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

How should book sellers promote diverse content? Examine their biases, and get other folks to examine their biases, too. (iStockphoto)

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, 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 gate keepers, we wanted to find out what is happening in local communities, in the shelves and reading circles of neighborhood bookstores.

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


Interview Highlights:

On what makes a diverse book

The criteria 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 identity 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 reexamining 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.

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