultimately lead to increased options for readers, more people reading books, and growth for everyone in the industry.
- We’re auditing ourselves. When we asked ourselves how much we were highlighting books by Black authors or from other underrepresented voices in general, we realized we didn’t fully know because we don’t track metrics on this subject. For an organization that strives to be both inclusive and data driven, not tracking this information is a significant failure. We’ve started working on metrics to quantify author diversity in our book sales and selection process, both to see where we are now as a baseline and to measure the success of our initiatives.
- We’re adding more voices to our leadership. Having an inclusive culture has always been important to us. A few years ago we established a Diversity & Inclusion committee that works to reduce bias in our interviewing and hiring practices, and to continually evolve our culture to make it more welcoming to all. We’ve made progress, but there’s still room for improvement, specifically when it comes to diversity among our leadership. We recognize that some of the shortcomings we’ve identified in our business are the result of us not having a wider array of voices from different backgrounds heading up our organization. There’s more we need to do here, but to most rapidly address this challenge, our board of directors has decided to increase its number of board members, providing an opportunity to bring in more expertise and underrepresented voices.
- We’re seeking change beyond our organization. We’ve historically donated to or partnered with local organizations such as 826 Boston, the Prison Book Program, and Hack.Diversity to effect change in our community, but our reflections have led us to realize that we could be doing more. As a first step, last week we made a donation to the Thurgood Marshall Institute in support of ongoing protests for racial justice and law enforcement reform. We also started making ongoing donations to We Need Diverse Books from the proceeds we’re receiving via Chirp and BookBub from the rising interest in anti-racist audiobooks and our deals on civil rights ebooks. We’re exploring other ongoing commitments that we hope can affect broader change, most notably looking for ways we can support Black and other underrepresented authors throughout the industry.
- We’re making sure our work is lasting. It’s not enough to ask ourselves what we can do better right now in a moment of heightened awareness and visibility. Rather, we and the industry need to be asking this question and taking meaningful action on a regular basis moving forward. We realize statements and good intentions without action are empty, so we commit to sharing our progress.
We’re eager to hear feedback on this message, and grateful to anyone who takes the time to share their thoughts, as we are in the initial stage of shaping our work, and want to hear from our community. If you’re interested in providing ideas or suggestions, please use this form, which you can choose to complete anonymously.
We thank you for your continued trust and partnership with us, for your feedback, and for all the work so many of you are doing in your personal and professional lives that together help us create a more just and equitable world.
The BookBub and Chirp Teams