Let's Talk Diversity: An All-Women Panel Talks Change at BookExpo 2018

By Natalie Bozimowski

 [L - R] MARIETTA ZACKER, RENEE WATSON, BETH PHELAN, ALVINA LING, SARA HINES

[L - R] MARIETTA ZACKER, RENEE WATSON, BETH PHELAN, ALVINA LING, SARA HINES

Increasing diversity in the publishing industry - from the characters in the novels it publishes to the authors it supports to the administrators who select who and what the public gets to read - was a major focus of BookExpo America 2018, which wrapped up on Friday June 1 after countless panels, author signings, and conversations with the people who make the industry tick. 

In one of the trade fair's final events, five women gathered for a dialogue on diversity and inclusivity - or lack thereof - in the publishing industry. 

Moderator Marietta Zacker, a literary agent and co-owner of Galit and Zacker Literary Agency, prefaced the discussion powerfully: "It is hard to talk about this sometimes as what some people view as a trend, when it is really who we are." 

Panelist and award-winning author Renee Watson, who is "always trying to push [herself] as a writer to tell a nuanced story" emphasized her conscious effort to write "realistic fiction." She believes the way for writers to deliver books that broaden the range of character representation and speak to a more diverse audience is to "shut out the noise". "Advocate for yourself and be patient," she said. "Change is hard and it takes a long time."

"I always want to be sure I'm being true to what [the authors] are trying to say," said literary agent Beth Phelan.

"How do we dive deeper?" Zacker asked. "'We already have one of those' is what we've all heard in our working lives," she continued, taking about a tendency in publishing to produce diverse literature for a "token" title. Earlier, the passionate moderator had talked about whether publishers were genuinely pursuing diversity or whether there was, rather, a desire to be "trendy". 

"We are trying to empower our community to think about: 'what's on your bookshelves,'" said Sara Hines , co-owner of Eight Cousins Books, about a series of community book talks called 'Diversifying Book Shelves.' The event aimed to challenge consumers about the books they own and read, and ask which voices are missing. "This is the beginning of our conversation," she said.

"Responsibility is on all of our shoulders," Zacker said in conclusion.