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Diversity an issue as book convention opens

Smiley
Huston
Dunham

– Three years ago, guest speaker Mindy Kaling joked that publishing’s annual national convention, BookExpo America, resembled “a high school reunion where all the jocks were killed in a plane crash, and all the minorities, too.”

Little seems to have changed.

From today to Saturday, tens of thousands of publishers, authors, agents and librarians will meet at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York for a convention predominantly organized by whites, spotlighting books predominantly written, edited and published by whites.

Non-whites are virtually absent from BookExpo planning committees and prime promotional slots. Tavis Smiley is the only non-white among the 16 scheduled breakfast and author tea speakers, who also include Jodi Picoult, Lena Dunham and Anjelica Huston. There is little non-white representation for various other high-profile events, from “Buzz” forums for upcoming adult, young adult and middle-grade releases to an all-white panel that will discuss discrepancies between how men and women fiction writers are treated.

“I don’t have a good answer for you,” said BookExpo event director Steven Rosato, who noted that publishers submit candidates for panels and other gatherings. “Clearly, there’s a gap between the industry and what’s representative of the country.”

Diversity in publishing has been in the news often in recent weeks. A study from a University of Wisconsin-based commission reported that just a tiny percentage of children’s books last year featured non-white characters, and an essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Junot Diaz, published in The New Yorker, attacked the “unbearable too-whiteness” of creative writing classes.

A social media campaign, We Need Diverse Books, was launched this month in response to a Blockbuster Reads panel scheduled Saturday at the Javits center that features four white, male authors: Jeff Kinney, James Patterson, Rick Riordan and Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler). In response, organizers created a new panel, The World Agrees: #WeNeedDiverseBooks, with speakers including Grace Lin, Jacqueline Woodson and Matt de la Pena.

“That this actually happened says almost everything you need to know about where the publishing industry is at with its ‘diversity issues,’ ” Diaz said. “You only need to look at the abysmally low number of kids’ books by people of color that the industry publishes to sense that the problem is deeper than BookExpo.”

The book world has long struggled to advance from diversity panels to actual diversity, operating under a contradiction between its liberal, pluralistic ideals and the narrow range of its own population, especially in positions of power. The industry has few prominent non-white publishers, editors, agents, booksellers or book critics.

At Hachette Book Group, CEO Michael Pietsch said diversity is an ongoing mission that has been difficult to fulfill.

“It’s been a great frustration,” Pietsch said. “We work hard at attracting diverse candidates, at all levels.”

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