Last year, a virtually all-white lineup of speakers at publishing's annual national conventions highlighted the whiteness of the industry itself. BookCon's selection of four white, male authors for a discussion of children's books helped lead to the formation of the grassroots advocacy group We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) and the hasty assembly of the panel "The World Agrees: We Need Diverse Books."
In 2015, WNDB was helping out from the start.
"They've heavily invested themselves in it (diversity)," Ellen Oh, a children's author and co-founder of WNDB, said of BookExpo, the industry trade show, and BookCon, a gathering for the general public. "They're not just paying lip service and they're not just having one panel. And we'll have a forum before both the general public and the industry."
Panels include "In Search of Diverse Book Buyers," about the African-American market, and "The Diversity of Success: How Publishers Create Captivating Stories." Oh will be moderating "WNDB Presents: Diversity, Be the Change You Want to See."
Diversity panels remain more common than actual diversity in publishing, which has few non-white agents, executives, editors or booksellers, and at publishing's trade show. A 20-member conference advisory board for BookExpo is almost entirely white and few of the BookExpo author event hosts and breakfast speakers, among them Nathan Lane and James Patterson, are non-white. One exception will be a tea led by National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson.
"We do need to step up things a little bit more," says Woodson, whose "Brown Girl Dreaming" won the National Book Award last fall for young people's literature. "We have readers hungry for books that reflect their lives and the industry isn't paying attention to them."
Starting Wednesday, more than 20,000 industry professionals are expected at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan for BookExpo. At least 15,000 people whose main credentials are a love of books and a willingness to spend up to $115 for admission are coming to BookCon, which began last year as a subset of BookExpo and now has a stand-alone show at the Javits Center. The weekend gathering immediately follows BookExpo and ends Sunday.
Guests at the two conventions will include a mix of writers and entertainment figures, from Woodson and Jonathan Franzen to Judy Blume and Julianne Moore. John Green, whose "Paper Towns" has been adapted into a movie coming in July, will discuss the project during BookCon. Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak will make a joint appearance at BookCon.
The convention floor's largest presence at BookExpo, covering some 23,000 square feet, will be China, this year's featured foreign publishing industry. Not all attendees approve. PEN American Center, the literary and human rights organization, is planning two off-site events to protest China's history of censorship and suppression of writers. One protest will feature three Chinese dissidents, the second will include such U.S. authors as Franzen and Francine Prose.
"The freedom to put pen to paper and finger to keyboard is a fundamental human right," PEN announced in a recent statement. "Any consideration of China's burgeoning literary market must take this into account."
"China represents a significant market that is critical to this industry," said BookExpo event director Steve Rosato. "It's important for them to have a seat at the table and engage in a cultural and commercial exchange that could have a positive impact on the future of publishing both at home and across the globe."
Much of the convention conversation will likely focus on books in the U.S., such as Blume's first adult novel in 17 years, "In the Unlikely Event," which comes out in early June. In mid-July, Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman," goes on sale. The fall will see a new novel by Franzen, "Purity," and the year's most anticipated debut, Garth Risk Hallberg's 900-page "City on Fire."
A day of panels devoted to digital publishing has such forward-looking themes as "Technology, Design, and Production Track: Permissions: Navigating the Content Maze in the Electronic Space" and "Business and Marketing Track: Born Digital: New Forms of Publishing and Outreach to Readers/Participants." But the publishing industry remains a wonder in how it sustains old ways of doing business.
The digital revolution that was supposed to have prevailed by now remains stalled. Independent bookstores, supposedly on the same path to oblivion as video stores and record shops, have grown for six consecutive years. Authors and agents are unhappy with the standard e-book royalty, 25 per cent, but the once-predicted exodus to Amazon and other digital companies offering higher rates has yet to happen.
"I think traditional publishing offers elements that are still essential to writers and readers," said Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild, a trade association for thousands of writers. "No one in the writing community likes the low e-book royalty rates, and I think you'll see a concerted effort to change them. But for many writers, the advantages offered by traditional houses still outweigh the disadvantages."
"It's not that nothing has changed," said literary agent Eric Simonoff, noting the downfall of the Borders superstore chain and the prevalence of e-books for romance novels and other genres. "But it's still a generally healthy business and it's still primarily physical books. It speaks to the reports of the demise of publishing being greatly exaggerated."