Multicultural Books in the Marketplace: If it’s a good story, people will like it!
Random House Children’s Books recently hosted a brainstorming session to find out what we can do to help boost the presence (and sales) of multicultural books in the marketplace. Attendees of this conference call included author, Mitali Perkins, eight Indie booksellers from across the country, and RHCB representatives from all areas of the publishing business (editorial, marketing, and sales).
As a sales representative, I constantly attempt to combat objections from buyers, particularly with regard to such titles (I can’t sell XYZ book because: it has a character of color on the cover, my customers can’t relate to it, our customer base does not include that population, etc.). I viewed this call as a way that I could learn/understand more about my buyers’ concerns (and how to counter them), as well as a collaborative effort to brainstorm ways to market multicultural titles and bring them to a broader audience. Often gatekeepers (buyers, librarians, etc.) are influenced more by their own opinions [of what kids want to read] rather than those that kids may actually have. Mitali began the call with an introduction that lead to a wonderful discussion – she spoke about the three assumptions of gatekeepers:
Tokenism – the idea that if one reads one multicultural title, it covers or speaks for that topic/culture/section of society.
Apartheid – the idea that kids will only read books with characters like themselves.
Xenophobia – the idea that (in this case) American kids don’t want to read books about kids in other countries/cultures.
So, what exactly does ‘multicultural’ mean? Early in the call, we defined the broad ‘multicultural’ term to include books with authors or subject matter from different races, religions, sexual orientation and gender.
With regard to publishers, booksellers feel that the pub date is not as important to Indie bookstores as we may think. For example, there is a tendency to inundate the market with African American titles in January and historic female titles in February (for placement in Black History and Women’s History month promotions). In doing so, this a.) unfairly labels such titles (i.e. assigned school reading) and b.) creates a competition between which title ‘best’ represents such topic, leading to lower sales of equally good books. The consensus? Spread the publication of such titles throughout the year.
With regard to the aesthetics of multicultural titles, the following suggestions were made by booksellers:
- Don’t make such titles look so ‘serious’. This often creates an association that such books are for school reading = boring.
- Photographic covers don’t work as well for multicultural titles – books with more nuanced covers would work better (the exceptions to this rule are picturebooks and early chapter books).
Some other discussion points that came about:
- Readership should be perceived as any child looking for a good book, not just readers in the group portrayed.
- Overemphasizing multicultural titles can work against them – the more you say about a book to a potential teen customer, the more they resist buying.
- Categorizing or labeling multicultural titles does not help with promoting them, but seems to stigmatize them. Several booksellers stated that the only time they categorized such titles was when organizing books for bookfairs.
- A few of the booksellers create Global/Around the World books sections to highlight strong multicultural picturebook titles.
- Use book talks and bookfairs to highlight strong multicultural titles.
To sum it up, all of the booksellers agreed that, regardless of the subject matter, if it is a good story, people will like it. And, it is extremely important to stock books with a variety of viewpoints from different backgrounds.
For more information on this topic, you’ll find that Mitali Perkins’ blog (Mitali’s Fire Escape) is rich with conversation, links and articles pertaining to multicultural books: www.mitaliblog.com.
So, what are your thoughts and ideas on this topic? What are some of your favorite multicultural titles? We’d love for you to share them here!