With Book Expo America (BEA) just one month away, one of the publishing industry’s biggest events is in hot water with readers and writers alike as the company has been taken to task in recent days for assembling a list of guests at the consumer-centric May 31st BookCon event that consists of 30 white writers and one Internet-famous cat. The lack of diversity drew fire on social media, where readers, writers, and book critics have weighed in on the pallid lineup as a symptom of larger problems the publishing industry has in addressing diversity.
The controversy marks a rough start to BookCon’s first year of existence. The event, which invites avid readers to interact with authors on the heels of one of the publishing industry’s biggest trade shows, began in 2012 as Power Readers Day, but was rebranded as BookCon this year, an event that organizers designed to be more than just a meet and greet by adding events like panel discussions. Lance Fensterman, global vice president for ReedPOP, the division of Reed Exhibitions behind BookCon, told LJ that the company is aiming to use its expertise in organizing shows like New York ComiCon to build “a cool event where literature and pop culture collide.”
With the failure to announce any authors of color in its initial lineup, though, critics like BookRiot’s Rebecca Joines-Schinsky say that the event has failed to be inclusive and accurately represent the world of readers and writers. “BookCon is BEA’s way of opening the doors of publishing to the people who make the industry possible,” said Joines-Schinsky. “These events should be as diverse as the readers and the books are, and this one is not.”
The controversy comes on the heels of another blowup earlier in April, when ReedPOP was chided on social media for putting together a BookCon panel on YA literature composed solely of white men. Even Rick Riordan, one of the authors sitting on that panel, weighed in on the lack of diversity in the schedule, suggesting on Twitter that the panel be renamed “Four White Dudes of Kids’ Lit.”
Rachel Renee Russell, author of the bestselling Dork Diaries series, has taken to Twitter to detail her experiences with that panel, which ReedPOP asked her to moderate. When she asked through her representative to be on the panel instead, ReedPOP declined. Until Monday, that is, when Russell tweeted that she had been invited back as an actual panelist, an offer she has since decided to accept.
Lance Fensterman told Library Journal that the initial BookCon lineup only represented a portion of the final program, which will be expanded to include more authors and panels, and more diverse representation, before the event takes place on Saturday, May 31. A veteran of pop culture conventions, Fensterman pointed out that schedules for many such events are in some degree of flux right until the doors open.
That defense didn’t hold water with Joines-Schinsky, who speculated that going forward, the event can’t help but avoid being perceived as bringing in minority authors as an act of tokenism. “It’s just unfortunate that if there is a diverse lineup at BookCon this year, it will be because of public outcry, not because BookCon valued that from the get-go,” she told LJ.
Russell warned against viewing authors of color added to the lineup in coming weeks as token additions, though, suggesting that such cynicism could be harmful to increasing diversity at industry events, and in the publishing world as a whole. “It shames the people with the power to make changes because they fear being accused of it,” she told LJ. “And, it shames women, people of color, and other diverse groups into not participating in events because they fear being labelled [a token addition]. Many authors from these groups might choose to avoid BookCon and, in turn, lose the opportunity to sit on panels alongside their peers to create much-needed diversity.”
Russell was also hopeful that the controversy around BookCon could end up being a helpful conversation starter about diversity in the publishing industry as a whole. “We need to make a concerted effort to ensure that the books [kids will] be reading are a reflection of the world around them,” Russell said. “These books must contain characters as diverse as the children reading them.” Taken alongside recent events like author Walter Dean-Myers’ much-discussed op-ed on the topic in The New York Times and the recent #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, organized by author Ellen Oh and many others, that has gathered much attention on social media, the acknowledgement that a whitewashed lineup for BookCon is a problem is a step towards solving it.
These issues should be of particular interest to librarians looking to make their spaces—and their collections—welcoming to all. In a recent white paper issued by the Association for Library Service to Children, author Jamie Campbell Naidoo writes that diversity in a collection—or lack thereof—can be a key factor in making kids feel comfortable. “When children never see their culture represented in a library storytime or in materials on the library shelves,” Naidoo writes, “they receive a resounding message that the librarian does not think their culture is important enough to feature in the library.” For more on the importance of diversity in publishing and how librarians across the country are tackling this issue, check out this month’s issue of School Library Journal.
Joines-Schinsky, meanwhile, remained more pessimistic. While she hopes ReedPOP takes some programming cues from this ordeal, she wasn’t hopeful that the conversation would have a lot of impact on the industry as a whole. “I hope this will serve as a wake-up call,” she told LJ. “But it’s not the first time we’ve had this conversation.”