Growing Readership Through Diversity | ALA Annual 2017

In a conversation that touched upon the inner workings of publishing, the implications of censorship, and the marketability of diverse books, an attentive audience heard varied perspectives from a publisher, a librarian, and an American Library Association (ALA) executive on Saturday, June 24, at ALA's Annual Conference in Chicago.

L-R: Dorothy Ownes, Juliet Grames, Robin Bradford, James LaRue

In a conversation that touched upon the inner workings of publishing, the implications of censorship, and the marketability of diverse books, an attentive audience heard varied perspectives from a publisher, a librarian, and an American Library Association (ALA) executive on Saturday, June 24, at ALA's Annual Conference in Chicago. Soho Press Associate Publisher Juliet Grames passionately explained how publishersand acquisitions editors, in particulardiscover upcoming talent. Recently, Soho Press has focused on expanding its catalog of international and multicultural crime fiction. Remarking on the difference between libraries and book publishers, Grames stated, "Publishers don't think about readership. Librarians [think] about people and trying to find books that will match [their] needs. Publishers think about books and try to find readers that match the needs of books." Grames cautioned against publishers' tendency to reduce diverse authors to their identities, making identity an "issue" to overcome within the narrative. The result, she stated, could lead to further pressure on marginalized writers, who are often perceived as the sole representative for their communities.

overcoming barriers

As a child of physical and geographic privilege, Grames referenced Lee and Low's 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey and questioned her ability to speak about matters of diversity. "I am white. I am female. I am not disabled. I was educated at an elite private university. I was born and raised in the Tri-state area. I am like 90% of the other editors in publishing who are making acquisition decisions and distributing [them] down to readers." When listing barriers to recruiting and retaining people of diverse backgrounds, she mentioned nepotism; the tendency to hire via word-of-mouth or within one's social network; low-paying internships and entry-level jobs; and the high cost of living in New York, where many publishing jobs are located. Does a lack of diverse books correlate to a lack of diverse staff within publishing? To answer this question, Grames described the role of literary agents—sought by authors seeking to find a publisher for their manuscript—within the publishing process, and how they can serve a barrier to people from marginalized communities. "Editors know agents socially and editors buy from agents they know. The circle closes pretty quickly," Grames pointed out. She mentioned that this results in wealthy, straight, white people buying to, selling from, and getting recommendations from other wealthy, straight, white people. Another barrier involved the likelihood of acquiring editors optioning books that reflect their own interests; this served as a reminder that life experiences are not universal. While maintaining that writers should be allowed to write about any topic, Grames suggested that publishers are under no obligation to publish works that could misrepresent a community. Citing the increasing number of books featuring black characters, she stated, "There are a lot of books written about African Americans who are not African American. We are not giving [them] the opportunity to tell their own stories." Publishers seem more willing to publish books with characters of color if those books are written by white authors, she added. Lastly, Grames provided insight into the complicated process of designing and selecting a book cover. Before settling on the final cover of the forthcoming Love, Hate and Other Filters (pictured at left), Soho Press generated 50 mock-ups, opting not to focus on the protagonist's Muslim identity in an attempt to avoid pandering to potential readers. The myth that diverse books don't sell was also debated; Grames confided that publishers prioritize books they believe will earn a profit in order to get a return on their investment, and that books don't sell because publishers choose not to prioritize them. She encouraged librarians, also considered gatekeepers between books and potential readers, to use their power to make sure publishers can and will do better. Responding to a question about barriers, Grames observed that agents often find potential clients in Masters in Fine Arts programs or at writing conferences, both of which she admitted can be costly. She called for more publishers to accept unsolicited manuscripts, which is how Soho Press has been able to discover promising authors from all backgrounds who were unable to obtain an agent.

creating a collection

While Grames suggested that diverse books can be mirrors for readers, LJ columnist Robin Bradford, Collection Development Librarian at Timberland Regional Library and 2016 Romance Writers of America Cathie Linz Librarian of the Year, elaborated that books can be mirrors for your own experience or a window for someone else's. "Diverse books aren't for diverse people. Diverse books are for everyone," she announced to applause. Bradford also mentioned Lee & Low's Diversity Baseline Survey, reminding the audience that most book reviewers are white and that not every book is able to secure a review; libraries requiring a professional review for each book they purchase are missing out on diverse authors, she warns. While advocating for libraries to update their collection development policy to include a more comprehensive review of self-published books, Bradford also countered the misconception that self-published books are of lower quality. Instead, she maintained, they can help libraries to increase the visibility of authors of color in their collections. "It's not that [the books] aren't being written; it's that you don't know about them." She admitted the biggest challenge for librarians involved in purchasing is time, and that many collection development librarians have other responsibilities, including reference or programming, they have to balance alongside dedicating time to building a collection. To counteract this, Bradford recommended using Twitter to stay up-to-date with authors and what they choose to write about, such as romance or mystery or non-fiction. "Don't just put them on a list because an author is diverse" she suggested. "Don’t lump them together."

finding an advocate

James LaRue, Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) & Freedom to Read Foundation within the American Library Association, echoed the need for libraries to take more of an interest in self-published books, mentioning the success of science fiction author Hugh Howey. LaRue recounted the controversy surrounding the 2016 book A Birthday Cake for George Washington, pulled by Scholastic because of its portrayal of slavery in a positive light. There was disagreement within the OIF on whether the withdrawal of the book was censorship and a violation of free speech. When querying the audience, there was disagreement as well; LaRue joked that he sought to bring everyone in the room to his same level of confusion. He recommended reaching out to your local community in order to connect the dots between books and readers and make beneficial purchasing decisions. Towards the end, moderator Dorothy Ownes, Librarian for Books and Borrowing at the Denver Public Library, advocated for creating champions within our space spaces. "Our community can be some of our best advocates. We need to listen to them. We need to ask patrons who come in every week where they find books." In order to solicit feedback, she suggested creating a generic collection development email address where they can send suggestions. For all panelists, helping readers find books of interest was key.
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