BookExpo America Faces Tough Question: Where’s the Diversity?

One of the publishing industry's top conferences, BookExpo America, is facing serious questions about the lack of diverse voices at the event. The controversy spawned a viral social media campaign that pressured organizers to address the issue. The problem, organizers say, stems from a lack of diversity in the industry at large.

A leading literary event taking place this week is making news for what’s missing from its agenda.

BookExpo America, running Thursday through Saturday in New York, found itself at the center of a major controversy as a result of a panel at its sister event, BookCon, taking place Saturday. More details:

The problem, uncovered: When the panel for the young-adult-focused BookCon event was announced last month, it included 30 all-star writers and celebrities and one cat—Grumpy Cat, to be specific—but not a single diverse voice. The result was a backlash that rose in the days and weeks before the show. “There are more cats than people of color scheduled for BookCon,” BookRiot founder Jeff O’Neal tweeted.

Clearly, there’s a gap between the industry and what’s representative of the country.

A campaign launches: A key front in the pushback effort is a Twitter hashtag and Tumblr site, We Need Diverse Books. The campaign, involving authors, publicists, editors, and others in the literary industry, went viral within hours. Days later, the organizers were invited to lead a panel discussion for the BookCon event in response to the criticism. “We were thrilled to be invited to attend and host a panel, but most importantly we are appreciative of BookCon’s recognition that diversity matters,” author Aisha Saeed, one of the campaign coordinators, said in a statement. (In recent weeks, more names have been added to the presenter list, increasing the event’s diversity.)

A bigger issue: But the issue extends beyond BookCon to the entire expo and the industry at large. At the Reed Exhibitions-run BookExpo America, just one panelist participating in the author breakfasts, Tavis Smiley, isn’t white, and the planning committees and other events at the expo are predominantly white, the Associated Press reported. Organizers realize the situation poses a problem, but they point to publishers, who submit panel candidates. “I don’t have a good answer for you,” BookExpo event director Steven Rosato told the AP. “Clearly, there’s a gap between the industry and what’s representative of the country.”

For its part, one group taking part in the expo says it’s working to boost diversity in the industry. The Association of Authors’ Representatives has sponsored an intern-focused event that the group says attracts attendees from diverse backgrounds. The goal is to open doors for young people interested in entering the industry.

“If they wanted to pursue a job, I would think that some of them will get a job in publishing,” AAR President Gail Hochman told the AP. “I do not see that the balance of diversity in publishing jobs matches balance in the basic community we live in—but I do not see barriers to offering jobs to various types of people.”

A screenshot from the We Need Diverse Books Tumblr campaign.

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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