April 24, 2014

Wear shades to BookCon, it’ll be blindingly white in there


Nice use of WHITE SPACE in this logo.

Nice use of WHITE SPACE in this logo.

All of the thirty-one announced guest speakers at the newly rebranded BookCon portion of this year’s Book Expo America are very white. Even the cat. Even the goddamned cat is white.

Book Expo America, our industry readers will know, is a yearly event in which nearly the entirety of the U.S. publishing industry celebrates their continuing relevance and innovation by standing around in a big conference hall wearing nametags, shuffling their feet and clenching their teeth in a desperate approximation of a smile. It’s a thrilling time. [Melville House will be a paying exhibitor at BEA this May. We’re honestly excited about it.]

BEA is run by Reed Exhibitions, a powerhouse of these sorts of industry conferences. Three of the last five times you’ve slept in a Marriott were probably their fault.  An offshoot of Reed is ReedPop, and this team is behind the yearly norovirus outbreaks known colloquially as the New York Comic Con and PAX. ReedPop has been tasked with making the last day of BEA a bigger more fun and more lucrative public facing event. To that end they’ve rebranded what was known as Power Bottoms Readers Day, calling it instead BookCon. To entice the public into paying rather steep entrance fees they’ve lined up some talent for discussions and signings. Sounds good. Whether or not you enjoy attending New York Comic Con, it’s clearly a successful business model and eagerly anticipated by many people each year. But here’s where the problems crop up.

In keeping with the Comic Con model, the talent on display for BookCon is two parts people who’ve earned their place on the scene—authors like John Green, Holly Black, Jonathan Tropper, James Patterson, Cassandra Clare—one part film celebrities who may or may not be there to flog an oh-that’s-nice-but-OMG-you-were-on-the-tee-vee book project—Amy Poehler and Jason Bateman—and one part Stan Lee and/or some cat. Also keeping with the comic con model, diversity is an issue.

BookCon is new, but with thirty speakers involved you’d think you’d be able to scrape together more than a light misting of melanin. It’s as if ReedPop had decided to just dump a handful of pale blind cavefish on stage and charge people for the privilege. Rather than go to the expense of bringing these authors in, why not just ask attendees to stare into the sickly flickering white overhead flourescents for a while and call it even?

Even worse, ReedPop saw this coming weeks ago. BookRiot’s Rebecca Schinsky writes,

First came the report that one of BookCon’s main features, a panel of the rock stars of kid lit, was comprised entirely of white male writers. When the publishing community along with panel participant Rick Riordan expressed criticism on Twitter and across the blogosphere, ReedPop (the organization that plans and runs Book Expo) responded with an apology and a promise to diversify. It was largely received as too little too late, and as a plan that would put women and POC authors in the tough spot of having to weigh an opportunity for exposure against the cost of being a token guest. But it was something.

They apologized and then went ahead with a slate of talent so white they’re basically translucent.

If this truly felt like a fluke that might be one thing. But BookCon is geared toward a younger audience, as the list of authors indicates. And as we’ve recently discussed, there’s a real problem with a lack of diversity in books for younger readers. If anyone deserves to see authors of color on a stage, it’ll be the kids who show up. The publishing industry as a whole also struggles to be more diverse. At this point, this freshly-laundered-ghost-white panel seems like an oversight enabled by a grave systemic problem. Fortunately it’s not too late for BookCon to rectify this. They’ve shown that they’re willing to listen, even if they’ve also shown themselves prone to repeat mistakes. I hope the former, at least, will happen again.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.