Code Switch
3:02 pm
Thu August 21, 2014

How To Sell Diverse Books: A Bookstore Owner's Advice

Originally published on Thu August 21, 2014 5:24 pm

This week we've been exploring the question of diversity in the publishing industry.

From the classrooms of M.F.A. writing programs to the corporate offices of the big Manhattan publishers, NPR's Lynn Neary has reported on why there is an absence of people of color across the industry. Publishers agree that as the country's readers become more diverse, reflecting a diverse readership is increasingly becoming smart business for those who make and sell books.

Earlier this summer, the campaign "We Need Diverse Books" caused a stir when it underscored that fewer than 8 percent of children's books published last year were written by or about people of color. But beyond the industry's gatekeepers, we wanted to find out what is happening in local communities, in the shelves and reading circles of neighborhood bookstores.

Audie Cornish, host of All Things Considered, talked with Elizabeth Bluemle, the co-owner of the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt.


Interview Highlights

On what makes a diverse book

The [criterion is]: One, the book must feature a main character of color in a story that is not driven by racial issues. So mainstream stories of kids having all kinds of adventures and different genres of literature. ...

I think there are so many books published about issues that the consumer culture has developed this idea that books with brown faces on the cover are going to be heavy, serious books. And while those books are very valuable and important and wonderful books to read, they also don't describe the entire experience of human life in this country.

On the notion that "the market reflects the buyer" in the publishing world

I think publishing, marketing dollars go to certain books more than other books. And I think we tend to narrow our definition of what will sell even before the book gets out of the gate. ...

I think that people will assume a book starring an African-American or an Asian-American character is going to be a niche market book, and that just isn't the case for most books. Kids love a good story, and that's what hooks them. They identify with the character's internal adventures and struggles and dilemmas. ... They don't identify primarily with the race of the person on the cover of the book.

On how sometimes it's not the kids who are the biggest obstacles — it's the adults

So sometimes we'll be in the store and we'll see a kid looking at a little stack of books — maybe we've recommended those books to them. They might've chosen a book with a kid on the cover who has a different race than their own. And the parent kind of unconsciously steers the kid away from the book. They'll say, "Oh you're interested in that book? Do you really think you're going to read that one? What about this one?" And the child hasn't been aware of anything different about the book, but the adult is.

On whether or not that "selection" by parents is itself a form of racism

I think it's racism, but I don't think it's conscious at all. I think it's that swimming in the monocultural world that we live in. But that's where the book seller can step in and say, "Oh my gosh, the fourth-graders at the local elementary school love this book," and talk about the story and maybe give the adult a chance to kind of reconsider their own hesitation.

On some of her tips for book sellers

I think we need to be better about looking at small presses. From our own buying standpoint, we need to make a special point to let our reps know that we're looking for diverse titles. I also think we need to examine our own assumptions and biases: Are we only handing one kind of book to one kind of customer? And if so, why? We just have to keep re-examining that.

When we book-talk books, focus on the story the way you do any books. I was using historical fiction as an example. If you hand a kid a book and say, "This is historical fiction," a lot of kids' eyes will glaze over, because that sounds boring to them. But if you say, "This is about a kid who was kidnapped out of her home, and she becomes a spy" — they're in, they want to read that story. So lead with the story; lead with the dilemma, the adventure — and that's going to hook your readers.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. This week we've been exploring the question of diversity in the publishing industry - from the classrooms of MFA writing programs, to the corporate offices of the big Manhattan publishers. NPR's Lynn Neary has reported on why there is an absence of people of color across the industry. Publishers agree that as the country's readers become more diverse, for those who make and sell books, diversity is also becoming a question of smart business.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I want to thank all of you for being here and supporting us.

CORNISH: Earlier this summer, the campaign "We Need Diverse Books" caused a stir when it underscored that fewer than 8 percent of children's books published last year were written by or about people of color. The organizers were invited to speak at the annual book expo.

JACQUELINE WOODSON: We need our stories in the world and we need our young people to feel legitimate in the world. And we matter. Our voices matter. Our voices matter to us and our voices matter to people who don't look like us.

CORNISH: That's Newbery Medal-winning writer Jacqueline Woodson who's African-American. Well, we wanted to find out what's happening in local communities - in the shelves and reading circles of neighborhood book stores. So we have Elizabeth Bluemle. She's the co-owner of the Flying Pig Book Store in Shelburne, Vermont. She joins us now from the studios in Vermont Public Radio. Welcome to the program.

ELIZABETH BLUEMLE: Thank you - nice to be here.

CORNISH: So let's start with that definition of diverse, right? Because I know you actually collect titles in a database. What's the criteria?

BLUEMLE: Well, the criterion is one - the book must feature a main character of color in a story that is not driven by racial issues. So mainstream stories about kids having all kinds of adventures in different genres of literature.

CORNISH: So why that - that very specific definition - not driven by race essentially? What's the problem with that?

BLUEMLE: Well, I think there're so many books that are published about issues that the consumer culture has developed this idea that books with brown faces on the cover say, are going to be heavy, serious books. And while those books are very valuable and important and wonderful books to read, they also don't describe the entire experience of human life in this country.

CORNISH: Now one of the criticisms I think people would have is that look, if these books don't sell, they don't sell, right? That the market is reflecting the buyer.

BLUEMLE: Well, I think publishing marketing dollars go to certain books more than other books and I think we tend to narrow our definitions of what will sell before a book even gets out of the gate.

CORNISH: In what ways?

BLUEMLE: Well, I think that people will assume that a book starring an African-American or an Asian-American character is going to be a niche market book and that just isn't the case for most books. Kids love a good story and that's what hooks them. They identify with the character's internal adventures and struggles and dilemmas. You know, they don't identify primarily with the race of the person on the cover of the book.

CORNISH: You know, you've written that one of the biggest obstacles isn't the kid reader, right? It's the adult. But can you give us an example - some story that gives us a sense of how actually that plays out in selling these books?

BLUEMLE: Right, so sometimes we'll be in the store and we'll see a kid looking at a little stack of books - maybe we've recommended these books to them and they might have chosen a book with a kid on the cover who's a different race than their own and the parent, kind of unconsciously, will steer the kid away from the book. They're saying oh, you're interested in that book or do you really think you're going to want to read that one? What about this one? And the child hasn't been aware of anything different about the book but the adult is.

CORNISH: But what you think is actually going on there? It's not a kind of outright racism - is that what you're saying?

BLUEMLE: I think it's racism but I don't think it's conscious at all - it's that swimming in the monocultural world that we live in - but that's where the book seller can step in and say oh my gosh, the fourth graders at the local elementary school will love this book and talk about. And maybe give the adult a chance to reconsider their own hesitation.

CORNISH: How does this play out among booksellers themselves?

BLUEMLE: Well, I think we also can get caught in a sort of monoculture thinking, especially if we have stores in pretty homogenous towns, as I do. So I had the advantage of living in many big cities and I think I stocked my bookstore like a big city bookstore. So I hope that people walking in will see a welcoming, inviting, multicultural selection in front of them and just find that that's the normal way of - of selecting books.

CORNISH: What are some of your tips for booksellers in terms of making better use of the titles that they have, but also in putting them in the hands of potential readers?

BLUEMLE: I think we need to better at looking at small presses. From our own buying standpoint, we need to make a special effort to let our reps we're looking for diverse titles. I also think we need to examine our own assumptions and biases. Are we only handing one kind of book to one kind of customer and if so, why? We just have to keep reexamining that. When we book talk books, you know, focus on the story the way you do any book. I was using historical fiction as an example - that if you hand a kid a book and say this is historical fiction, a lot of kid's eyes will glaze over because that sounds boring to them, but if you say this is about a kid who was kidnapped out of her home and she becomes a spy - they're in, they want to read that story. So lead with the story, lead with the dilemma, the adventure and that is going to hook your readers.

CORNISH: When you are doing this book talk, are you engaging in a kind of social engineering?

BLUEMLE: Probably. Gently, because of a retailer and I can't really offend my customers. But also think - I do think that people are generally well-intentioned and ready to open their eyes to new things.

CORNISH: Elizabeth Bluemle - she's the co-owner of the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

BLUEMLE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.