College Friends Push Back Against White-Dominated Book Industry With ‘Stirred Stories’

Book publishing companies have long been criticized for hiring and retaining so few employees of color.

Well, Kelsea Johnson has been using her entrepreneurial acumen to publish books about Black experiences through her, Stirred Stories, which Johnson co-founded with her college friend, Kyle Porro

During an interview with The Washington Post, Johnson said the  goal of Stirred Stories is to “promote and share narratives that reflect the kind of diversity that she said is too often ignored by mainstream publishing companies and on television screens.” 

Black stories in books, television shows, and movies did not speak of Johnson’s experience as a Black woman in America. Many stories, Johnson noticed, featured Blacks overcoming some harrowing hardship. 

“Where were the stories about people of color being exceptional just by living “normal lives?” she wondered. 

These questions led to the creation of Stirred Stories.

Since launching in 2019, Johnson and Porro have published four books, with another five other books on the back-burner. The Post also reports that Stirred Stories books have reached 22 states.  

“The intersection of being a Black person, and a woman really gives me an investment in marginalized communities and having our voices heard at mainstream levels,” said Johnson, 27, who lives in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, but grew up in Hillcrest. “We’re really excited to not just tell these marginalized stories, but to make them as authentic as possible.”

Calls to diversify book publishing intensified in 2020 during nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice. The growing awareness about diversity in book publishing led hashtags #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and #PublishingPaidMe, which pushed authors to share book advances, showing loud disparities to white authors book advances. 

Hachette, one of the largest publishing houses, reported that 34 percent of contracts with new contributors and illustrators were with authors who identified as Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) in 2021, compared to 29 percent in 2020, and 22 percent in 2019, according to a March 2022 report, the third annual report on the company’s efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion. Its workforce remained 64.6 percent White. Penguin Random House, another publishing giant, released an audit of its published programs that found nearly 75 percent of its U.S. contributors were White.

Johnson, who had joined the thousands of people protesting the 2020 police killing of George Floyd and demanding an end to police brutality and racism, said those public campaigns were a “long overdue” spotlight on pay gaps. She said they reinforced the frustration she already had about whose stories were being told and “lit a fire” under her to move forward with her plans.

Stirred Stories first publication,  The Grocery Game,  written Tori Murphy and her grandmother, Theodora Smiley Lacey, is  available for free online.

Stirred Stories titles include Cornrows, Box Braids, and Little Afro Puffs, The Butcher, The Baker and The Candlestick Maker, My Mommy is a He!, among other titles.