23 January 2010

More on Representations of Race

After the last time I addressed the issue of children’s publishers and books about children of color, Alice Bauer responded in her blog:

Dora the Explorer, Dragon Tales, and Sesame Street are truly popular. They have been pushed and supported, and have built a base. They use advertising—a commercial tactic successful for centuries, to push the market to accept the product.

That's what the Marlboro Man did for cigarettes. And what the "Diamonds are forever" campaign did for diamonds. Promotion was the key to their industries' success.

Now granted, not every promotion works. But if publishers spent the time promoting books that have characters of color the way, for example, they promote a John Grisham novel—you might not get the Grisham sales, but you would certainly get more notice from the market.
Much as I share Alice’s hopes, this approach seems more idealistic than realistic. Comparing book publishing to television shows, cigarettes, or—for goodness’ sake—the diamond industry glosses over the fact that there’s a heckuva lot more marketing money in those businesses because there’s a helluva lot more money to be made from them.

Tobacco users become physically addicted, producing years of sales before they die. Diamonds sell for thousands of dollars a pop, not $25 ($12 in paperback). The economics are tremendously different.

Television is the closest analogy, as a storytelling medium with specialized products for kids. But even middling-level TV shows have audiences of millions. Books are big successes if they reach a hundred thousand readers. Publishing just doesn’t make as much money, or earn as much profit, as other media. And it spreads out the money it does have on thousands of new products every year.

A handful of authors with a solid record for bestsellers, such as John Grisham, get promoted with a lot more money than average because their publishers know their new books will almost certainly make a lot more money. Those campaigns are also selling the whole line of Grisham novels as well as the latest.

But when Grisham's novels were a new, untried product, they didn’t have exceptional promotional budgets. By the standards of other industries, they barely had any promotional budgets. Even now, Grisham’s novels don’t get near the marketing dollars of his movies.

Alice suggests that a publisher should put the extra resources of a Grisham promotion into “books that have characters of color” even though “you might not get the Grisham sales.” That plan would be a really hard sell in the business world. Corporations are set up to avoid spending more money for a lower return.

For a publisher to be “willing to invest in the promotion” of any books, the company has to believe that it will earn that money back. That’s what “invest” means, after all. So any argument to those corporate publishers for publishing more books about people of color has to start with showing that there’s more money to be made.

That’s where Dora the Explorer and the pop-music charts can come in. They offer evidence that American children and teens can be very interested in entertainment from and about people of color. Still, media executives are going to look at what attracts the biggest audiences. Disney Channel has succeeded with shows featuring young actors/characters of color like That's So Raven and The Wizards of Waverly Place, but its biggest hits have been Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, the latter starring the blondest twins in the world and the former a brunette who dresses up as a blonde and becomes a star.

And the bottom line is still based on profits, which are still dependent on markets. As the recent Tonight Show foofaraw has shown, the NBC television network is not in the business of creating cutting-edge comedy and drama; it’s in the business of profitably delivering eyeballs to advertisers, and it bases its decisions on what attracts big audiences.

Similarly, large corporate publishers will continue to publish the books that appear most likely to sell in big numbers. Compared to other industries with more marketing-research dollars, they’ll continue to make a lot of those decisions based on hunches and personal tastes, and in today’s culture that might be a good thing for books that try something new.

Publishers not so tied to the price of a publicly-traded stock may have more leeway to invest in books about children of color. Tom Low, a temp-services company owner, and Philip Lee, a marketer for GQ, founded Lee and Low in 1991 to publish such books. But that firm isn’t free from worries about market reactions, as Laura Atkins’s essay on this issue reports.

This year Tu Publishing is launching at a micro-level to publish multicultural fantasy and science fiction, finding start-up money from small contributors like me. It’s therefore operating, at least at the start, more like a charity than a business. So it sure doesn’t have enough advertising dollars to change public attitudes. All it can do is publish the best books available and try to find the right readers.

For all book companies, large or small, success and survival will still depend on the market of people who actually buy books.