The Publishers Advertising and Marketing Association hosted a lunch panel called “Multicultural Marketing: Connecting Diverse Books with Diverse Audiences” on October 29. The event took place at Random House; Christine Hung, senior director of campaigns at Penguin Random House, moderated the conversation among four marketing professionals. Hung kicked off the panel by asking, “What does multicultural marketing mean to you?”
Jalissa Corrie, marketing associate at Lee & Low, said, “Lee & Low has always focused on fulfilling the need for diverse reads for those who have been underrepresented, so to me, it means trying to reach more demographics.”
Ebony LaDelle, associate marketing director at HarperTeen, agreed. “It means marketing to a [book’s] specific, core audience first, and then marketing to the larger audience.” LaDelle shared questions she asks herself when considering campaigns for books by those with marginalized identities: “How do you keep it authentic? How do you keep it where the author’s community is built?”
Chrissy Noh, marketing director at Simon & Schuster Children’s, declared, “Multicultural marketing is just marketing now.” Fareeda Bullert, senior marketing manager at Berkley, felt much the same. “You have to think outside the box. There’s a more diverse range of books and products.”
LaDelle reiterated a fact that Hung stated in her introduction: the U.S. will soon become a majority-minority nation. The 2018 U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that fewer than half of American children under the age of 15 are white, making Gen Z more racially diverse than millennials and older generations. “Gen Z will lead the charge for future generations to come,” she said. “We have to think about who we’re acquiring, as well as who’s on staff, if we want to not only be inclusive, but also sell books.”
Hung then asked the panelists for a good example of multicultural marketing. “Rihanna,” LaDelle immediately answered. “She stays true to herself. When she launched Fenty Beauty, she talked about how she wanted to offer such a broad range of shades for the many diverse identities of Trinidadians.” LaDelle continued by explaining how many of her friends of color have found their perfect shade in Rihanna’s line.
“Black Panther, and any media that features black people in sci-fi, fantasy, or horror spaces,” Corrie responded. “Media featuring us that’s not just about slavery, civil rights, or oppression.” She explained how Black Panther inspired a momentous, previously unseen reaction, particularly on Twitter, where Corrie says black people are very active. “It’s not just about the product, it’s about the channel,” she clarified.
Noh said, “We saw something similar in Asian spaces with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Crazy Rich Asians.”
Next, Hung asked for examples of multicultural marketing for books specifically. “The marketing of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before had Jenny [Han]’s stamp all over it,” LaDelle said. “So much focus on Jenny and the cast being themselves was really effective.”
Noh, who worked on Han’s campaigns, added, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was the first YA property on a streaming network.” Citing the film’s lack of big star power, Noh said they were initially uncertain about its projected reception. “Now, it’s apparent that authors and illustrators’ platforms make a difference.”
LaDelle agreed, suggesting that authors increasingly must develop a brand presence. “I worked with Elizabeth Acevedo, who often speaks about being Afro-Latina.” It was easy to promote Acevedo, LaDelle continued, because her social media presence is thematically unified with her work.
“Readers often want to know about what creators do and who you are, and that’s marketing in and of itself. People can tell when you’re being genuine,” Corrie said.
Bullert described how she organized a company-wide photo shoot to increase the diversity of the individuals pictured in their marketing. “It’s important to show that everyone reads everything, to say to potential readers, ‘That could be you.’ ”
“When you’re thinking about a book you’ve acquired, you have to examine how to tailor the marketing campaign to the audience,” LaDelle explained. “You have to consider your creative assets and what you want to tell. Even if the author cannot market themselves well, if you focus on making the community the book is about come first, then they will champion the book for you.”
Diverse Books Require Diverse Staff
Hung then asked how multicultural marketing could be addressed without a diverse staff.
Acknowledging that this isn’t a problem at Lee & Low, where she estimates about 70% of the company is people of color, Corrie stated, “It’s about finding ways to reach the audience and asking, ‘Is [the marketing] coming from someone they trust?’ If you have a majority white team, you need to do a lot of research and outreach. There will be mistakes—even people of color attempting to market cross-culturally will face that—but it’s worthwhile.”
Noh agreed. “If you don’t have the knowledge, you must ask other people. Reach out into the industry, into your community, and find those connections.”
“It might take extra effort, but don’t be lazy,” Bullert advised. “Look for authenticity readers, consider your demographics, and be true to the work.”
LaDelle extolled the virtue of inquisitiveness. Doing the research is crucial, she said, to “make the author feel like their work is in the right hands. Be interested in who they are and where they come from.”
Hung then asked for an example of multicultural marketing that each of the panelists had worked on. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, 2018) stood out for LaDelle. “It’s a very specific kind of book that talks about themes of race and class at an alternate history level.” LaDelle described how it takes place in a post-Civil War United States where black and brown individuals are conscripted as fighters of the undead. “Justina is very outspoken on social media. I created a trailer, which I made sure featured a black girl with braids, and then we put that trailer in theaters in front of Black Panther showings.”
Finally, Hung asked the panelists if they had any questions for each other. Corrie wondered, “What type of pushback or lack of support have you faced, if any, on a campaign?”
“Marketing five to 10 years ago looks a lot different than it does now,” LaDelle began, recommending the audience stand firm when they speak about these issues in-house. “There have been times when [team members] would say, ‘We don’t understand it, but you can do it.’” She explained how a lack of time and support is just as detrimental as being given an insufficient budget and detailed how she moved houses until finding her place at HarperTeen. “I will say this does come from a place of privilege in the sense that it’s difficult to speak out when you’re just starting out. You’ve got to corral a group of people who will speak up with you.”
LaDelle then segued into the next question: “How do you handle author expectations? It’s difficult because you only have a certain amount of time in the day and books of different sizes.”
“It’s a struggle,” Corrie said. “At least with the authors we work with, they know we’re smaller; we can do some of what they want but not all of it.” Corrie conveyed a situation where an author wanted a lot of promotion for number four in a chapter book series. “We’ve got to try to make authors happy with what we can do, convincing them we know the better way to do things.”
Bullert added, “The editor and agent should also help to manage the author’s expectations; we’re all a team. I’ve found that you should give the author homework, alternatives, and outreach they can look into. They want to be doing something.”
Noh concurred, saying, “The [authors] often just want to be heard, so I’ll hop on a call with them for a half an hour or an hour.”
Regarding requests for actionable takeaways or resources, the panelists suggested speaking with colleagues; being curious and aware of current conversations in pop culture; branching out to other genres and mediums, like movies, previously unexplored; being confident in gut instincts; and diversifying proclivities—“be well-rounded in books, movies, what you eat, all of it.”
Questions from the audience closed the event. A notable query concerned the panelists’ opinions on publishing’s diversity initiatives that are filtering from the bottom up instead of the top down.
“Change is fast and slow at the same time,” Noh acknowledged, recognizing that publishing already looks quite different from when she first entered the industry.
Referencing Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey, Corrie questioned diverse growth beyond the assistant level. “What really needs to be worked on in this industry is retention,” Corrie said, “but a change like that must be made from the top—a cultural change, a change in biases—and unfortunately, those are often the people who aren’t concerned with that.”
“You don’t know what you don’t know—seek out the people you think will listen,” LaDelle said. “It’s the small things you don’t think about, like seeking out résumés from your colleagues who all happen to be white. We’re now trying to determine why assistants of color aren’t staying.”
Bullert said to find allies in higher-ups, to remind them of people of color’s presence, though she also recognized that it will “take a while.” She added, “Don’t hire people of color or acquire books just to fill a diversity gap; this is not a trend.”