Booksellers are now the “gatekeepers” and attempts to get titles by people of colour into their stores are often an “exercise in futility”, Jacaranda Books founder Valerie Brandes has said.
Brandes made the claim during an online discussion following the Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing report, an academic study of the trade that concludes it needs to stop its fixation on the white middle class to reach other audiences.
In a panel on bookselling hosted on Instagram by Words of Colour, one of the report's authors Dr Anamik Saha discussed how booksellers were overwhelmingly white, failed to grasp new audiences and ran stores that seemed exclusionary to people from working-class or disadvantaged backgrounds.
Brandes said, for a long time, publishers had been seen as the gatekeepers who were preventing BAME authors finding an audience but she now believed it applied to booksellers and buyers.
She said the issue was whether her AI [Advance Information sheet] got to the top of a pile from other presses given to buyers by sales reps or not. “That person invariably is a white, middle class, often times male, who may or may not have the same passion shall we say for that gorgeous book of essays about being a black woman that we publish,” she said.
Brandes went on: “It's an ongoing heartbreak of mine that, as a small press... you spend all this time and energy, you buy these books, you work on them, you work with the authors, you think about publicity and marketing plans. You do everything you can to make the book amazing and then you have to hand it over to third-party sales and distribution, and then you go back into the cycle of 'Who is that person taking that AI from the pile of 200 or so to sell to this book buyer, who's been told by head office which are the books they're focusing on?' It's an exercise in futility, it really is.”
She added there was a “lack of will” with buyers who had been in place for decades, treating their markets like an “well worn pair of shoes”.
“They stay in that lane and shaking it all up is what's needed,” she said.
Brandes added people who repped for them gave a lot of pushback over trying to sell to supermarkets and Saha said he had been shocked by how centralised the chains' buying process was. He said: “Essentially the books are bought by just a handful of people and it seems to me kind of crazy. My local Asda in Leyton is a super diverse community and they all walk through there. This is a prime location where you can sell these books.”
Brandes, who said the success of books through the publisher's own site proved there was demand, concluded: “It's really, really hard to be trying to build something completely from scratch, where they're telling you there's no market, that people that look like you don't read, we don't spend money, we don't do anything other than die faster from viruses. It just becomes overwhelming at times.”
She went on: “The trouble is that we are left to make it work on our own. The way the industry functions is kind of like a blind spot for a lot of people. A lot of people don't understand it, don't get it and nobody is trying to help you, that's for sure. It's literally sink or swim. What we're trying to do with this current crop of publishers and this work we're doing at Jacaranda is swim, so that in 10 years time Jacaranda will be run by a team of young, amazing, dynamic women, most of them probably black, and they will be taking this publishing industry by storm. We're building that, we're doing that. And that's when you're going to start to see a house breaking through with proper diversity, that's when the rest of the industry will pay attention.”
Bert's Books founder Alex Call, who is W H Smith’s former head of books marketing, agreed booksellers were often still fixated on the white, middle-class audience, though not necessarily intentionally. With the exception of some indies, they were often targeting the regular customers that came through the door rather than trying to find new audiences, partly because they didn't have enough time and resources, he said.
He said: “I think what people haven't realised is actually there are so many audiences out there right now who could be buying that just aren't being served. Potentially you can do that now with investment. If I had some more money and some more people I could go out and find those other audiences and spend the time investing in finding them. I think the industry at the moment puts a lot of money behind the same titles over and over again when actually they are going to sell anyway.”
In a discussion with Booksellers Association m.d. Meryl Halls, Saha said the whiteness of bookselling was “even more stark” than in publishing, with just a handful of stores an exception to that.
Challenged over what the BA was doing about some of these issues, Halls talked about the organisation's grants programme and said the association had started outreach work encouraging people to become booksellers.
She said: “The last thing we want to do as an organisation is indulge in any tokenism but what we've also got to do is ask for help from our booksellers of colour so they can help us to navigate that and that they step forward as leaders within our sector so that they act as role models for younger booksellers who might want to come through.”