Earlier this year, BookExpo America (BEA) and its mother company ReedPOP surprised those planning to attend its established Power Readers Day with a name change and a new focus. The last day of the expo, Power Readers Day was marketed towards consumers outside of the publishing industry.
The new and improved version of Power Readers Day became BookCon, a unique event that promises star-studded panels and a new twist on how consumers may view BEA. Bestselling authors such as John Green and James Patterson were invited alongside other celebrity figures such as Amy Poehler, Stan Lee and Grumpy Cat.
And that is where it started to unravel.
A Publisher’s Weekly article focused on a kidlit panel referred to several white, male authors as children’s literature world’s “luminaries.” This became a catalyst for upset within the community. Further investigation showed that there was not a single author of color to be found in the BookCon lineup. That other respectable authors were overlooked while a cat was readily invited and accepted on board did not sit well with many.
Sentiments worsened when it became known that noted author and woman of color Rachel Russell of the Dork Diaries series had approached BookCon to be part of the panel, but was instead offered a position as moderator to the other authors on the panel with per-approved questions.
“The BookCon situation is troublesome because it seems highly unlikely that it’s accidental. It’s 2014,” said L.R. Giles, author of Fake I.D.
Author Ellen Oh’s response was similar. “To be honest, I’m still shocked and disappointed by BookCon. That list is something I would have expected to have seen in 1950, not 2014. While the fact that adding a POC author at this late juncture will feel like tokenism, I think it has to be done. And not just one author, but several POC authors should be added. Because even if it is tokenism on their part, it is inclusion for the rest of us and that is far more important. Who in publishing isn’t aware of the dismal diversity numbers? If anyone bothers to address this situation on behalf of the conference, I’m sure the explanation will allude to a misunderstanding, or an oversight of some sort, with promises to do better next time…which would require little effort since the bar’s been set so low.”
Stacked blogger Kelly Jensen approached ReedPOP CEO Lance Festerman on Twitter, and received a non-committal answer on BookExpo’s “acceptance of diversity” and promised to reevaluate BookCon’s planned events. During this point, protests had been launched through Twitter and other social media, calling for a reform of BookCon’s approach to this panel, and pointing out other authors that were overlooked or ignored.
Authors invited to BookCon, such as John Green and Rick Riordan, responded to tweets and agreed that the situation was being mishandled.
“It’s completely dehumanizing, as a person of color, to see arguably one of the most ‘prestigious’ lists of guests at one of the biggest book events of the year has a feline as a guest of honor and not one person of color,” said author S.K. Falls (Fevered Souls). “That is not a simple oversight or a misstep. It’s a very deep-seated prejudice, conscious or unconscious. And it tells the world, people of color do not matter. They don’t have much to offer, and minorities don’t read anyway, so readers won’t care if minority authors aren’t included.”
This was the breaking point for Ellen Oh. Gathering a team of bloggers, industry professionals and other authors, she spearheaded the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign via Twitter and Tumblr. The resulting media attention and continued protests have, thus far, elicited a change of mind in BookCon as far as Rachel Russell’s participation on the panel. She has been invited on as a full panelist.
That does not make many feel more comfortable with their actions, though.
“When I learned Rachel Renee Russell was originally turned down for the panel, it seemed pretty clear to me that diversity was never a part of the original scheme,” said Stacey Lee, 2015 debut author and member of the newly formed Diversity League. “It’s like sticking a brown thread on a white sweater and saying it was part of the original weave. Right.”
Fellow Diversity League and #WeNeedDiverseBooks team member Aisha Saeed agreed.
“I believe all book lovers share a common goal: the love of reading and the desire to promote reading for all. When BookCon chose to feature zero POC it upset me because our society is not homogenous and our book readers aren’t either,” said Saeed. “Adding Rachel Russell to their previously all white and all male panel after she refused to moderate it is a start. Not enough, but a start.”
“It reminds me of the saying, ‘It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.’ This time, though, forgiveness shouldn’t come so easy,” said L.R. Giles. “I think we — readers, writers, the public in general — should ask the organizers, as we’ve been doing, how the complete absence of diversity happens? Loudly. In many forums. I’m not convinced we’ll get honest answers, but it should become fairly uncomfortable for conference organizers to exclude writers and, by extension, readers of various color, physical ability, gender and sexual orientations, etc.”
According to Russell herself, her books sold more than half the men on the panel – so Falls asked why she was the add on? Why wasn’t she icked first?
“Know that this is not an attack on white authors and characters, or an attack on their readers. Everyone who was invited to BookCon is obviously deserving of their recognition and status. But they aren’t the only ones deserving a platform in OUR industry’s big events. This is about the underrepresented, the marginalized, and the ignored who were willfully reminded of those positions by the actions of the BookCon organizers this week,” said Giles.
In addition to Russell, BookCon introduced “The Ladies of Dystopian Futures,” which features Veronica Roth (Divergent), Alaya Dawn Johnson (The Summer Prince), Danielle Paige (Dorothy Must Die) and Marie Lu (Legend). All but Roth are women of color.
Any updates will be added to this piece as they come to light.