Black Authors, Members Of The Publishing Industry Mostly Absent At National Book Convention

June 1, 2014  |  

A joke told three years ago was a foreboding one for the annual BookExpo America convention. Guest speaker Mindy Kaling joked that publishing’s most popular convention resembled “a high school reunion where all the jocks were killed in a plane crash, and all the minorities, too.”

This year’s expo, which closed yesterday and attracted tens of thousands of publishers, authors, agents and librarians to NYC’s Jacob K. Javits Center, lacks diversity both in its organizers and in the books that are edited, written and published.

“Non-whites are virtually absent from BookExpo planning committees and prime promotional slots,” , reports The Grio. In fact, Tavis Smiley alone is the only non-white among the 16 scheduled breakfast and author tea speakers. And various other high-profile events are literally all white.

“I don’t have a good answer for you,” said BookExpo event director Steven Rosato. According to Rosato, it is the publishers who submit candidates for panels and other gatherings. “Clearly, there’s a gap between the industry and what’s representative of the country.”

A social media campaign, We Need Diverse Books, was launched early May in response to a Blockbuster Reads panel set for Saturday at the Javits center that features four white, male authors: Jeff Kinney, James Patterson, Rick Riordan and Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler). “In response, organizers created a new panel, The World Agrees: #WeNeedDiverseBooks, with speakers including Grace Lin, Jacqueline Woodson and Matt de la Pena,” reports The Grio.

The lack of diversity in book publishing has been of debate lately. According to a study from a University of Wisconsin-based commission, only a small percentage of children’s books in 2013 featured non-white characters.

“That this actually happened says almost everything you need to know about where the publishing industry is at with its ‘diversity issues,’” Diaz told The Associated Press. “You only need to look at the abysmally low number of kids’ books by people of color that the industry publishes to sense that the problem is deeper than BookExpo.”

Executive boards throughout publishing, from the Association of American Publishers (AAP) to the American Booksellers Association (ABA) to the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), lack diversity.

Insiders blame a variety of reasons, including low pay which does not attract newcomers to the industry. But others say it is a lack of inclusion.

“Maybe there are no perceived barriers to offering jobs. But it is a similar argument to that being made before the courts today. Judge (Sonia) Sotomayor said it best in the response to the affirmative action ban — race matters,” said Nora de Hoyos Comstock, who operates a national Latino book club and international Latino social network ,Las Comadres Para Las Americas.

The dwindling number of African-American and Spanish-language bookstores hasn’t helped.  As Oren Teicher, CEO of American Booksellers Association, notes there are few non-white booksellers among independents and that communities served by member stores are “likely more Caucasian.” He said the association has attempted to lure more non-white members, but failed.

“Clearly any attempt at a fix will have to confront a multitude of formidable structural challenges,” Diaz said, “but that means that the structural commitment to diversity has to be equally as formidable.”

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