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.
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 entirety. Of 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).