Cons, books, and guests of honor?

So there’s a convention called Readercon. It’s all about books. How awesome is that? This year the Guest of Honor was Andrea Hairston, a woman of color with a long list of credentials and awards. Unfortunately, the dealer’s room at the con neglected to carry her book.

Here’s a blog post about it, “Erasure Comes in Many Forms” by K. Tempest Bradford. She writes:

The fact that none of Andrea Hairston’s books were in the dealer’s room is bullshit of the highest order. Andrea was a Guest of Honor. You don’t fucking NOT stock the book of a guest of honor at a con where you are a book vendor. How is this not con vending 101?

In the comments, people who were involved or attended the conference talked about how that could possibly have happened, and who might have been responsible or not responsible for this failure. From what I gather, here were some of the reasons: 

  • cons don’t exercise authority in telling booksellers what to stock
  • booksellers at cons don’t necessarily make the effort to carry Guest of Honor books
  • the publisher, Aqueduct Press (a small press), applied for space in the dealer’s room and was turned down
  • the terms and availability from the book distributor made it difficult for booksellers to get the books

Does it all boil down to economics?

A little background on publishing and book distributing might be helpful here. Beginning with the era of big-chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble and continuing on with Amazon, it has been getting harder and harder for small bookstores and small presses to make any money on books. The industry does all kinds of mysterious things, invisible to readers, that impact the availability of the books we love.

See AmyCat’s comments on that. Sounds like book distributors don’t always offer the same terms to booksellers for small presses. She writes:

Only about 1/3 of the titles in the database, though, are in stock AND at full discount AND returnable… 😦   When small-press titles aren’t available at full discount, my choice is to make an even smaller profit on them, or mark them higher than cover price, and lose sales to Amazon

Some books can be returned to the distributor if they don’t sell, and others can’t. This is a big deal for bookstores, because they stand to lose money on books they can’t return. Another option is for authors to offer their books on consignment.

If the guest of honor had been a white person, I could just call it a Free-Market Fail. That is, basic economics got in the way of respect (and income!) for the Guest of Honor. 

Or does race play a part as well? And if so, how?

But here’s something interesting . . . one commenter wrote:

It wouldn’t have occurred to me except for reading this post, but now I recall that even a Big Name like Delany was not much in evidence amongst the booksellers, despite his prominent attendance at the con

Delany is another writer of color with a long list of accomplishments and honors, including being named the 30th “Grand Master” of the Science Fiction Writers of America. And he’s particularly well known on the convention circuit. So why wouldn’t his books be sold? 

And come to think about it . . .

As I’ve been pondering all these questions, I’ve also been considering my recent visit to my local library. There were about ten sci-fi / fantasy books singled out as being interesting to readers. All or almost all of the writers chosen were white. (One used a pseudonym, so who knows.) I later followed that up with a quick search on the library catalog and found that many respected SF/F writers of color are not represented except in ebooks. And there aren’t that many copies for the really big and well-established names, like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. 

And yet here is one of the library’s guiding principles:

Respect and embrace the entire community

We celebrate Seattle’s diversity and strive to ensure that all people feel welcome in the Library. We strive to meet the needs and expectations of every Library patron. The Seattle Public Library actively supports efforts that combat prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination.

I see this guiding principle being followed in the children’s section, where I spend most of my time these days. The kids on the covers are more diverse than my neighborhood is, to tell the truth. But the sci fi / fantasy section is less so.

What is to be done?

Cons and libraries alike are fighting racism. But Fails like this one keep happening. How come? Everybody’s doing business as usual, aren’t they, so what’s the problem?

The problem is that everybody’s doing business as usual, in a society plagued by systemic racism of all kinds. It probably seems fair to some — like everyone is being treated equally. But they’re not, because the playing field isn’t level. Special effort has to be made to stop business as usual, to act intentionally, notice what goes wrong, and fix it. And that is happening, for sure. A lot of the people commenting on K. Tempest Bradford’s post gave suggestions for how to make sure this particular Guest of Honor fail doesn’t happen again. One suggestion was to have an “Authors Alley” where authors could sell their own stuff.

But perhaps there should also be a hard look at whether the dealer’s tables are stocking books by people of color — and if not, what are the barriers, economic and otherwise . . .

. . . and how do we tear them down?

breaking down the wall

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