The New England Independent Booksellers Association announced a diversity reading initiative for members at their annual fall conference yesterday. Word of the new NEIBA Reading Challenge, aimed at radically reshaping the reading habits of booksellers in the region, came just hours before the announcement that only one charge would be brought against a police officer in the killing of Breonna Taylor—news that reverberated during the bookselling organization’s evening awards banquet.
The NEIBA Reading Challenge is based on a bingo-style sheet with squares for different book genres. Booksellers will compete to read works by BIPOC, disabled, and LGBTQIA+ writers in each genre, and those who complete the form will be entered into a drawing for a free hotel stay at next year’s regional conference. The challenge is intended to be both competitive and fun, but the underlying motivation that led to its creation is a widespread desire among booksellers to see substantive change in which books are championed in a trade that remains largely white.
“Many of us can't peacefully march, and most of us can't donate to BLM causes,” said Audrey Huang, a bookseller at Belmont Books in Belmont, Mass. “But the tangible thing that booksellers can do is read and sell books written by BIPOC authors. And it's something that will make a difference—not just to the authors, but to our communities.”
Huang devised the reading challenge with support from NEIBA board president Beth Wagner, of Vermont’s Phoenix Books. The two announced details of the program along with Meg Wasmer, co-owner of Copper Dog Books in Beverly, Mass., during a session that drew approximately sixty booksellers.
“Erasure in publishing is real. And, it's hard, and demoralizing, rarely seeing someone who is like you in books—except as a stereotype,” Huang said. “Growing up, there were so few books with Asian Americans that weren't harmful stereotypes. I was always an avid reader, but I can list, on one hand, books that I read as a child with Asians/Asian Americans characters.”
Wasmer was delighted by the announcement, and eager to start reading. An avid science-fiction reader, she spent last year reading the expanded, diverse list of books published by Tor.com, an experience that she said proved eye-opening and rewarding. “Our canon is truly a bunch of dead white men with a few white women in for spice,” Wasmer said of the science fiction world. “It’s really easy to fall into a rut of just reading white men because publishing publishes a lot of white men. Hopefully, by diversifying our reading, we’ll be able to diversify what our customers are reading.”
Specifically, Wasmer hopes that booksellers will move away from what she called virtue-signaling, pointing out that some booksellers' responses to calls for more diverse representation of books in their stores is to simply respond with,“we stock it.” Stocking a book, Wasmer argued, is not the same as knowing and selling it, and doing the latter has been good for her bottom line as well. “It’s been wonderful as a seller,” she said. “I still just sell books that I love, but I’m in a place where I’m a lot more likely to sell Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected on Water than I am Douglas Adams.”
Huang said she believes that once booksellers start participating in the challenge, excitement will drive continued interest. “Sometimes, switching genres can really open up new pathways to reading, just because it's something new and different,” she said, adding that such a pursuit would inevitably help booksellers to “discover new authors and genres that they can enthusiastically display and sell in their stores.”
A Solemn (Virtual) Banquet
Booksellers got their chance at discovery during the evening’s annual awards banquet, where numerous BIPOC writers received NEIBA’s highest honors, including Tochi Onyebuchi, whose science fiction novella Riot Baby (Tor) took home the organization’s fiction prize.
With the Breonna Taylor announcement still fresh, Onyebuchi told booksellers that his book has been called prescient, but that it was five years in the making—meaning that it is a comment on the endemic racism the nation is reckoning with today. He began writing it soon after earning a law degree at Columbia University. “I remember feeling at that time, having just graduated from law school—where I was supposed to be taught and convinced of the majestic neutrality of the law—this titanic sense of hopelessness and, more crushing than that, aloneness,” Onyebuchi said. “I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t feel like there was anybody around me that I could be grieving with. Riot Baby was the product of that. It is a molten cry out into the ether.”
Other awardees included Oge Mora for Saturday; Jewell Parker Rhodes for Black Brother, Black Brother; Julia Drake for The Last True Poets of the Sea; Phuc Tran for Sigh, Gone; Major Jackson for The Absurd Man; Suzette Ciancio of W.W. Norton as the organization’s sales representative Saul Gillman Award winner; and Eric Carle for the annual President’s Award.
Mora and Rhodes were at times moved to tears describing the aggressive racism represented in the present moment, and passionate about the powerful role they believe booksellers play in combating it.
“The lives of Black women are ruthlessly dismissed day after day,” Mora said in response to the news on Breonna Taylor. Praising booksellers for their role in the nation’s literary and political culture, she said: “We should never underestimate the power of a little Black girl and her mom going about their day, just as we shouldn’t underestimate the power of putting the right book in the hands of the right person at the right time.”
Rhodes told booksellers watching: “I write to bear witness, but in this day and age I don’t think I could do that without knowing you exist, to know that you are spreading the gospel of humanity, humor, entertainment, hope. You are really feeding and seeding the bedrock of our democracy and our civilization.”
Jackson too, spoke of the fragile state of American democracy, making a forceful declaration. “I will continue to write responsibly and to progressively champion the best values that make us a single nation, rather than a nation of enemies, that reveal also our struggle of becoming.”