Selling Color in a White World: Notes From NEIBA

"Look around the room," said bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle (pictured left), introducing our New England Independent Booksellers Association panel, Selling Color in a White World. "Our industry is still dominated by white people, and honestly, we get lazy handselling books featuring people of color."

After she introduced the panelists, I kicked things off with my usual windows and mirrors spiel and gave two examples of how indies can make a huge difference: my visits to Titcomb's Bookstore in Sandwich, MA and Aaron's Bookstore in Lititz, PA. 

Karen Lotz, Elizabeth Bluemle, and I
Next came Karen Lotz, President and Publisher of Candlewick. "We feel relatively free from the pressure of gatekeepers," she said. "We're a creatively-led house."

She shared a story about Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who asked to meet with her at a recent BEA. The legendary basketball player came with one request: please package books for and about black kids with the same bling as books for the mainstream. Candlewick makes it a point to comply.

Elizabeth raised the elephant-in-the-room question: do covers featuring people of color hinder sales in mostly-white communities?

When it comes to cover decisions, Candlewick goes through a collaborative cycle that provides input to designers who have read the book mindfully and thoroughly. Karen proudly held up a new Candlewick book, Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon, making the case that the gorgeous face of a young Zora Neale Hurston on the cover was absolutely necessary for sales.

Karen concluded by encouraging us with the Indonesian concept of Cuci Mata, which literally means a washing of the eyes, something we all need so that we can begin to see in a fresh way. 

Stacy L. Whitman, editorial director of Tu Books, a new multicultural Sci-Fi/Fantasy imprint of Lee and Low, joined the panel by phone after a flooded New York train station hindered her travel. Stacy gave us the background of how and why she launched the imprint, starting with race fail and ending with plans for the six YA titles she's excited to launch each year.

Elizabeth summed things up with a fantastic presentation targeted for indies on how and why to handsell books featuring nonwhite protagonists. She'll share it on her Publishers Weekly blog, but some of her tips included letting sales reps know of an interest in multicultural books, avoiding the segregation of titles in the store, and booktalking by making connections unrelated to race.  (Note: we talked about the problem with labels like "people of color," "nonwhite," and "multicultural.")

I added two of my favorite suggestions for bookstores and libraries alike: (1) invite a friend or patron who isn't white to peruse your displays and give you feedback and (2) avoid the danger of a single story, a phrase coined by novelist Chimamanda Adichie.

We didn't leave much time for Q and A, but booksellers shared a few tips and stories from their own experiences. It was a good session, one that I've long anticipated, and a prototype of conversations I hope will be repeated in diverse places with diverse participants.