Diversity in Publishing: An Ongoing Battle

Last week was a bit busy, so I wasn’t online quite as much as I usually am. So imagine my surprise when I hit Twitter on Friday afternoon and discovered the latest diversity mess in the publishing world, namely the appalling lack of diversity in the lineup of authors scheduled to speak/sign/present at BookCon in May. For those of you unaware, BookCon is the new incarnation of the Power Readers Day portion of BookExpo America, the major industry rights fair held annually in New York. The last couple of years, Power Readers Day provided public access to what was previously an industry-only affair, allowing book enthusiasts to come in and get ARCs, attend panels, and meet their favorite authors. This year ReedPop, the organizer for the event, has rebranded the public portion as BookCon with the intention of broadening the scope and drawing more attendees. All of which was fine until they announced the authors participating in their Kid Lit panel last week, and they turned out to be four white men. A look at the BookCon website reveals that the list of guests so far consists of approximately 30 writers (and a cat), all of whom are white (though some women show up here).

Those are the basics. Anyone looking for a more detailed rundown of the details should check out BookRiot, where they’ve been tracking the situation and BookCon’s lack of responses to their queries all week, as well as an analysis of the statement ReedPop finally issued yesterday. It’s pretty comprehensive, and includes additional links to further discussion of the situation.

I, however, am more interested in looking at the bigger picture right now. Am I astonished by BookCon’s lineup? Of course. Do I think they purposefully set out to white-wash their guest list? No. However, I do believe they are guilty of planning without an active awareness of the issues facing the industry (and society) today, and that is short sighted and irresponsible. Diversity in publishing is a hot topic these days, and rightly so, and I’m hard pressed to imagine how anyone organizing a publishing event, in the middle of New York City no less, can be blind to that ongoing discussion. This is not a small town event with limited access to speakers, but an enormous convention based in the publishing capital of the nation if not the world. The existing panel of guests consists of a wonderful array of talented writers — no one is arguing their worth as speakers. Certainly the people inviting authors to participate had a wealth of diverse options to choose from; they simply focused on a very narrow portion of that broad array of talent. It never crossed their minds to reach out and make the effort to include people of color in the lineup, because if it had, we would be seeing the evidence on their website.

That’s the bigger picture that’s so troubling. This lack of thought. We all know that there are racists in the world, and while that’s certainly troubling as well, it’s at least more clear cut. What feels more insidious is the other group — the people who believe themselves to be fair minded, rational, and certainly not racist, but who never stop to think about how their actions come across or affect those around them. These are the people who gravitate toward “their own” unconsciously, because they don’t make a conscious effort to be inclusive in their thought processes. They would never utter a racial slur or think negatively about people of color, but that’s pretty much because they don’t think about them at all unless someone else brings up the subject. They insist that they are choosing “the best of what’s available” when selecting submissions for their magazine or panelists for their conference, and think that justifies an outcome lacking in diversity, when in reality it merely underscores their closed-minded views of the world.

At the end of the day, it isn’t enough to say you have nothing against a certain group, whether it consists of women or people of color or individuals whose sexual preferences or identities differ from your own. If you’re not making an effort to help things get better, you’re still contributing to the overall problem. We’re all human, and no one expects everyone to get it right one hundred percent of the time. But the key is to try, and if you muck it up, to acknowledge your errors and try to fix the problem. BookCon is just one more hurdle in the ongoing battle to diversify the publishing industry, and it likely won’t be the last.