Jennifer Baker of the Minorities in Publishing podcast interviews Jael Richardson, author, columnist, and founder of the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), on craft, publishing, and formulating equity within the literary community. This conversation was hosted live at Tech Forum on March 20, 2019.
(Scroll down for a transcript of the conversation.)
Zalina Alvi: Hello and welcome to the March episode of the “BookNet Canada Podcast.” I’m Zalina Alvi, BookNet’s Marketing & Communications Manager. This month, we have the great fortune of sharing the live recording of the “Minorities in Publishing” podcast that we hosted at our annual Tech Forum conference, which was held in Toronto just this past Wednesday on March 20th. The “Minorities in Publishing” podcast is the brainchild of publishing professional Jenn Baker. It discusses diversity, or the lack thereof, in the book publishing industry both with other professionals working in-house as well as authors and those in the literary scene. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts and Jenn will also be sharing this episode on their feed, as well.
So for this episode and for the live audience at Tech Forum, Jenn sat down with Jael Richardson to discuss the evolution the word “diversity,” the challenges of tagging books from underrepresented authors as “diverse,” and lots more. So let’s jump right in, starting with my introduction of these two very accomplished writers and speakers.
It is my pleasure to introduce Jennifer Baker. She’s a publishing professional and creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast and contributing editor to Electric Literature. In 2017, she was awarded a New York State Council on the Arts and New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a Queens Council on the Arts New Work Grant for Nonfiction Literature. Her essay, “What We Aren’t, Or the Ongoing Divide,” published in Kweli Journal, was listed as a Notable Essay in “The Best American Essays 2018.” Jennifer is editor of the short-story anthology, “Everyday People: The Color of Life,” from Atria Books. And her writing has appeared in forbes.com, Lithub, “Poets and Writers,” and Bustle among other print and online publications.
On the other side, Jael Richardson is the author of, The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, A Father’s Life, a memoir based on her relationship with her father, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey. The Stone Thrower was adapted into a children’s book in 2016 and was shortlisted for a Canadian Picture Book Award. Jael is a book columnist and guest host on CBC’s q. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and lives in Brampton, Ontario, where she founded and serves as the Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity. Her debut novel, Gutter Child, is coming fall 2020 with HarperCollins Canada. Please welcome them.
Jennifer Baker: Yeah. Thank you so much. And it’s still morning, right?
Jael Richardson: Yeah.
Jenn: Okay. Well, good morning. Well, thank you so much for being here, Jael.
Jael: Thanks for having me, I’m excited.
Jenn: So I wanna start by talking about FOLD a little bit. I’m from the States, and so we have our own diversity initiatives and you’re gonna see me use air quotes around “diversity” a little bit. Which, if we have time, we should…
Jael: We should talk about, yeah.
Jenn: …can get into our feelings about that.
Jael: Yes, absolutely.
Jenn: But I definitely wanna hear more, and for those who may not be as aware about how FOLD came to be and how its been progressing over time, especially as things have become or aim to become more inclusive in the industry.
Jael: Yeah. So the FOLD came about really oddly, actually. I had published a book and I was trying to figure out what marketing strategies for it. And I was also, just as a MFA grad, going to a lot of literary festivals and I really love literary festivals and, like, book events. Super-nerd. But I noticed, it wasn’t very hard to see that I was often the only black person in the room, the only person of colour, and very often on the panels, there were, like, there was no representation, no… Just a lot of white folks. And that was really the thing that made me curious and I started to look at that a little bit more closely. I noticed that when there was diversity, they tended to be talking specifically about diversity. And so writers of colour were sort of over here and white writers were at these panels where they talked about craft and character and they were doing workshops and there was a couple things that were happening. I remember going into a workshop on writing dialogue, and the scene that the author used was a scene about two white folks talking about their slave and talking about their negro, specifically. And I remember looking at it and feeling, like, very uncomfortable as the only person of colour in the room and just being like, “Why? Why of all the dialogue in all the world is this the scene?” And, “Why does nobody else feel uncomfortable?”
And it was those kinds of questions that I was percolating on when the We Need Diverse Books movement came about and there was the conference in New York where there wasn’t a lot of representation and people protested and sort of commented online. And what happened from that as I was thinking about these things was that people started to post online why we need diverse books. And we need diverse books because I want my daughter to read more diverse stories, and it was really interesting to look at all the different people who were posting about it because a lot of them were white. And it became this really shocking moment for me when I realized, like, this struggle isn’t just something I’m going through because I’m a woman of colour, because I’m a writer who wants my stories to be read. You know, lots of people want to read a better range of stories. And I knew then that was something that should be done and I wasn’t sure what that should be. And a writer, Dalton Higgins from Toronto wrote an article about it and talked about how we need more writers of colour or more people of colour as editors and as publicists and as festival planners and publishers, and I was reading this and I was like, “Festival planners, like, oh, you know, I have actually spent the last 10 years being an event planner for a university, like, I could do that.” I also happened to be from a city, Brampton, that doesn’t have a lot of festivals or events. People don’t generally go to Brampton just for fun. And many people avoid it or just leave it to have fun. And so I wanted to do something that could accomplish two things that would really change the dynamic of a literary festival and also really highlight a city that I love.
And so we built a festival where it starts with the most underrepresented storytellers, that that’s really the focus is to think every year about who’s particularly underrepresented and start building our programming roster from there. So instead of most festivals where they’re like, “Who’s big? Who won the Giller?” or, “Who…” You know, they start with these huge names and then build their festival around them, which, in previous years, was often meant you had a lot of white folks. We started by asking, you know, “Who are the most underrepresented? Who are the voices that aren’t likely to be invited to a lot of these other festivals?” or who deserve a place where they get to talk about craft, where they don’t just have to talk about their identity. And so that’s how the FOLD came about. We launched our first year and it went really well. We were in this really small museum and the rooms were really full. The audience looked very different. A lot of people of colour, a lot of LGBTQ folks and disabled writers, like just a really great range of people who really participated and enjoyed the whole experience, I think. And so it’s just been growing from there. We’ve actually grown of the museum space, we were in City Hall last year, and this year we’re moving into a huge theatre space. So, it’s progressing really well.
Jenn: Wonderful. How have you found, in terms of the, specifically the literary festival but also being an author and thereby being in the industry in two different spheres, right, of seeing how or even hearing how authors, marginalized authors, I’ll say to be more all-encompassing, were trying to get visibility. Because a lot of people utilize social media as the primary and often the sole way of getting to people because it’s free, it’s what people know, everyone’s presumably on it. But also because of the wealth of material on there, you get lost very easily. So even in the creation of FOLD, how is word spreading and are you getting feedback from authors that are a part of the festival itself of, “Okay, this is helping me in a different way because I’ve only utilized X, Y, Z to get my voice out there”?
Jael: Yeah. Well, in our first year, there was a woman who came to the festival and we had a panel that was about this kind of discussion. And she stood up and she said, “My son tells me, ‘I wanna be a writer.’ My son tells me I have three strikes against me, I’m a woman, I’m black and I wear a scarf, a hijab. And is that true?” And the panelists were all like, “No, of course that’s not true,” and, you know, it was a really great conversation, actually, with her about the realities that, no, that doesn’t mean she’s not gonna get published but, yes, there are challenges with that. And what was amazing is that woman’s name is Fartumo Kusow and she left that session and had already submitted work to one of the publishers in Canada, and over the next four months from that conversation signed a contract with that publisher and published it a year later and had a really successful year with that book, even with a small press because she has this huge following of people as well that are really looking for more stories about, from her community.
And we started to build an event called The Writers’ Hub as well because we realized what was happening is there were publishers who really wanted more diverse stories, but didn’t have that community connection, didn’t know people personally, didn’t know how to cross that divide. And there were people who were marginalized and underrepresented that felt like, “I’ve submitted 20 times to these publishers, I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” or, “I just don’t think they like my writing,” and there was these misconceptions on both sides and a divide. And so we created an event called The Writers’ Hub where people could come and it’s specifically for editors to talk directly with writers and they go up and they say, “Here’s my manuscript. Who would I send it to? What should I know?” And I feel like those things seem small or insignificant but they’re actually really big because there’s some writers who are submitting great work that just needs, you know, another round of edits before it’s ready or who just need to know, like, when you’re sending it, it needs to be double-spaced, it needs to be in this font and, like, you know, just some real things that’ll, in a slush pile, will get thrown away but in a one-on-one conversation will not only correct errors but will help warm a relationship where instead of submitting it to the slush pile cold, you’re submitting it to someone you’ve actually met. That person can advocate for you in a better way which is kind of the thing that’s happened in the past with white writers, I think, just in ways we didn’t know had happened, you know, at the bar over a conversation and it happened here or there and just bridging that divide, I think, was what we try and do at the festival. As well as providing training. You know, I think that’s really helpful for me. I needed more workshops to develop my writing and sometimes that’s what a lot of writers need.
Jenn: So it sounds like a lot of this has been to help the writer to get that visibility. Have you ever had those conversations also with the publishing professionals? Because I work in publishing and I work specifically in managing editorial or production, which, we are the typesetters, the people who get the book copy edited, check the corrections, da-da-da-da-dah, make sure it gets to the printer on time. If there’s a typo in the book, it’s usually my position. It is not me, but it is my position that’s doing it. And I’ve been in those rooms. I’ve heard acquisitions editors talk about authors. I’ve seen how publicists just don’t know how to market this book. And I’ve experienced this also as a person who’s pubbed with a Big Five and everyone who touched my book was PoC and it still wasn’t understood. And that was bonkers. It was just flat… Everyone was like, “But you had all PoC,” I said, “Yeah, okay.”
Jael: Yeah. I don’t think people realize how important it is to get as many eyes on a story as possible and the different ways that people of colour will experience the same text and I think there’s sort of a belief that like, “Oh, you know, it doesn’t matter,” right? Because in my case, a lot of times, there’s not a single person of colour that’s actually looked over my work or my writing through the process of publishing my book. And that always scares me. But then, even if you get someone who’s a person of colour to look it over, it’s not solving everything, it’s not fixing everything, it’s just providing more voices. And we learned at the FOLD that the more voices, the better, but also it makes things harder. And so you’ve gotta make time and make flexibility for allowing a diversity of voices. That’s something, I think, structurally, we haven’t quite thought through yet how we value the diversity of voices and how we make time for the diversity of voices to weigh in on a product, you know?
I have a book right now that I’m working on that’s with my editor who’s lovely and amazing, who happens to be a white woman. And, you know, some part of me thinks, “It would be great if there were, like, other people who were reading it at this stage, when it’s not quite done, and weighing in on it in some capacity,” especially people of colour. And I’m not sure what that model looks like but I think that’s the way we need to start towards, is how we can get more buy-in, weigh-in from different kinds of voices throughout the editing process because there’s a lot of slow gaps when you’re editing a book.
Jael: I will say one of the things that we saw change was when we went around in our first year with FOLD, we would say to publicists, “Okay, we’re looking specifically for…” First, we said “diverse,” and then they were like, “What do you mean by ‘diverse’?” And we said, “Everything,” and they were like, “I don’t…” And so we’ve gotten really specific now. We talk specifically about underrepresented voices, so we use that a lot. We talk a lot about multiple intersections and multiple kinds of diversity, not just in their identity but in what they’re writing. So, black women writing science fiction. South Asian men writing romance, right? Like, these are the kinds of things we’re trying to play around with even more so than we did in our first year where we just thought, “Diverse.” And when we went around in our first year, people were like, “I don’t know how to know if they’re a disabled writer,” “I don’t know how to know, like, if they’re comfortable talking about mental health,” or whatever the case might be. And what was interesting is in our second year, one of the publicists of a smaller press in Canada actually developed a new author survey and a new author profile where at the intake of an author, they’re asking all these questions and they’re knowing a lot more about their author in order to help market them in order to help get them into festivals like ours and also just in order to help understand their needs.
I mean, I think a lot of what was interesting is hearing about how, asking about authors’ mental health helped them determine the kind of tour schedule they would have or the kinds of, you know… One of the things we talk about is, it’s really helpful if you know what your authors are comfortable doing. Are they really good at panels? Are they really good at workshops? Is that something that stresses them out? Because if it is, it’s not gonna do well for the book if they get up on stage and they’re really, obviously uncomfortable and also can’t articulate what their story is about. And so having these really more robust author profiles or, where possible, a more comprehensive relationship with the author helps on multiple fronts.
Jenn: So I wanna get into the D-word. “Diversity.” And then I wanna make sure to touch upon, like, accessibility because technological accessibility is a big issue and this is being discussed, but also metadata, tagging, keywords are also a great part of this whole agenda for today as well. But the “diversity” word, how do you feel about the word “diversity”?
Jael: I think it’s being misused. It’s funny, I think we misused it in the creation of our own marketing and now I look back at… We were doing grant applications and I’m like, “Change that to this,” and they’re like, “It takes 10 more words to say that than just saying ‘diverse.'” I’m like, [deep intake of breath], and you only have, like, 250 words when you’re doing some of these answers for grants. So every word counts and if you can say, “diverse,” and mean the same as, “writers who have been traditionally underrepresented,” then you’re probably just gonna say “diverse.” And so, I’m trying to be critical of the word but also understanding the way that it works.
But I think that when we talk about diverse, there’s a sense that some people are diverse and others are not. It creates a relationship particularly where people feel that they’re being excluded or that it’s not for them or that they’re not involved where diversity really just means a range of people. You know? And that’s really what I’m looking for. I can’t tell you the number of times people were like, “Well, what if a white guy wants to come to the FOLD?” I’m like, “He can come.” We have had white guys on our panels. It’s just, you know, you’re not gonna find a panel of three white guys at the FOLD. You know, you’re gonna find different kinds of experiences represented in a panel. And so I really think that we have to think about diversity as being a range and really think about what we’re talking about often with diversity is how do we balance out the representation? How do we correct the system so that those who have been historically underrepresented get suitable representation and so that it’s a more even playing ground? And I think in some ways right now, we have to do a bit of overcompensating, right? There needs to be a lot more because the history of representation has been very one-sided, historically. And the myth that happens from that, because people talk about, “What’s wrong with that? That’s just the way things were,” blah, blah, blah, but there’s a myth that happens that says people of colour were not telling stories or writing stories historically. And people believe that. There are people who believe that the best writers were the ones who were published historically and it was just that there were no good writers of colour and good women writers from a particular era. It’s not true.
And so we really have to elevate the voices of queer writers, of Muslim writers, of writers of colour, of disabled writers because those voices need to balance out the underrepresentation. They need to show and inform us that we’ve done things wrong in the past and we need to balance it out or some of the problems of our past are going to repeat themselves in the present which we see happening.
Jenn: Yeah. And I totally agree with you on that because my hesitation with the word “diversity” was the co-option of it, also, to mean something that wasn’t what we’re talking about. You know what I mean? Where it’s, well… I don’t know if people watch “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and there was that… The fact that you’re laughing, you know what I’m gonna say. So it’s that panel and it’s this diversity panel of four seemingly cisgender white men, I cannot attest to anything else in that regard from just presentation alone. And, you know, the thing is, the diversity is they’re different ages, some have hair, some don’t have hair. Their bodies are different. So therefore, this is a, you know, “Dude likes sci-fi, I like fantasy. Like, this is diverse, y’all.” And I was like… And then they made a comment, a funny comment, like, “Oh, wasn’t that a diverse diversity panel?” And scene. But that’s what I saw happening so much was, “We’re thinking of a diversity of ideas, we’re thinking of a diversity…” “He’s from Long Island and his parents made $40K and he made a million dollars. That’s diverse,” and I said, “Whoa, what’s happening to this word?” And it’s continually used. So I get the… It’s interesting to hear, it’s like for… I need to explain and get money, right, for a grant. So I need to say this word, I need to get to the…
Jael: Well, and we talk about, like… The interesting thing, I was at a panel maybe, like, a year or two ago where they said, you know, “What’s the trend for 2017?” or ’18, whatever year it was that I was going, and they were, like, the…
Jenn: Oh, my gosh, they asked that question?
Jael: …”The trend will be diversity,” right, and it’s…I think it’s a really dangerous thing to get into this thing where we’re doing it for the sake of either a trend or because it’s popular or because it’s marketable. We really have to check our own minds when it comes to those things because when we do that, we aren’t actually addressing the real problem and the real root of the problem which are a lot of systemic bias and a lot of things in our processes that make it easier for some than it is for others. And so we really have to think of it as, like, you know, I talk about it. Diversity or, and I try and use the word “inclusion” and “proper representation,” are the necessary next steps for your organization when you’re forward-thinking, when you’re, you know, living in 2019.
And so, it’s an essential thing, it’s a constant thing, it’s also not something that will be resolved. You know, you won’t get it right. I believe at the FOLD that we will always have work to do, that there will always be a new layer to think about, a new community, a new group. And so it’s not this thing where, and I’ve seen a lot of festivals do it where they’re like, “We’re diverse now, we’ve got this.” And I say, “You know what, we’re not. We haven’t got this. We don’t have a lot of deaf attendees. And we don’t have a lot of programming or work that we provide for people with a variety of disabilities. We’re, like, not even close to being there yet. So if you’re there, good for you.” But I think that’s the danger, too, is that there’s some sort of, like, checkbox where, “We’ve got there, we’ve arrived, we’ve accomplished it,” where for me, I look at every panel and I’m like, “We still didn’t cover this. We still didn’t have this person. We still didn’t have this intersection. And so next year, we’ve gotta do more for that particular area.”
And I think the other danger that comes with making it marketable or whatever is that people start to stretch it in order to make it work for, like, everyone. So, like, we have a cisgendered white male and he’s like, “Oh, my family was Irish and they were immigrants and so let’s really play up that, like, diversity angle to my story,” and it’s like, “I don’t know if that’s really your selling feature, man. I think maybe there are other qualities that we should be able to play up and just have it sit in the market of diverse stories, right? You’re one of the kinds of stories that exists out there.”
Jenn: Yeah, and I feel the same way just because I’m a black woman. You know, I’m cisgender, I’m heterosexual, I’m able-bodied, I’m employed. There’s so many privileges that I have to keep in mind because I recognize…I worked with We Need Diverse Books for the first three years of their inception and I recognized within the groupings of what I wasn’t acknowledging about myself because I was thinking, “Oh, I never… If I never had to think about something, that’s when I recognized I have privilege.” If I never ever had to think about the fact that I could pay my rent, I have privilege. If I never had to think about the fact that if someone saw me walking with a man that, you know, “Oh, that’s your partner?” and it may or may not be correct because that’s my identity, I have privilege. And also, with the podcast, recognizing after two or three years, I wasn’t doing transcripts. And I was totally ignoring a whole demographic and being like, “Minorities in Publishing.” And I said, “Oh, crap.”
So, it’s investing in that and it’s interesting that, I hear that you’re admitting that the FOLD is, like, “We’re working towards it but we’re not there yet, but we recognize it,” because I feel as though, especially in the States, we get so much pushback of, “But I’m trying. Don’t I get credit for trying?” and I said, “I don’t get credit for getting into work on time. So you don’t get credit for trying.” You know what I mean?
Jael: Well, I think people are also are a bit naive about the economics involved in diversifying and more inclusion. I think we want it to be easy and we want it to be simple and when it gets complicated or involves money, then we’re sort of like, “Well, do we really need to do it this year?” I’m like, we’ve… You know, one of the things we did last year was we had closed captioning at some of our events at the festival. And, you know, there’s 3 million people in Canada who are deaf or hard of hearing and so that’s was who we were trying to think about, right? When you get ASL interpreters, for example, not everyone who’s deaf or hard of hearing actually communicates in ASL. So it’s not necessarily solving the problem of those 3 million people.
And so we were trying to get the most amount of people accommodated, and so we had closed captioning, and it was one of those, like, aha moments when you realize when you actually provide a service for one community, it expands the experience for everybody. So with the closed captioning, it meant that as the event was going on, the words were coming up on the screen and the audience, when you missed a joke, when you, like, didn’t understand something that was said, you could actually watch it in real-time and be like, “Oh.” Like, I remember actually watching a joke, people were laughing, I’m like, “What did they say?” and then I watched it on the closed captioned screen and I’m like, “Oh.” And so you start to see how, and there’s an author, Rich Donovan, who has a book called “Unleash Different” which is very much about this. When you think about disability and inclusion, you actually benefit everyone. And that was one of those moments where I saw the benefits, and so we got a huge sponsorship from a private donor this year to provide closed captioning for the whole festival as well as ASL interpreters. And we have a relationship with a deaf organization that’s coming to sort of give us feedback on what the festival looks like. But, like, let me be real with you, that’s, like, a…it’s a big price tag. It’s a big expense. And so we have to decide it’s so important that we’re gonna fundraise specifically for that while also fundraising for just the everyday running of the festival. And this is what makes it hard in this particular industry, is that to run our festival costs more than it does to run any other festival.
And to expand our festival will be almost impossible for us in the near future. To have more than one panel going on at the same time, not gonna happen because as soon as we do that, it’s a much higher price tag. And that’s not to say that that makes it not worth it or whatever, it’s actually extremely worth it for us. It just changes the way we operate. And so I think the conversation about inclusion is much deeper, it’s much longer, unfortunately, to accommodate and make changes in some of these areas where we have historically ignored an entire community, but my argument is to just to always keep it on the table on conversation. You know, if you go into your workplaces and your publishing organizations and think about if a deaf, a blind, or an author in a wheelchair comes into your space, what experience are they gonna have? What are the obstacles that they’re gonna experience in your space, and how can you get yourself more ready for that the next time they come, the next time they send an email, the next time you get an inquiry because, you know, that’s something we need to be paying attention to in addition to, you know, a lot of the other communities that are on the conversations.
Jenn: Yeah. Because the technology is there. It’s the time and, like you said, it’s totally worth it for me to have to invest in transcripts because it does. We are assuming that it’s like, “Oh, we’re doing this for one group,” and it is in prioritization, but it benefits a much larger…in the long run.
Jael: We had Angie Thomas come recently and because we had closed captions, one of the schools said, “I would love to get transcripts of that conversation because we study the book in our class and to be able to have her talking about it in her own words.” And so, again, you see how we did this thing because it’s important and because we wanna be more inclusive, but now there’s gonna be actual classrooms that can participate in what Angie shared about her own work because we have these transcripts already ready to go.
Jenn: So we were talking in the green room about tagging and our feelings about… And there’s gonna be a discussion about keywords and there is…yeah. The metadata, the keywords, and in publishing, we talk a lot about this in production, especially for ebooks in particular, and the marketing and everything, it’s like, “We need to get eyes on this book, we need to get eyes on this book.” And you have specific feelings there and I think we had a kind of correlation in terms of how tagging can benefit and can further separate as well because you want that notice of, yes, there are characters of colour, there are characters who are asexual, there are characters who are disabled, there are characters who are Muslim. Like, you kinda do want those identifiers but at the same time, that seems to put us off into another section of not only Amazon, but, you know, like, the literal bookstore and, you know, you’re downloading it from the library. It’s completely segregation where sometimes you lose that larger identifier of “romance,” “literary, contemporary fiction,” and it’s “black books.” Like, “gay books.” “This book is gay,” and it’s like, “Okay.” You know, like, “Okay. I got it. But are there trolls?” Yeah, like, what is the context?
Jael: To be honest, I think this is one of the most complex parts of the diversity and inclusion conversation, to tag or not to tag, to label, to not to label. And I think we have to think about where we are and why and where we wanna go, right? The idea and the ideal is that, eventually, we’re in a place where there is a range of stories. When you say “romance novel,” there are multiple kinds of romances being included. Black stories, queer stories, asexual stories, like, there’s just the full range present when you say “romance.” The problem is we aren’t there, and there is an overpopulation of certain kinds of stories. And so in an effort to get here, I think we have to tag and we have to make these sort of identifiers happen, but we have to be really careful about why we’re doing it and about what the end goal is so that we’re not reducing books to being about just queer romance, that there are also, you know, friendships, there are also, you know, a whole bunch of other things are happening in the story.
So, I think it involves really thoughtful people around the table when you’re having those discussions and I think what you’ll find is if you’re trying to have those discussions in a room full of people that are quite similar, problems will arise, and really narrow conversations will happen. And so your real question is, to handle this complex issue, how do we get as many people as possible in the room talking about this? And how to be really honest about it. If you’re gonna call in all your writers of colour or all your staff of colour, because you want a diversity of voices, you need to be really obvious and honest that this is an awkward moment, but we really don’t wanna mess this up.
I was a part of a conversation with a major bookseller, shall remain nameless but it’s probably obvious, and brought a group of us into the room to talk about the way they lay out the store and the different categories for the store. And what was really fascinating in that conversation was there wasn’t an easy solution. It wasn’t like everybody in the room was like, “Yes, stop having a black books section.” It was like some of us thought, “You know, that black books section is actually really important. We’d just like some of those black books to be in the general novel section as well. And so is there a way to do that?” So I think that there is no easy solution, is the thing that you all, like we all need to understand about diversity in these conversations, there’s no easy solution. So it’s gonna involve time and hard conversations, and that the best results will come from having the most amount of voices and the most variety of voices in the room when you’re discussing this, when you’re discussing a book. “How do we market this queer South Asian love story? Do we elevate the queer side? Do we elevate the South Asian side? Do we try and hide things so that people buy it and they get it and then they find out later, ‘Oh, whoops, it’s a queer love story, I didn’t know that'”? You know, what do we wanna give people and how do we wanna get it there is really complicated. I just don’t think there’s an easy answer, I don’t think it also applies to every book. I think each book and each author is gonna be different in what they want and what they need. And so, again, that’s gonna involve some conversations, some open dialogue about how a writer wants to be positioned in the world, how they want their story positioned in the world.
There are people like me who will go all over and talk about diversity and be fine with it. And then there’s other people who are like, “I don’t wanna hear the D-word. I just wanna talk about characters,” and I think we have to make room for people to be able to do both.
Jenn: Yeah. Speaking of conversation, are we going to open up to questions? We have a microphone, because it’s fancy here. Or are we gonna do that odd thing where no one wants to be the first one? Oh, yay. There is someone who wants to be… This usually takes a while.
Audience Member 1: All right, thanks. Yeah, thank you…oh, sorry. It’s really interesting to listen. I guess, like, one thing that I picked up on kind of maybe on, like, a practical level is something you said at the beginning really resonated with me, like, about getting as many, you know, when you market something to people, it’s received differently according to their experience. So I work in publicity, and that’s something that I want to be able to do as sensitively and effectively as possible, and I guess I just wondered, like, to have any kind of insight into how to go about doing that… Like, for example, I’m currently working on a book by a black female author and it’s about this really incredible black female character who’s absolutely amazing. It’s, you know, it’s a fabulous book and I’m, like, shouting about it as much as I can. But obviously, I have my perspective of how I’m marketing and publicizing it and getting it out there. And while it’s true that, you know, you can get the author’s input into, you know, the press release or things like that, which is super-valuable, it’s not coming from, you know, an internal space and the people around me are more, like, you know, they’re white. Like, they are. And it’s like, so, you know, you wanna get… I guess I’m not being articulate at all but…
Jenn: Is it mainly you just wanna kinda find a way that’s looking to publicize a book expansively and not pigeonhole it, per se?
Audience Member 1: Yeah, I suppose it’s like I… You know, I don’t wanna co-opt people’s experiences and think that I can reach them in a way that, you know, they need to be reached when I can’t really because I don’t understand that but I also don’t wanna exclude people from receiving information that they should and wanna be receiving. So I guess I just wonder, like, how do you think is a sensitive and effective way to go about asking for input and advice on, you know, publicity campaigns and the marketing ideas and things like that without being, like, you know, “Ah, can I get a black person to look this over, please”? You know, like, I don’t wanna do that but I also want that input.
Jenn: You mean in-house as well as from the author?
Audience Member 1: Like, both.
Jenn: All-around, okay.
Audience Member 1: It’s all-around, I think it’s hard.
Jael: I think that there’s a couple of things. So first, I think you have to recognize that on some level, even without the experience, you’re the expert in how publicity works, right? So taking input from an author has to be sort of weighed, because some of us think we know a lot and we don’t actually know how that language translates. That being said, I think it’s really important, especially if you haven’t had a lot of relationships with black women in your life experience, to really invest in building relationships with black women. And I just think that’s a good career move for you. I think following them online, like really, really asking yourself, “Who do I follow and whose voices are really lacking?” And, “How can I not just, like, mix them in but, like, overwhelm my feed with their voices?” because when you see a variety of black women talking, you’ll realize we’re very different. Very different ways of approaching the world.
And so when you go back to that author, it’s really helpful if you can say, “Hey. This is what I’m thinking. I know that there’s some sensitivity around this issue so I don’t wanna put the words in there if you’re not comfortable but, like, what’s your weigh-in?” So you need to be able to come to them with insight on the community so that they can respond about their particular experience because if you’re asking them to educate you, then they’re doing a lot of the work and they might not even have the right take on it for your thing. I think going to events where black women are presenting and speaking and asking questions, you know, “Was there anything when you were doing your publicity that you felt uncomfortable with?” and really just getting that personal life experience from a very contrived, forced way for your professional development is really important. And that’s the great thing about Twitter, I think, is that it allows you to get into many people’s lives whose experiences are quite different from you from a very distant way and just gather a lot of life knowledge that you may not have built in everyday living. And it’s the same, you know, if you’re a dude, if you’re cisgender, whatever, you need to really think about the communities that you just haven’t had life experience with, language, word choice that you don’t feel comfortable wrapping your mouth around, and really spend time in that particular space until it’s comfortable, until it’s language and life experience that you feel more knowledgeable about for a professional purpose, and also just for a good life purpose.
Jenn: Yeah, and I think lastly, also, pay attention to how books are being marketed for black people, in that case. Because, you know, for us, you know, like, Helen Oyeyemi is not the same as Jackie [SP] Woodson is not the same as Jesmyn Ward, right? But Jesmyn Ward has the awards, Bernice isn’t as well-known, Helen’s international. So they’re all different and they’re all being targeted for one thing, right? And if you’re looking at how are they being placed, and is it about the content, is it about their place, is it about their audience that they’ve built so far? And it’s a lot of work. That’s just work, right? Because I’ve had stuff pitched to the wrong places because people weren’t strategizing, and I think if you’re strategizing about the content, not just the people but also recognizing that they’re people, that can help as well. Should we shut it or do we have one for one quick question? Okay, one quick question. Who do you love more?
Jael: We will take them both, just silently.
Jenn: We’ll take all the questions.
Jael: Ask both questions.
Jenn: Same time.
Audience Member 2: I just want to backtrack a little bit in regards to minorities within the publishing industry working in the industry. Really hot topic, I guess, but the concept of unpaid internships and having that be a gatekeeper of who’s getting in, and just your thoughts on it and if you’ve seen any change. Yeah, just…
Jael: I’m not on the inside but I will say people should be paid for their work. I think it’s just a basic knowledge, right? So if companies and organizations are really serious about diversity and inclusion, that will be… You know, we talked about economics. It’s going to cost you to really care. And so if you really care about it, you will make that investment because it really won’t change if that doesn’t change, I really think that. I think there also has to be work on the publishing programmes level, right, where recruitment is really actively pursued. We did something with Penguin Random House last year where we went into a school and we talked about the different kinds of rules in publishing and, you know, in Brampton, there’s a lot of South Asian, people of colour in our classrooms. So just by going into a Brampton classroom, you have access to a bunch of people who will, hopefully, eventually go for these internships. But it would be really hard if we tell them, “Yeah, you’re gonna go to school and you’re gonna work for a year, not get paid.” You know, so you have to be building in the structure at the organization level right now and building in the new recruits plan at the same time. I really think those are both important.
Jenn: Yeah. And I can only speak for the States really, really quickly. In the terms of what’s happening, there hasn’t been a lot more movement in terms of it but what people have been doing is they’ve been doing more remote jobs so that way, they can do it on weekends and then work another job rather than you’re taking… You know, you’re going from The Bronx to Queens to Brooklyn to duh-duh-duh-duh-da. So that’s my super-truncated answer. That version.
Jael: I think there’s grant programmes here maybe, yes? Does anybody know?
Jenn: Yeah, the States has some, so.
Jenn: So thank you so much. I wish I had so much more time. Thank you, Jael, so much for being here.
Jael: It was lovely. Thank you for having me.
Jenn: Thank you all. Thank you, tech people. And we’re around. I believe we’re around.
Jael: As a plug, I have bookmarks for FOLD this year that have, you know, just the list of our cool authors. If you are working with a publisher, we’re building in, we did this last year for a few publishers, like, discount passes for publishing houses and I don’t know. If you wanna come and money is the issue, just, like, send me an email and we will figure it out.
Jenn: When is the FOLD?
Jael: It’s May 2nd to the 5th. And I know some of you will actually be there in other capacities that are in this room but if you wanna come and something is an obstacle, you know, I’ll figure it out. Yeah.
Jenn: Yeah. Yeah, go to the FOLD.
Zalina: Thank you to Jenn and Jael for joining us in Toronto so they could have this discussion live at Tech Forum. And extra thanks to Jenn for working with us to release this special episode of the BookNet Canada Podcast. We’re also grateful to all the staff, speakers and sponsors who made this year’s Tech Forum and ebookcraft conference possible, and to the Government of Canada for their financial support through the Canada Book Fund.
If you’d like some more information on what happened at the conference this year, follow the #TechForum hashtag on Twitter or read our blog posts wrapping up all of the great discussions and insights that were shared last week. We’ll also be posting videos of many of the sessions on the BookNet Canada YouTube channel sometime in the next few weeks. So you could look out for that or stay in touch to make sure you’re notified when they’re posted. And as always, thanks to you for listening.