Barnes and Noble Shift Squeezes Vulnerable Authors

Questions about the inclusivity of the publishing industry have been raised in the aftermath of changes to Barnes & Noble’s business model in the US. The responding outrage from the literary community echoes universal discussion about the inclusivity of publishing worldwide.

Barnes & Noble, America’s largest book retailer, recently made the decision to withhold support of debut hardcovers until they could see ‘evidence’ the book would be worth stocking in stores.

Instead, they will prioritise guaranteed sales from paperbacks. Many authors are required to hit hardcover sales thresholds before getting a paperback edition, and such sales also allow them to build up more leverage at the bargaining table for future book deals.

Initially, this shift was done quietly, without any official public statement from Barnes & Noble. It was left to authors and booksellers to report the change, anecdotally.

And as many of them pointed out, the decision would put disproportionate pressure on marginalised authors.

If authors need to ‘prove’ the saleability of their work, getting books on shelves becomes a popularity contest. And riskier and less ‘mainstream’ titles have an unfair disadvantage in this pageant.

Debut authors, writers from POC or lower-class backgrounds will struggle (even more than they already do) to break out into the market. After all, given Barnes & Noble’s influence, their decision gives even less incentive for other publishers to invest in these stories.  

Eventually, B&N CEO James Daunt made a statement to Publishers Marketplace about the change. “What we are doing – with middle grade and adult, fiction and nonfiction, alike – is to exercise taste and judgement,” he said.

“Far from abandoning hardcovers, we are determined to sell these with more vigor and more invention. There is an irony, perhaps, that to do so we must exercise taste. We must champion the best and not simply pile up everything, irrespective of merit, and be content to sell very little of it.”

Obviously, this kind of rhetoric – ‘taste’, ‘judgement’ – is often used to excuse (whether consciously or not) racist or elitist cutbacks to cultural projects. Warner Bros/Discovery was recently criticised for similar language in justifying cuts to projects led by and about underrepresented communities.

It’s hard not to be critical of the Barnes & Noble decision and Daunt’s explanation, given the context – particularly in America – of inflammatory discussions around race and sexuality. Books about LGBT+ issues and critical race theory have been restricted in schools, and conservative politicians have launched extended attacks on the validity of marginalised voices in society.

While no decisions of similar magnitude have been made by Australia’s publishing giants, Aussie authors and literary critics have also commented on the need for more diversity in our literature.

Sydney-based writer and critic Michele Freeman described the Australian literary scene as “decidedly middle-class”, echoing opinions voiced by author Enza Gandolfo, among others.

And a recent survey by the Australian Publisher’s Association revealed unaddressed diversity problems. Less than 1% of professionals working in publishing are First Nations people, and only a third come from lower-middle or working class backgrounds. In contrast, almost half of respondents attended private schools.

Furthermore, the latest budget’s provisions for the literary arts were “grim”. While arts in general have suffered from budget cuts, federal support for literature in particular is almost comically low. This is despite the fact that 72% of Aussies read regularly for pleasure, with millions attending writers’ festivals or literary events in recent years.

Literature is not dying, so why are governments and corporations acting like it is?

Follow Maddie’s journalism on Twitter.

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