What if your customers aren’t white?

Léonicka Valcius is a Toronto-based publishing professional who advocates for equity and inclusion in Canadian publishing and literature. She is the founder of DiverseCanLit and Chair of the Festival of Literary Diversity’s Board of Directors. She previously worked at Scholastic Book Fairs as a book buyer and marketer. Léonicka is currently a Title Analyst on the Online and Digital Sales team at Penguin Random House Canada. Follow her work at leonicka.com and on Twitter at @leonicka.

Consider this a prerequisite to her Tech Forum panel, Minding the Gap: Advanced sales strategies for diverse lists.

At this year’s Tech Forum, John Toews, Tan Light, and I will be leading a discussion on how to sell diverse books more effectively. In order for all of us (and all of you!) to have enough time to brainstorm and troubleshoot, we’ll be going at lightning speed. So consider this your warm-up: a teaser for the type of problem-solving we expect to do at Tech Forum and how we hope to shift the assumptions that underpin our work.

Before we talk about how to sell books, we need to get clear on who we’re selling them to. The question “who is this book for?” often elicits vague non-answers ranging from “dads” to “people who’ve read [insert last year’s bestselling book]” and, my pet peeve, “mainstream booklovers.” If we’re honest, we know that mainstream usually means white and that every other descriptor is really a subset of the white audience we presume to be the primary book-buying public.

My theory: We only know how to sell books to white people. Even when the books aren’t by or about white people we still concentrate our efforts on selling them to white people. This shouldn’t be surprising. The majority of the publishing industry is white and most of the people at our retail, marketing, and publicity partners are white. Publishing and literature, in Canada especially, has been able to stay very insular for decades and pretend the white network in which it operates is representative of the entire market.

It’s not.

Beyond being an offensive assumption, it’s bad business. Relying solely on white customers places an unnecessary cap on a book’s reach and is detrimental to the growth of the industry. All the people of colour to whom CanLit is not selling are simply spending their money elsewhere. Every bestseller reaches that status by selling beyond the initial target audience. Why not kick-start that process by expanding and diversifying the target audience right at the beginning of the sales funnel?

Try this thought experiment with me: Take the biggest book on your Summer 2017 list and create a full sales plan for it. Think through all your marketing, publicity, and sales strategies. But here’s the catch: Pretend your target audience is not white. Pick any other demographic you want. For an added challenge, you can pick a book by a writer of colour and make the target audience match their identity. The demographic you choose isn’t important. The process is. The questions are endless, but to start:

  • What comp titles would you use?
  • How would you merchandise it in store?
  • Which media outlets would you pitch for coverage?
  • Who would be on your galley distribution list?
  • Where would you host events?
  • What kinds of events would they be?
  • Who would be invited?
  • What social media campaigns would you try?

In essence, what would you do to tailor your efforts to ensure that your new target audience knows about and wants to buy that book?

Maybe you won’t get the perfect answer right away. (Truth be told, the only wrong answer is “nothing.”) You may have to do more market research to figure out buying habits, spending patterns, responses to other advertising campaigns, key influencers in those communities, and the ways the chosen demographic interacts with media in order to come up with effective strategies. And that’s the goal. It takes work. Trickle-down marketing isn’t a thing. Even good ol’ word-of-mouth works best if you’ve properly seeded the intended market. I’m not expecting CanLit to abandon white people as its primary audience. But if we can start acknowledging and respecting other groups as valuable consumers we can identify major gaps and opportunities in our selling process.

Join us and Léonicka on March 24 in Toronto for conversations about selling diverse books and so much more at Tech Forum. Get your tickets before it’s too late.