06 June 2009

Representations of Race, Realities of Publishing

Various folks have been discussing the representation of racial and ethnic minorities in American children's books. This commentary has focused on such matters as writing across culture and race, and whether the rules of the Coretta Scott King Award are still apt.

This spring's SCBWI New England conference had the theme "Many Voices," and after my workshop I grabbed the opportunity to attend presentations on ethnic inclusivity by Mitali Perkins and A.C.E. Bauer. (Click on their names for their blog entries about those workshops.) I also attended a presentation on publishing for minority audiences by editors Louise May of Lee & Low and Bobbie Combs of Two Lives, and a panel they were on alongside illustrator Floyd Coooper and agent/bookseller Jennifer Laughran.

But in all that discussion, I haven't heard many acknowledgments of some big realities about the publishing industry today. Namely:

1) American children's-book professionals have never been more ideologically open to books for and about children of color. There are more people of color in the industry, and at higher levels, than ever before. Most publishing pros are ready, even eager, for books about children of color; they're almost all intellectuals from coastal cities, after all.

Of course, it's still possible for people to have unrecognized biases. The publishing world is still disproportionately non-Latino white. But on the conscious level, book editors and other "gatekeepers" aren't trying to ignore authors of color, or stories about people of color. They love finding a profitable market for those authors and stories.

2) Children's books have never been more widely distributed. The superstore expansion of the 1990s means that metropolitan areas which used to have bookstores that stocked 10,000 titles are now served by stores with 30,000+ titles. "Big box" stores and discount warehouses stock children's books as a loss leader; that inventory brings in mothers to shop. And of course Amazon, BN.com, BookSense, and other online retailers (such as Oz and Ends's favorite, Powell's) can make hundreds of thousands of titles available within days.

3) The book industry has never had better data on what is selling well. Publishers once relied on anecdotal feedback about what titles were actually selling out of bookstores, hoping for reorders instead of returns. Now BookScan, Ingram, and Amazon sales figures are available each week. The big chains closely track their inventory. Publishers can find out which stores in which neighborhoods and states are selling their books best.

4) The big US publishing companies are wings of large, publicly traded multimedia corporations which are designed to, and by law required to, maximize profit for shareholders. They're not entirely efficient. But a corporation competing on the stock market doesn't have the luxury of leaving easy money on the table. A corporate publisher isn't out to publish for the greater good, nor to reflect its founders' biases. It exists for one reason: to sell books at the highest profit. The organization is basically set up to keep individual employees focused on that goal.

What do those realities mean to the question of publishing more books about children of color?

I think they mean that exhortations to publishing professionals to put aside prejudices or worries aren't going to have much effect. Most book editors know that "the market has changed" since we were young; after all, many of them were young much more recently than we were. Book editors already know there are families seeking books about children of color.

The challenge isn't convincing individual gatekeepers. The challenge is convincing those editors' corporate employers--and the corporations they work closely with, such as the chain booksellers--that there's enough money to be made from those families to justify publishing more books than they already are.

Yet, as I said before, those corporations know more about where in America particular books are selling than any of us do. They're in the business of reaching book customers and selling books. And the reach of bookselling is as deep and wide as it's ever been. If there's a big untapped market out there, then they have every incentive to spot it, and to develop more titles for it.

On the other hand, those corporations have every incentive not to expend extra effort on segments of the market that have been limited or unprofitable. Especially when other storytelling media compete for everyone's attention, large portions of the overall American population read few books, and book sales are at a plateau.

What could make a profit-seeking publishing corporation wary of adding more titles of any particular sort? A smaller potential market. Less money in that market. Higher costs to reach that market. Adequate success in that market with existing products and sales channels. All of those factors are in play here. And those are the real obstacles to tackle.


AliceB said...

Commenting here would be too long, so I've posted my comment on my blog. Despite my disagreement with your essential point, I do agree that paying attention to the market is key. I just don't think we've paid attention to it properly.

(And, as a total aside, the generated word verification came up as "color," which is too apt to seem random. . . :-)

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the response. I don't seem to be able to post a comment to stick on your blog, so I may quote from it and continue the discussion in a new posting here.