BookCon’s Lack of Diversity Isn’t the Problem

 

First, some facts: Last year, only 3 of the 124 bestsellers were written by people of color. That’s 2.5%! Of those three authors, only one wrote a book in which the main character was a character of color (part Latina). Contrast that to 2012, when there were zero African Americans on the list. If you want more information, try Google’ing “lack of diversity in literature” because the results will astound you.

The book world is abuzz with criticisms of BEA’s BookCon (formerly Power Readers Day) for its white-male dominated lineup. BookRiot is outraged, Twitter users are freaking out, and people are attacking BEA/BookCon for being racist. So is it a problem? Of course, because more diversity is always better. Unfortunately, BookCon is only reflecting the real world. So before jumping on the hate-wagon, I ask you to, at least, consider that the fault is of our own making.

Source: Lee & Lows

Let’s take a step back from the moral outrage and take a look at what BEA is – a marketing event. Sure, we can say it’s a place for readers to get together and talk about books, but at its core the event is designed to raise awareness about books and then sell them. Publishers don’t show up out of the goodness of their hearts, they show up to sell books and make a profit. This is especially true for BookCon. BookCon is a consumer driven event that allows publishers to promote and give away books that they think consumers want. And what do consumers buy? Books by white people, and a lot of them men (the exception being children’s books). While I recognize that children’s lit is dominated by women, most of the outrage I am addressing is with regard to the lack of people of color slated for BookCon. Much of the outrage has shifted from being directed at a particular panel to the event in its entiretyOf course they should have women on the panel (if you’re interested in a more in-depth analysis about gender differences in children’s book publishing, check out VIDA)

I highly doubt that the organizers decided to have an all-white, male panel. A more likely scenario is that they compiled a list of bestselling authors they thought would draw a crowd and went down it, one by one, until the panel was filled. This is what a marketer does – they look at the consumer demand and provide a product that will cater to that.

So is it terrible that there’s no diversity on the panel? Yes. Should there be more diverse authors made available? Of course. Are there enough published authors of color? Definitely not. Is it a bad thing that there’s a lack of diversity in literature altogether? Abso-freaking-lutely, but it isn’t BookCon’s fault. It’s our fault. It’s our fault, as a nation of readers, for not buying and demanding books by people of color. If we buy more of them, then publishers will provide more of them (also known as supply and demand). As we stand on our soapboxes preaching BookCon’s failure, we are sitting home reading books by white authors. We can stomp our feet and demand that BookCon be more sensitive, but at the end of the day they are a marketing company responding to public demand – it is not their job to assuage our guilt. In short, they are giving us what our dollars say we want.

If we want diversity, then we need to buy diversely. If we want more available diversity, then we need to demand that the publishers provide it. Hit them where it hurts: in the moneymaker (you can do this by canceling your BEA trip and making an effort to buy more books by authors of color). Maybe they’ll change their ways next year, and if they do it will be in response to our demands. (If they don’t, then we can always revisit the discussion then).

Spread the word: Link up your favorite book by a person of color

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Allison Hiltz
Allison is a voracious reader, Law & Order aficionado, serial napper, shark conservationist, and crazy coffee drinker. She is currently pursuing her graduate degree in Public Policy and lives in Denver, CO with her husband and two rescue dogs. She can be contacted at allison(at)thebookwheelblog(dot)com.
Allison Hiltz
  • http://wensend.com/ Wendy @ Wensend.com

    I think this is an absolutely great post. I’m not that into the matter, because I’m not from the US, so I can’t go to BEA, but I think this non-diverse reading is a big problem in your country. I think we read more diverse in The Netherlands. We have a lot of authors from former colonies and a lot of immigrants who write in Dutch. And people here actually want to read it. When compared to the US the NL is of course a much smaller country, so things are really different here, but I think it just has to do with attitude.

    • The Book Wheel

      That’s interesting! I didn’t think of it a US issue, but I guess it’s not surprising, seeing that we have institutional racism across the board.

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  • Tanya M

    Well I’ve linked up one of my favorite but if I can add more let me know. I read a few books by Indian female authors and would love to share more. I think you’re right, the white male authors are the ones that turn into blockbuster movies, even romance novels from Nicholas Sparks, are more prominent in Hollywood than romance novels written by females. I think I usually read female authors, that being said, I am posting an audiobook review from a white male author as part of a tour but I could totally see it being made into a movie.

    • The Book Wheel

      Feel free to add a couple more in :)

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  • http://r2thesecond.blogspot.com/ Rachel Reads

    This is so true!! Both of my favorite reads so far this year are by non-white male authors: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

  • http://booksspeakvolumes.com/ Leah @ Books Speak Volumes

    I think it’s a really complex issue. When the casual reader walks into Barnes & Noble and looks at the Hot New Books table, they only see books by white authors, so that’s what they buy, and that drives the best-seller lists, and publishers put their marketing dollars behind books that are similar. However, if publishers spent more money and effort on promoting books by authors of color, those books would be more visible, and more people would buy them, triggering higher sales numbers and more marketing dollars. It’s hard to see where the problem starts: buyers for not buying books by people of color or publishers for not promoting them as much as books by white authors. It’s just a vicious cycle. That’s why I’m trying to intentionally read more diversely; if more readers, publishers would see it and change their practices accordingly, and I think the balance would shift closer to equality.

  • http://www.LoveAtFirstBook.com/ Love at First Book

    It’s been a while since I have reviewed anything by a non-white male or female, although I do have a Greek and Jewish author in there. . . but white.

    I think this is a good reminder that I need to diversify my reading, especially if I expect something like BEA to be diverse, I’ve got to show them that I WANT it.

  • http://52booksorbust.wordpress.com/ tanya (52 books or bust)

    I think it is a chicken and the egg sort of issue. Do people buy books by white men because that is what is marketed? or are they marketed because that’s what sells? It’s a problem either way. And part of the issue is that BookCon is full of people I would classify as celebrities rather than writers. But then maybe that should be a giant red flag that BookCon isn’t for me.
    Thanks for you perspective. I do think it is important that we talk about these things.
    Most recent favorite book by a person of color: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid.

    • The Book Wheel

      Thank you. It is a chicken and the egg scenario, but at some point someone has to make a move and it needs to be the reader. It’s the readers who are mad and it’s the readers who have the power to demand change through financial means. It’d be great to say that BookCon would do right by its fans, but it’s up to us to make sure it happens.

  • Claradunbar

    Yes, there is a major diversity gap in publishing as a whole. But the all-white line up of BookCon is a glaring example of why that gap exists. Of course there are high-profile, influential writers and celebrity authors of color who would be a draw for the event. Of course it is offensive to put together a major industry convention in 2014 that includes a cat, and zero people of color. The argument that this is merely a symptom of the market makes no sense– how do we expect books by people of color to get exposure, or for convention-goers to even see that authors of color exist, with this kind of line up?

    And are you really arguing that there are no female bestselling authors to put on their children’s book panel? (This would be a field that is about 90% female, and includes the authors of such little- known works as The Hunger Games, Divergent, Harry Potter, and Eleanor and Park. Not to mention this year’s Newbery Award winner and our current National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, Kate DiCamillo– or people like Jacqueline Woodson, Walter Dean Myers, Judy Blume, Sherman Alexie, Gene Luen Yang, Marie Lu, Octavia Butler, John Lewis… The list goes on.)

    To say that BookCon is just a reflection of the industry is, frankly, offensive. BookCon is a reflection of the problem.

    • Claradunbar

      Sorry– I meant Octavia Spencer. Though Octavia Butler was wonderful, an appearance would probably be difficult.

    • The Book Wheel

      Interestingly, you’re the first person to directly address the lack of diversity of women writers, as most of the outrage is about the lack of people of color (which is what my post was mostly addressing, though not explicitly). And you’re right, there are more women in children’s lit than men (although I’m still not sure that Hunger Games should be considered a children’s book because it’s pretty heavy for who I consider “children”). I also agree that BookCon has made poor choices and should have been more sensitive. Sadly, with the exception of children’s lit, white men dominate the charts. But BookCon isn’t solely a children’t event and lacks diversity across the board. Is it right? Absolutely not. Is it the publishers fault? Partly. The gap in publishing isn’t new and if it weren’t for this daylong event, I doubt people would be talking about it as much. This has been going on for years, so why are we only now addressing it?

      My point is that, what’s done is done and readers need to demand that they change their ways through channels that a business will respond to. For example, we can demand that the authors on the panel address the issue or pull out. Readers and bloggers could boycott the event and publishers that aren’t diverse enough. I’m glad that there’s a dialogue about BookCon’s failures, but without taking some action to demonstrate to them that we take their failures seriously, they have no incentive to change. At the end of the day, they made a business choice about who they thought would make them money and if we don’t like, we need to take steps to change it.

  • Shannon @ River City Reading

    Sure, this is a chicken and egg problem that could be circled around forever, but if the consumers BookCon were trying to reach were “PowerReaders” (as the event was once called), they aren’t your average NYT Bestseller buyers. They’re people willing to travel and spend a day at a convention dedicated solely to books for the love of reading, regardless of the author’s ethnicity or gender. Instead, they turned the event on its head, making it a celebrity centered circus where, like you said, many of the names would come from that bestseller list. That didn’t need to happen and that’s why it’s a problem.

    • Jenn Baker

      Well said, Shannon.

    • http://kmn04books.wordpress.com Karen M

      Yes to everything Shannon said.

    • The Book Wheel

      I agree that they missed out on a great opportunity, but I’m willing to bet their lineup will draw bigger ticket sales because of it and increase their bottom line. Still, at the end of the day, BEA/BookCon is a business looking to increase profits, so it’s incumbent upon us Power Readers to demand more diversity. We have several ways we can do this, namely boycotting BEA and publishers who lack diversity.

      That said, I’m willing to bet *most* of the people complaining will still fork over their money and attend, which is unfortunate because the power of the purse is stronger than the power of disgruntlement. Power Readers don’t HAVE to go to BEA, but they will – and BEA will learn that no matter how mad people get, it won’t affect their sales.

      I sincerely hope that BEA feels the ill effects of their choices and that readers decide to hit them where it hurts, but I think that most people will swallow their ideals and go anyway.

  • Jenn Baker

    As someone in publishing and also someone who regularly goes to these events I do agree that the scope of them is to promote the authors they invested heavily in and who they know will draw names. It’s a business and they want to cash in.

    I also appreciate that you see that it reflects consumers as well that we also have to purchase the books by authors of color to show that there’s a market. Just like seeing films with a predominant cast of color to make over $100M or better at the box office this calls attention.

    However, it’s from ALL angles. Should we as consumers buy more books by diverse authors with diverse major characters. Of course. But these also need to be AVAILABLE. If there’s a low percentage of literature available of a diverse world (and I’m not including tertiary characters that are in for a scene or two and may say something funny once every 100 pages) I mean diverse up the ying yang there needs to be more product. This is why self-publishing is gaining fire as well so that those voices that are stifled or not seen as “profitable” can get some sort of recognition.

    Not only should our dollars reflect that but the publishing industry’s offerings need to reflect that. And there ARE best-selling authors of varied backgrounds they could add on that panel as there are ones that will be at Book Expo as well. So, if Reed is also organizing BookCon they know who to contact. And publishers know who to push. It’s not always the authors who make the most but who have a steady following or who are local that are invited to these events and they can be part of a panel with the other artists as well.

    So basically let’s not lay blame so much as take ownership that publishing across the board needs to ante up and be openminded to diversity.