On BEA and Looking Critically at Publisher Promotions
This was my second year at Book Expo America, and one of the benefits of being a slightly seasoned BEA veteran was being able to take a mental step back from the mayhem of panels and lines and free ARCs and author signings, and look at exactly what was being sold to us. Ever since I started writing for Book Riot a little over a year ago, I’ve found myself looking closer at publisher promotions and in-store book displays. What books are they choosing to promote over others? Which books/authors are getting the most attention? Where are authors of color and other diverse perspectives featured, and where are they overlooked? How can the publishers be doing a better job? How can librarians and book sellers do a better job of demanding diverse books?
It’s difficult for me to gauge how much the conversation about diversity in publishing has shifted over the last couple of years, since I’ve only recently started paying attention to the conversation myself, but diversity continues to be a prominent topic. BookCon made changes to its author lineup after its initial program featured more cats than authors of color. Publishing successes like Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the brand new YA best-seller When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon indicate that there is indeed a flourishing market for stories written by authors of color. The now-famous Lee & Low publishing survey and ongoing studies that show a continual lack of racial diversity amongst professional librarians show that we still need to talk about diversity.
So why are publishers still not showcasing their diverse titles?
I attended both BEA and the Library Journal Day of Dialog, which was a separate, librarian-only event held during the first day of BEA, and I sat in on multiple panels where editors talked about their upcoming titles for the fall & winter seasons. I listened to these people make their pitches about why these books were amazing, and truth be told, a lot of them sounded fantastic. But instead of frantically scribbling down notes while the speakers whipped through one PowerPoint slide after another, I looked at the books they were choosing to highlight. And (perhaps unsurprisingly), a lot of the editors made it through their presentation without highlighting a single author of color.
The first editor panel at the Day of Dialog featured seven panelists, who each picked 4 books to highlight. (Related side note here: all of the selected panelists for this session were white. If we want to talk about diversity, we need to talk about the people we select for these types of events as well.) Out of the first 20 books featured, 2 books were written by authors of color, and the editor from Outpost 19 talked only about white male authors. When each editor was asked about what they look for when selecting stories to publish, many of them repeated the oft-heard phrase, “I’m just looking for a good story,” which is a phrase filled with implicit bias about what actually makes for a “good story.” *
I had a similar experience with the editor panels at BEA. At the Annual Librarians Book Buzz session, HarperCollins made an unintentionally poignant statement when they featured a few authors of color on their handout, but did not mention any authors of color in the titles they pitched directly to the audience; instead, these authors were included as part of a list entitled “If I had more time, I’d tell you about these.” HarperCollins, I know you had a time limit, but you did have time to talk about some of these books written by authors of color. You just chose not to.
My point here is this: everything that we consume, or pass along to other people, is a choice. Publishers can choose to sign more diverse authors. They can choose which books they specifically highlight to librarians, booksellers, and readers. And we, as readers or publishing professionals, can choose which books we read, and which books we ask to see more of. We’re all quite capable of making informed choices. So what kinds of reading choices will you be making?
*Random House and Soho were two notable exceptions. Three of the four Random House titles were written by men, but they were all authors of color, and Soho Press explicitly emphasized their commitment to multicultural and #ownvoice stories.