The Diversity Problem: The Elephant at BookCon


When readers and authors alike rightly criticised the lack of diversity on the inaugural BookCon’s panel entitled “Blockbuster Reads: Meet the Kids Authors That Dazzle” after it was revealed to be an all cis straight white male one, the convention’s planners apologised and promised to add one or more additional panellists that “reflect the community and make a great panel even better”. This in itself, while well-meaning, is inherently problematic because it demonstrates the industry’s habit of using minorities as token figures to fill gaps because they feel they “have to”, rather than because they should reflect the reality of our diverse world.

Still, the apology was needed, even more so now after figures were revealed that showed just 93 of the 2300 children’s books published in America were about black characters.

But sorry’s not enough anymore, if it ever really was enough.

The line-up for BookCon was revealed, featuring some pretty big names, but not a single person on that list was a person of colour.

There are more cats on that list than people of colour.

Think about that.

Grumpy Cat is as diverse as they were willing to get.

This isn’t a silly little slip-up BookCon and its organisers can just say “sorry” for and then scramble to hit some imaginary quota they have in mind that would make it go away. This is another assertion of the whiteness of publishing and indeed the world at large. When publishing’s big event, one attended by thousands of people, seems ignorant of its own whitewashing, what does that say about publishing itself? Clearly they must have known this would be a big glaring issue because they’d already played apology bingo with the aforementioned panel. BookExpo America’s Twitter response didn’t help matters. It was glib, passed the buck of blame and reeked of PR practised non-apology.

Think about how this will reflect on both authors, potential and working, and readers. We’ve talked at length on this site about how the supposedly female dominated field of YA fiction seems ruled by the same straight white men when it comes to clout, exposure and literary acclaim. That extends to all of publishing. Look at how few big literary award winners are people of colour, or how black authors writing about black characters are immediately categorised as “black fiction” regardless of content, or Junot Diaz being questioned as to whether using Spanish in his work would alienate readers (his response was a thing of true beauty).

BEA are following a well-trodden path of self-fulfilling prophecy, one that treats cis straight white middle class readers, usually men, as the “default” mode, their stories as “universal” whereas those of everyone else are for a “niche” market. This exclusionary policy of privilege isn’t just limited to the world of authors and protagonists: it’s prevalent in editors, agents, the heads of publishing and, of course, convention organisers.

You cannot be what you cannot see. Everyone has the right to see themselves in a story. It’s crucial that this ignorance is called out and dealt with, and we the privileged can’t just say “sorry” and be done with it. We can do better.

It’s not “political correctness” or looking for “tokens” to make an effort to be diverse: It’s called making an effort to reflect real life.


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