Opinion: Reaching Black readers

Opinion: Reaching Black readers

I didn’t read a book by a Black author until I was in my late teens. I read voraciously, but all my books were by white writers. If you’re white and still wondering what’s wrong with that… imagine growing up in a world where you incorrectly believed that books can only be written by one race. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

I read The Color Purple by Alice Walker because my white English Literature teacher picked it as part of our syllabus, alongside Beloved by Toni Morrison. I like to think that he picked those particular books because I was the only Black person in my class, and even if that wasn’t the case, like a lot of passionate English Literature teachers, he was a great book marketer without even knowing it. He understood how to sell-in a product to the right audience and he seemed to understand what was missing in my literature journey even before I did.

Now that I work in publishing as a marketeer, I am constantly asking myself how we can reach more readers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. This doesn’t just mean reaching this group of readers with authors from the same backgrounds as them, it means recognising that we are readers who deserve to be targeted with the best books out there.

All marketing teams in publishing know the foundations of a good campaign are excellent planning; killer assets; a great social media plan; standout partnerships; support from readers; and a sprinkle of luck. In each of those elements there are many opportunities to ask ourselves if we have included a diverse element, and we shouldn’t be afraid to ask that question. I don’t want to turn this into a box-ticking exercise, but a lot of marketing teams are often small and managing a large amount of campaigns, so it can be easy to fall back on what we know works.

By asking ourselves the question of diversity, of what “the reader” really means, at the start of each campaign, no matter what the book or author, we could truly widen the market. We can do this by looking at who we’re including in our targeting, or by checking the list of influencers we approach and the partnerships we form. Before I entered the industry, I’d ask my mother to buy my books from supermarkets if I couldn’t find them in the library. Yet I doubt that I was ever considered on company surveys as the profile of a supermarket book buyer. In other words, we should also broaden our research: get out there and speak to real people to determine what readers actually look like, not what we want them to look like. Widening our consumer research pool to specifically target readers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

I am fully aware that bestselling titles currently commissioned won’t stop being bestsellers if none of my suggestions are implemented, but it is our responsibility as publishing employees to ensure that we are making a space for all audiences. From a purely financial perspective, sales are sales no matter who buys your product, so widening that pool works in all of our favours.

Learn their language

A few years ago, while on holiday in my parents’ country of origin, Cameroon in West Africa, I noticed that Orange (EE in the UK) had created a truly stand-out marketing campaign, which has stayed with me ever since. The company was already the lead mobile provider, but, reluctant to rest on its laurels, it created a billboard and Facebook advertising campaign which spoke the language of the people literally: the advert said “hello” in the slang only used by Gen Z back then. This was evidence of a marketing team that was truly acquainted with the young audiences they wanted to onboard. I’m by no means saying all Black readers should be put into one basket and targeted as such, but there are topics and experiences that do only speak to our communities, and when it comes to books, why can’t we be bold and create messaging in campaigns which speak to those unique experiences?

There are great projects, content creators working to diversify and widen the exposure of diverse books and authors. These all serve publishing marketing teams well and include: Black Girls Book Club, Everyday Racism, Black Ballad, gal-dem, the “Main Characters” podcast and many more. I won’t claim to have the answers (sorry if that’s what you were looking for), I’m only planting a seed. If we don’t prepare now, we’ll be kicking ourselves for years to come. Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Clubhouse and whatever social media platforms come next are already embracing Black, younger book-loving and content-creating audiences to market their platforms. Why aren’t we flinging our doors open and doing the same?

My top recommendations are: That marketing teams actively seek out influencers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds for each book campaign. Asking ourselves if our campaigns reach diverse audiences for every book. Broaden our data analytics and undertake focus group research with Black, Asian and minority ethnic readers.

Bengono Bessala is a marketing and publicity manager at HarperCollins. She was a Bookseller Rising Star in 2020. She is a committee member of Elevate, HC’s employee network supporting its Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff.