The importance of diversity in the book industry was a hot topic at Winter Institute, with John Green declaring during his Monday afternoon keynote presentation that “we need a far more diverse publishing climate than we have” and a panel session entitled “Campaigning for Diversity – Expanding Your Inventory and Customer Base” packing a hotel meeting room. We Need Diverse Books, the organization that emerged last spring in response to BookCon’s initial all-white, all-male author lineup, had a vendor table and gave out stickers and informational materials to booksellers.
The issue of diversity even came up during the ABA Town Hall, when Alison Reid of Diesel Books, a California mini-chain of stores, voiced her concern about the lack of diversity among booksellers.
Joy Dallanegra-Sanger, the ABA’s senior program officer, filled in as moderator for the ABC group-sponsored panel on diversity, as Sara Hines of Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, Mass. was unable to do so. While in 2013, Dallanegra-Sanger noted, 50% of school children identify as people of color, 5% are disabled, and 4% identify as lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender, children’s books do not reflect these statistics. Ten percent of the characters in children’s books are people of color, 2.4% of characters identify as lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender, and a miniscule percentage are disabled.
“These numbers have gotten worse in the last 10 or 20 years,” Dallanegra-Sanger said, citing CCBC statistics; a handout with statistics reported by the CCBC on the number of books by and about people of color from from 2002-2013 confirmed Dallanegra-Sanger's point. “The statistics have gotten worse even though there is more awareness.”
Author I.W. Gregorio, v-p of development for We Need Diverse Books, pointed out that even in an area that may not have a multicultural population, booksellers should commit to offering multicultural books, so that young readers can learn how to “deal with others in a globalized society.”
Cynthia Compton, owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in the Indianapolis suburb of Zionsville, Ind., pointed out that booksellers should “dig deeper” than race or an obvious ethnicity. Explaining that 88.5% of the students in the local public school system are Caucasian, Compton said that 64 different languages are spoken in those students’ homes. “There’s more diversity than you may be aware of in your community,” she said.
Diverse books are just as diverse as the word suggests, the panelists agreed, although Elizabeth Bluemle of the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt. pointed out that such books all should contain one essential characteristic: authenticity. Bluemle’s point prompted Gregorio to add, “It’s the voices, it’s the perspectives.”
Awareness is key, the panelists agreed. Booksellers should not just handsell multicultural books but should also train their staff to handsell such books. Book displays are also a good method of increasing awareness of multicultural books that customers might otherwise pass over. “Displays are very important,” Bluemle said, prompting Gregorio to tell the audience that WNDB “loves” tweeting book displays and urged them to send the organization photos of book displays. But don’t just display multicultural books on special occasions, like during African-American Month in February, Gregorio urged the audience: multicultural books should be displayed throughout the year. Don’t just emphasize the book’s multicultural qualities, Bluemle said: when handselling the book, emphasize its quality, the story itself, not just that it’s written by a multicultural author and/or contains multicultural content. “It shouldn’t matter,” Compton agreed, explaining that all children, whatever their background, need to read diverse books. But in handselling a book, Compton added, the story trumps everything.
The panelists’ points made before an audience of 80 booksellers concerning diversity in books were demonstrated during the Town Hall, held Monday afternoon with all 500 Wi10 booksellers in attendance. While some retailers who spoke to the issue suggested that book industry organizations like the ABA, AAP, ALA, and others should join together to address the lack of diversity in the industry, Jenny Cohen of Waucoma Books in Hood River, Ore., pointed out that “diversity should be a culture, not a profile.” If booksellers “think about it” in terms of ensuring their inventory is diverse, the commitment to diversity will “progress to diverse employees.” Jarek Steele, the co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo. who self-identified during the comments as transgender, pointed out that booksellers actually are more diverse than it appears on the surface. In a conversation with PW on Wednesday evening, when referring to the Town Hall discussion earlier that day, Steele said, “Sometimes we don’t recognize diversity on sight. There is all kinds of diversity.”