03 July 2013

Missing Voices in the Discussion of Multicultural Book Sales

Last month Lee and Low asked on its blog, “Why Hasn’t the Number of Multicultural Books Increased In Eighteen Years?” That’s an important question, and the posting attracted a lot of attention, mostly echoing the concern without offering new insight. Roger Sutton at The Horn Book was one of the few I saw who asked some follow-up questions.

I didn’t see anyone noting the huge missing voice in the discussion. Lee and Low had invited responses to its question from six professors of children’s literature, one book review editor, two authors, and one librarian/author, Betsy Bird. All important perspectives, but by no means a cross-section of people in the American children’s-book field.

In those responses, Kathleen Horning of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center explicitly blamed Barnes & Noble, though not based on direct knowledge. Poet Nikki Grimes spoke of “blockbuster-craving bookstore markets.” Rudine Sims Bishop of Ohio State mentioned ”my closest big chain bookstore” as an example. Several people spoke of the lack of “marketing.”

And yet the discussion didn’t include one bookseller or person working with booksellers. None of the respondents described working in a bookstore. None described seeing how most families actually buy or choose books. None indicated any experience in marketing a product, much less in working with the publishing industry’s minuscule marketing budgets.

And information from the commercial sector is vital to this conversation because individual sales are more important and influential in children’s publishing than ever before.

At one point, libraries and schools comprised a large and influential segment of the market for children’s books. Today they represent a much smaller portion of the overall sales. Professional book reviewers have become less influential and ordinary readers’ feedback more so.

At one point, publishers and bookstores were mostly family-run, and managers could take a risk or even a loss on certain books they thought were important without having to justify their actions to higher powers. (Lee and Low is a mission-driven press of that sort.) Today most children’s books come from publicly-traded corporations under pressure from stockholders to maximize profits, and bookselling is dominated by two more publicly-traded corporations, B&N and Amazon.

At one point, booksellers and publishers had no real-time systematic data about what books were selling. Now they have weekly reports from BookScan, Ingram, the big chains, and other sources. Amazon can track not only what its customers buy but what other titles those customers buy and what they look at without buying.

The strength and danger of profit-seeking corporations is that they want to make money any way they legally can. They may forgo immediate opportunities to increase long-term profitability (e.g., stepping away from a deal with cookbook author Paula Deen after she became a shameful punchline), but they’re always chasing those profits. And with the data that companies like Amazon and BookScan are collecting on book traffic, they can spot and chase unexpected areas of sales.

When Horning wrote, “I’ve heard many times from publishers that the ‘buyers at B&N’ believe multicultural books don’t sell,” the obvious next question is whether that’s true. Do B&N buyers still believe that? Does any data support that belief? Does data from other booksellers refute it? Have things changed over the past two decades? Only when we’ve probed the reality of bookselling can we dismiss any such belief as “a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

I understand why Lee and Low’s round-up didn’t include voices of booksellers. Chain buyers are a private bunch. Sales data is proprietary. Sales and marketing people at publishing companies (including Lee and Low itself) wouldn’t want to upset their major customers by complaining. And no one in this discussion would want to be the sole voice saying that “multicultural” books are less profitable than mainstream books.

But if the problem is, say, the inequities of wealth and education in a country affected by structural racism and growing inequality, with one result being disproportionately low sales and profits for books that are clearly about non-white children, then we’re not going to find the solution within the profit-seeking corporate sector.


ChristineTB said...

Good article,

I have a friend in the medical field. One year I was reading House of God and laughing at the parody of a medical internship. I said "you should read this" and he replied, "I live that every day. Why would I want to read about it?" So true with our kids, after all the "clammering" for "realistic" books, what's being produced may not be speaking to students who want to branch out beyond the narrow confines of their own neighborhoods and escape to other worlds (or even parts of the country).

We've trained consumers both Black and White that most books put out for or about people of color are going to be issue oriented. They'll be the books librarians and teachers ask us to read and build homework around.

We've trained them that books read for pleasure won't "include" people of color and that white is ubiquitous stand-in for "put yourself in the character's shoes."

Only that doesn't work. And I think we turn off children to reading at an early age.

Still, B&N is wrong if they think black consumers don't buy books. I can't think of any of my friends or colleagues who aren't reading for pleasure. They were having book clubs long before Oprah started hers. They're just not reflected in focus groups. Or they are screened to reflect what the researcher has already concluded about them.

If you need an example of a contemporary Black author who had a huge following and whose death was mourned look at the paranormal serie(s) by L.A. Banks. But she was, for the most part, forced to do almost all of her own marketing, built a discussion board for fans, and did tours of Philadelphia to point out the sights in her books. Many of us found her books through word of mouth, me from my editor who was hooked on the series, even as Borders and Barnes and Noble (and back then Walden) made it difficult. Her "cast" included people of all color. But these mainstream books were shelved in the African American section of the store because the protagonists were African American and Hispanic

If Black consumers aren't on the radar, it's because publishers don't promote them and bookstores bury the few that are acquired at the back of the "bus."

Self fulfilling prophecy.

And proprietary my "rear end". If their marketing team works the way my old employer did, they don't know who is buying their books or why outside of the blockbusters.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment! I agree that fiction about children of color should include non-serious, even escapist books as well as serious ones. And there are such books. Off the top of my head, I can think of Lionboy, The Shadow Thieves, and The Marvelous Effect as recent examples of fantasy novels featuring main characters with African ancestry.

The theory of data-driven bookselling would say that:
1) Unfilled desire for such books from the general public would
2) produce higher-than-average sales for those titles, which
3) Amazon and BN.com’s computers would pick up, prompting those profit-seeking corporations to
4) seek out similar books to market to the same customers and others in hopes of the same higher sales, and that in turn would cause
5) publishers or Amazon itself to bring out more fantasies featuring protagonists of color.

Publishers don't have the data or the infrastructure to do that sort of market analysis, but Amazon definitely does. Barnes & Noble might. That’s why I think we need their voices in this discussion.

Jason Low said...

J.L., I saw your mention of this over at Betsy Bird's comments. It is a good idea, but it does present some problems, the biggest one being: who is willing to go on record and share? As Christine mentions in her comment B&N may not know what sells and is operating on anecdotal evidence rather than hard data.

Amazon would have the data, but all of our attempts to work with amazon have bordered on comical, since there are literally no humans working there. Our efforts to get even the most mundane, operational questions answered is like pulling teeth. I can't imagine them cooperating on an issue of societal weight as this one.

Still, I think this is a good idea, and will give it some serious thought as to how to implement it. In the future do not hesitate to contact me directly if we've missed something. I'm open to any and all ideas.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your comments, Mr. Low. I'm not surprised that obtaining public comments on a sensitive topic from retailers, especially the biggest retailers, is a challenge. I've followed publishing as an editor and writer since the late 1980s, and in all that time I can remember hearing a children's-book buyer from the chains speak publicly only once (and not on this topic).

That seems to leave us discussing the children's-book market only from the supply side. We take the demand side for granted. But maybe we focus on issues like workforce diversity, new authors, and where to put the minuscule marketing budgets because those are factors we can see and supposedly control.

I think B&N has more market info than the average bookseller based on its national inventory, customer loyalty program, etc. Maybe its buyers are still making choices based on an author's past sales and coop promises, but market economics suggests they should be trying to spot unexpected areas of sales, too.

Amazon, as you say, collects a lot more data. The fact that it does so through its programming would, I expect, minimize the effect of people’s self-fulfilling assumptions. Amazon can also "shelve" a book in different sections and track how it sells best. But of course that programming is the core of its business, the corporation's most closely guarded jewels, so it might not divulge anything.

One children's bookseller I've seen comment sharply on these issues is Elizabeth Bluemle of Flying Pig in Vermont and the Shelf Talker blog. And librarians have experience seeing how children and families choose books. So there's some real-world demand-side experience out there.