Podcast: Demand for Diversity

In this episode, BookNet Canada Research Associate Shimona Hirchberg shares some highlights from our new Demand for Diversity: A Survey of Canadian Readers study, alongside related clips from our recent Tech Forum 2019 conference that add some more context to the conversation on diversity in the Canadian book industry.

(Scroll down for a transcript of the conversation.)

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Zalina Alvi: Hello, and welcome to the BookNet Canada Podcast. I'm your host, Zalina Alvi, and this month we have a special guest from the BookNet team here to talk about our latest research study, Demand for Diversity: A Survey of Canadian Readers.

Shimona Hirchberg: Hi, I'm Shimona Hirchberg, the research associate at BookNet Canada.

Zalina: As part of our research team, Shimona helped to survey Canadian readers about their experiences with and interest in reading diverse books so those results could be analyzed and shared in this new study, which is available for anyone to read for free on our website. And we'll have a link to that in the episode notes. So to start, can you tell us a bit about the purpose of the study, and how the team approached putting it together?

Shimona: There's been a lot of reader and author demand for more diverse books in recent years, with the US organization We Need Diverse Books leading the way. We were curious about how this looked for Canadian readers. How do readers perceive diverse books? Are they interested in diverse books, looking for diverse books, and finding them? We wanted to know about readers’ experiences around diversity in books. 

We first defined diverse books as books that are by or about people belonging to one or more of four groups: Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC), people who identify as LGBTQ+, people who are disabled or differently abled, and people of a religious minority. We focused on those 4 groups when we asked questions about how readers relate to or are represented by diverse books. When we fielded the survey online in November, we only asked these questions to English-speaking adults 18 and older from across Canada who had read or listened to a book in the past year. Of the 500 respondents, about one third self-identified as belonging to one or more of the 4 groups that are underrepresented in books (in terms of content and authorship). The rest were considered to be well-represented readers.

Zalina: So, what would you say are some of the most interesting takeaways from the study?

Shimona: Let's start at the beginning: Of the 31% of readers who are underrepresented, 34% identified as BIPOC; 33% identified as disabled or differently abled; 27% identified as a religious minority; and 23% identified as LGBTQ+.

When we asked readers if they want to read books that are relatable to them — 54% of all respondents agreed, with 19% of those from underrepresented readers and 35% from well-represented readers. 19% of underrepresented readers holds a greater weight here as this group makes up just one-third of our respondents. 

Another takeaway is that readers are actively looking for diverse content. When we combine positive responses for all respondents, we find that content and authorship are being looked for in varying degrees for each underrepresented group: BIPOC by 53% of readers, disabled or differently abled by 42% of readers, religious minorities by 41% of readers, and LGBTQ+ by 38% of readers. 

Another takeaway is that published books get around — once a book is discovered, 51% of all readers purchased new books, 43% borrowed from the library, 35% bought it used, and 34% borrowed books from a friend or relative. The ways to acquire books is similar for both segments of underrepresented and well-represented readers. 

Zalina: So now I'm thinking about what this all means for publishers, and the supply chain really, as they're putting books out there for readers. If more than half of all Canadian readers are likely to purchase new books about diverse topics or experiences and by underrepresented authors, what can we be doing to ensure that those books are available? Thankfully, we had some great discussions on this exact topic at our last Tech Forum conference in March, including a panel session on Best Practices for Equity-Driven Acquisitions with literary agent Léonicka Valcius from the Festival of Literary Diversity, Bhavna Chauhan from Penguin Random House Canada, Annie Gibson from Playwrights Canada Press, and writer Scaachi Koul. Here's a clip from that discussion where they talk about using publisher resources to buy books from more authors of colour and how to create that space.

Scaachi Koul: The fundamental thing is that all of these solutions cost money. If you're not willing to spend the money to do them, the money of labor, the money of time, the money of staff, the money of paying someone's salary, it's not going to happen. You are in a position of power. You have to decide if you want to spend the money to do it. If you don't, that's fine. What am I going to say? Enjoy the rest of your life with people talking to you about this. So, if you would like that particular circle of hell, God bless. No problem. I don't care. But like, it costs money. I'm getting ahead of myself, sorry.

Léonicka Valcius: No, absolutely because I think the obstacle that I have been facing is two things, time is huge. Agents work on a commission basis so all that time I spend looking for the writer, I'm not making any money. I'm just searching in hopes of finding somebody who might make me money.

Scaachi: Wouldn't you have more time if there was more than one of you?

Léonicka: Absolutely.

Scaachi: Exactly.

Léonicka: Absolutely. So, there is all that time, right? And it takes work because to actively look for people. So let's say, if Bhavna wanted to, and we are all getting ahead of ourselves, that's fine, if Bhavna said to say, "Listen, I want to go search for more writers of colour," and do that and actually go see them, that's more time. You're already doing so much work outside of your work day, that's unpaid, but to think about all the extra time it would take, nobody's compensating for that and nobody is putting a structure in place that allows for that.

And the other difficulty, not difficulty, but ramifications of when you do say, like, because you had a good work around, Annie, of saying, "Well, it doesn't need to be a professional anymore," so that removes a barrier which is logical thinking, right, but it doesn't change the outside perception of who is allowed in and it also doesn't change the privilege and the entitlement because white men always feel like they're allowed in, right, so they will always keep sending.

So, I do ask for... I provide an option. Let me rephrase. So I say in my submissions, "If you are comfortable and wish to share your race or cultural heritage, please feel free. It is optional." I try to make that as clear as possible, and people share. I've had this up for a year and people do...and that is, I do use that to let me know, "Okay, this is along the lines of what I want to do.This is not along the lines, let me prioritise and take more time."

If it's like, "I'm a 15-year-old, you know, black girl from..." I was like, I write a little note rather than just my form of rejection. I say, "Keep writing, you're doing great. I love you so much, not right now, but keep writing." Right? So I try to take that into account. But I did get an email that first went to my boss and then a second one that went to me that says, you know, "This is when violation of equal opportunity, employment act, yada, yada, yada," and I was like, "Hmm, it's not but hold on."

Like, it was that my first reaction was lots of fear, like that was my first reaction because they were using like a ProtonMail and like, "Isn't that like a super encrypted, like, anonymous type of email that hackers and weird black market sites use? Are they out to get me?" I was going through, like, the motions.

I was like, "Maybe I should just take it down. Maybe I should just quit. Like, what is going to happen?" And then, it was fine. I mean, I didn't die but it was this moment of panic of this is an uncomfortable situation where I'm trying to call a thing a thing but the immediate pushback is there, plus there's a lot of harder work. Like, one of my colleagues, I was vying for a client that I didn't get but my colleague was like, "Also, she's primarily trying to work with people of colour," meaning that there's a lot of people that she could've just grabbed and try to make money with but that she didn't because she's making room. That's a lot harder. And nobody... The idea that it's a lot harder is what trips people up, right, where it takes a lot more time, it takes a lot more energy, it takes a lot more money. So are we invested in doing that work, and if we are, then what kind of steps are we willing to take?

Consider, at the levels that we're at, right, understanding that some of the people who should be here aren't, well, maybe they'll watch it later on the replay that Tech Forum will post online, maybe. But considering the power levels that we have, because we all have positions that we're able to do a thing, what are the steps that we're willing to take? Like, what are the obstacles in your job right now that make it harder for you to make the industry more equitable?

Shimona: Readers read diverse books and they want more! When we asked readers what books they currently read, just to give a snapshot and the rest you can read about in our study, about 22% of underrepresented readers and 7% of well-represented readers either “always” or “often” read books by and/or about Black, Indigenous, people of colour. And if they're not already, readers are at least interested in reading more diverse books: 61% of underrepresented and 40% of well-represented readers are “very interested” or “interested” in reading BIPOC authors. This indicates a desire from readers to read more diverse content than what they are consuming today.

We asked readers if they actively look for books about diverse topics or experiences or by diverse authors. We combined positive responses and discovered that, and you may have already heard this stat, 62% of readers are seeking out diverse books. One quarter of readers were neutral and only 12% answered in the negative. 

Let's dive deeper - how does this change when we segment between underrepresented and well-represented readers? Maybe unsurprisingly, underrepresented readers are overwhelmingly “very interested” in reading diverse authors and well-represented readers skew "neutral". This divide is also shown when looking at whether readers seek out books that represent who they are — 35% of all readers do, while 34% are neutral. Underrepresented readers are more likely to do so with 45% in agreement and 35% being neutral. 

Zalina: Given this interest from readers in seeking out diverse content, let's see what publishers and booksellers think about the demand for diverse books in the retail market. Another Tech Forum panel, called Building Bridges, Not Walls: Successful Publishing & Retailing Collaborations, booksellers, publishers, and agents got together to talk about their common goals, challenges, and successes. In this clip from the discussion, Morgen Young from Ampersand sales agency, Chris Hall from McNally Robinson Booksellers, Athmika Punja from Penguin Random House Canada, Megan Byers from Livres Babar Books, Laura Ash from Another Story Bookshop, and Ruth Linka from Orca Book Publishers talk about how diverse books are actually selling well.

Chris Hall: I'd like to advocate for something based on this morning's keynote address, and that is Indigenous publishing. When we set up our store in The Forks, it's 1,000 square feet. We have a 25,000 square-foot store in Winnipeg and in Saskatoon, we have about 45 shelves of Indigenous books in the big stores. We put in 15 in the 1,000 square-foot store at The Forks. The Forks and Winnipeg is in an ancient meeting site for Indigenous people. So it felt right, it felt like something we do well, we do a lot of events with Indigenous books. And the response has been amazing. The whole community is buying books from that store. Families coming in and buying kids Indigenous books for their kids, from all the communities of Winnipeg. I think it's a real necessity in this country and in our city in particular, in our two cities, because Winnipeg and Saskatoon are on the front edge of this calamity. And so, yeah, there are many, many stories to be told from that community. And I would urge everyone to tap into the great storytellers that are coming from there. Sorry.

Morgen Young: Don't be sorry. I think that that's great. And I think that that's exactly why you want to have a conversation with your booksellers because it's exactly the kind of feedback that we're looking for to take back to publishers in order to fulfil that kind of demand, which I think that they're doing and that is a trend that we've heard started more in the West and it's taken a little while for those kinds of books on Indigenous topics by Indigenous authors to really take off in Ontario, anyways. And now we're really seeing it as well. It's true.

Chris: Absolutely, and a lot of our shelf space is taken up by local publishers. So they're from Manitoba in Saskatchewan. They're the ones producing these things. So it just needs to spread from there.

Laura Ash: One of the things that I thought was interesting was, someone had mentioned earlier about there's like a lack of data. And fair, there's a lack of data because bookstores might not be taking a chance, but there actually are bookshops who are taking a chance. And maybe you're just looking at the data wrong. I mean, I don't know much about data but if you look at the bookshops that their mandate is to make sure that they have clear content, black authors, LGBTQ, trans, Indigenous and see how well they're doing, you'll realize that there is a need for that. There's a want for that. And there's no risk, like…

Chris: No, there isn't. It's not altruism.

Laura: No, just I don't understand, it's…

Megan Byers: I run a teen advisory board/book club. And if you speak to the teens, none of them are turned off by LGBT. They're actually craving it. They want more. They want more diversity. We did a book, Dear Martin and my store is in a pretty white middle-class area, and there was a girl who said, "I never would have read this book. I'm so glad I did. I didn't realize that this could be someone's life," just because she's 13 and just hasn't been exposed to anything really yet. So that's just because…

Morgen: That's awesome.

Megan: Just because they're not, you know... Yes, we want to have books written by people of colour for people of colour, but we also... White people also read those books too. A good book is a good book.

Morgan: Yeah, no, contrary to what some people think. Right? Yeah, no, it's true.

Megan: Like you don't need to look like that character to respond to a character.

Shimona: While the demand and interest are there, we also wanted to know if readers actually are able to find the books they want to read. When we asked readers if it's difficult for them to find diverse books, 40% of readers said it wasn't difficult, but 22% agreed that it was. When we break this out, 13% of underrepresented readers “strongly agree” that it's difficult to find diverse books, compared with only 3% of well-represented readers. 

Zalina: And how are readers generally discovering the books that they're buying?

Shimona: According to our data, word-of-mouth and browsing are the top 2 ways readers are finding books. 63% are finding books by browsing in person or online and 61% through recommendations by family or friends. When we segment this by underrepresented and well-represented readers, we find some notable differences. For example, after browsing and recommendations, underrepresented readers are more likely than well-represented readers to find books through film, TV, or radio adaptations of books or by following the author or series. 

Zalina: So, given the fact that one of the main ways readers are discovering books is by browsing online, and at least some of them are finding it difficult to find the diverse books that they're interested in reading, let's look at the issue of making books easily searchable online and how metadata can help with that. In this Tech Forum session on Inclusivity, Diversity, and Harmonizing the Metadata Supply Chain, presented by Chris Saynor from the standards organization EDItEUR, he discusses how to use keywords, Thema, and other metadata to make it easier for readers to find books, particularly those with diverse content.

Chris Saynor: So Cally and Steve who work in the Willesden Bookshop, which is a great bookshop, if you've read White Teeth by Zadie Smith, this is the bookshop she used to go to as a child with her mother and she launched White Teeth at this bookshop. Unfortunately, the physical bookshop had to close down, as happens in London, they've redeveloped it to build a condo. But they still run a subscription business for schools, libraries, nurseries, other institutions as a specialist in multicultural children's books. So I was curious to find out from them how they found those books, how they chose. Both of them are incredibly experienced booksellers, so they know what they're doing, but they showed me some of the things they do when they'll get an order from a school that's got a very diverse... pupils from different backgrounds, so they may be looking for bilingual books or books that talk about the countries that the children come from. And so, they go and search. So they use...there's two major wholesalers in the UK, so they use their sites, and there's the data distributors. So they have access to those as professionals. But so often what they see is one children's book code, it says, "Children's fiction," and maybe there's a very brief description, there may be reasons they may not have paid the full subscription to have access to fuller data or something, but so often what they see is very little. They have a principle, they will never sell a book to any institution that they haven't checked themselves. So they do a lot of pre-ordering so they can read the books. So it's about, for them, having to order 100 books to find the few books that are actually going to sell.

They also showed me the websites of a major London-based publisher that has just updated its website for marketing purposes, but you can't actually find any books by subject now. So they've stopped ordering from that publisher because they can no longer find...because the publisher stopped producing catalogues and doesn't give any information. The whole website is designed to be retweeted. Or, at least, we couldn't find anything on the website that was by subject. So it's about giving booksellers, librarians, educators, readers enough information so they can make an informed choice.

The information that you can send, the metadata, is really important. Why? Well, we all know that the value of metadata is about the discoverability. So giving the potential reader, or the potential seller, librarians or the educators, the data so they can decide if that title is the right book they're looking for. When we're sending the data out, or displaying the data, some of that data will be displayed publicly and some of that will be available internally or just on professional sites. There may be data that, for commercial reasons, people won't actually show on the public facing site but it's good to give access to people in the business.

The two types of searches as well. There's the known item, title, author, subject. So somebody's looking for a book on a particular subject, they're going to look for that. Unknown item search, again, people are looking by subject, a controlled vocabulary, by keywords, the uncontrolled vocabulary. And descriptive texts, descriptive texts are really important. I'm not going to go into detail on descriptive text but, when it comes to discovering books about diversity and inclusivity, the descriptive content can be really important, the description of the title, but also working with the contributors to create a biography that, if the author is in agreement, explores their identity. A table of contents can also be an incredibly rich source of information. And you need that discovery to be able to turn into sales, that's what's important for the publishing industry.

Zalina: So, that was a lot of data and talk about metadata in a short period of time. But if you're itching for more information on the subject of diversity in the Canadian book industry, I'd encourage you to talk a look at a recent blog post of ours, where we share some further reading related to this topic, both from us and from other organizations. I'll put the link in our episode notes. In particular, it includes a link to the Association of Canadian Publishers' 2018 Canadian Book Publishing Diversity Baseline Survey Report, which looked not at the diversity of book content or authorship, but of those who work in the publishing industry as gatekeepers. That post also includes a video of Kate Edwards from the ACP sharing some results from the survey at Tech Forum a few weeks ago.

Shimona: And if you want to read the full, free Demand for Diversity study, which has lots more information, including direct quotes from readers about diverse books, you can find a link to that in the episode notes as well. 

Zalina: Thanks to Shimona for joining us to share these highlights from the study, and to all the speakers who presented at Tech Forum, especially those included in this episode. You can find videos from all the Tech Forum sessions this year on the BookNet Canada YouTube channel, and they all have closed captioning. Thanks, as always, to the Government of Canada for their support for this podcast and Tech Forum through the Canada Book Fund. And thanks to you for listening.