Monday, February 25, 2013

Waiting for the Goods

An It's Complicated! — Marketing & Sales guest post by the Supervising Librarian for Children’s Services at the Oakland Public Library in CA, Nina Lindsay.

I have little patience for: “brown people on covers don’t sell books.” My library’s community is hungry for brown people on the covers of their books.

Picture a Saturday afternoon at a library in Oakland CA. An 11-year-old and parent come in together to choose some reading. The librarian tries to find out what the child’s interests are, and what the parent’s secret agenda is, and provide a selection to choose from with a few books that speak to each. Often, if the family is not white, the parent’s very good secret agenda is for their child to read a book with a protagonist like them. If you are the 11-year-old, and your selection ends up looking like this:

Or this:

What would you pick?

How do you market multicultural books to librarians, and ultimately kids? Just bring it. Drop the “multicultural” from the equation, and put it in the books; let the books speak to their readers. Reading that truly moves you (emotionally, or in your knowledge, or causes you to action) does so because it speaks to you--the author’s voice connects and you have a conversation with the text. The diversity of readers determines the potential diversity of those conversations and connections. But is there diversity in the voices of the texts to match the appetite of the readers? No.

Librarians can’t get kids to check out books that don’t speak to them. Despite the highly-developed state of advertising, kids still and will always have an alchemy that adults can’t quite crack, and they will come to books that come to them on their own terms. Themed displays and book lists work for caregivers, but kids steer away from books their caregivers press on them. So, the best marketing campaign to kids in a library is simply having a relevant collection, arranging it well, and getting kids engaged with the space, giving them ownership of it.

The cover matters. The physicality of the book matters. Kids want books that feel comfortable and that don’t look hand-me-down. We will happily replace paperbacks over and over to keep them appealing. Improve your cover every few years and we’ll buy it.

And, of course, ultimately the content matters...but there’s not some “multicultural” secret here to discover. Where are the representative numbers of non-white protagonists in high-interest fiction? In biographies? In picture books? In anything beyond historical or issue-related (i.e. adult secret agenda) literature for kids? Why this hesitancy and resistance? Elizabeth Bluemle pointed out in her Who Will Create the New Normal? post that this resistance is mostly among adults, not child readers, and that we are facing a chicken-or-egg situation. Until we normalize multicultural content in our books, we cannot really answer the question of how to market it.

Public librarians like myself tend to be dismissive of profit-making. But over my fifteen years, I’ve come to appreciate and respect the symbiotic relationship that occurs between the non-profit education and library industries, and the children’s literature industry that must be profitable to exist. Still, today, I’m going to question the bottom line. I see a self-fulfilling prophecy in the idea that multicultural books “don’t sell”, or require special marketing. This is based in adult fear. Don’t be afraid; it’s not complicated. I’m sitting here with my budget and readers. We’re waiting. Been waiting. Look at us. We’re a ready market.


  1. "How do you market multicultural books to librarians, and ultimately kids? Just bring it."

    My sentiments EXACTLY. It's nice to hear this from someone pairing kids with books every day.

  2. I just wrote about something similar over at in an open letter to John Green. Check it out:

    1. An interesting and heartfelt letter, Dhonielle. The question of why *not* include diverse characters is a good one. And the question of creative responsibility is an even more thought-provoking one. But back to John Green-- Hassan Harbish from An Abundance of Katherines was a terrific character. Perhaps he deserves a shout out?