Barnes & Noble’s policy limiting hardcover stock disproportionately hurts writers of color, authors say

A Barnes & Noble policy to limit its stock of hardcover novels has drawn a flurry of criticism online, with many saying the move disproportionately affects newbie writers and people with marginalized identities.

Three authors who spoke to NBC News confirmed to their publishers that under the policy, their hardcover editions would not be stocked at the nation’s largest book retailer unless it was one of the publisher’s two best-sellers. Indeed, they say, the policy harms authors of color who may not receive the same marketing and institutional support as white authors, fueling a vicious cycle that ultimately reduces their visibility and book sales.

In an emailed statement, Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt said the policy allows Barnes & Noble “to exercise good taste in selecting new titles … and to send lower initial quantities in The stores”.

The policy has been in place since September 2019, according to Barnes & Noble. But he recently gained attention on social media after author Bethany Baptiste went viral with a long twitter thread in which she called the policy a “middle finger for beginning authors, especially if they’re middle-listed and marginalized”.

“Get mad y’all,” she wrote in the Twitter feed, prompting hundreds of responses from other authors, booksellers and readers. Barnes & Noble trended on Twitter last Friday.

In its statement, Daunt said the company would no longer take funds from book sales to help promote a hardcover title at all Barnes & Noble stores. adding that the changes were intended to “empower local booksellers to restock titles, at their sole discretion, an empowerment that extends, of course, to how they display their stock in the bookstore”.

“In short, each bookstore now controls how it displays and organizes its stock and, as it also controls orders, the quantities it holds,” Daunt said in the statement. “Each B&N bookstore now differs from the other because traditional bookseller curation is exercised at the level of each store.”

A ‘catch-22’ situation for some authors

Many authors, however, do not see these changes as positive.

Those who spoke to NBC News said they were unaware of the policy until they saw the viral tweets.

Kelly Yang, the New York Times bestselling author of the “Front Desk” series, said she found out about her publisher’s policy.

She described it as “shocking” and took to Twitter to share her devastation at the news that Barnes & Noble was not going to stock “Key Player”, the latest title in its award-winning children’s series, which will be out next month.

“Here you have a book with a huge built-in audience, and you tell us at the last minute that you’re passing it on,” Yang said in an interview. “You really have no chance of becoming one of the best, because how can you if your books aren’t going to be [stocked]?”

Author Kelly Yang.Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Other authors echoed similar fears and frustrations, saying they believed Barnes & Noble’s policy could have a disproportionate impact on their book sales and severely limit their visibility to their target audience (children and young teenagers).

Andrea Beatriz Arango, first author of “Iveliz Explains Everything,” said it was particularly concerning because Barnes & Noble wields enormous power as the only brick-and-mortar bookstore in some parts of the country.

“Often independent bookstores, depending on the region, can be very small and still very limited in what they can stock, so it’s frustrating because often children find books by browsing stores with their parents,” said said Arango.

What happens then is that young children and their parents are unlikely to come across new books like hers, she added.

“It’s like a catch-22,” Arango said. “You need to have a certain number of sales to be considered one of the top-grossing authors, but if you don’t have the exposure to get those sales, it’s going to be hard for you to get there.”

Author Laekan Zea Kemp, whose new book “Omega Morales and the Legend of La Lechuza” will be released next month, said the move finally pays more attention to what’s already mainstream – straight, cis, able-bodied books. and white-centric – and can hurt authors and young readers from marginalized backgrounds.

Some statistics support these concerns. In 2018, just 11% of books were written by people of color while 89% were written by white people, according to a 2020 New York Times analysis of the publishing industry.

Richard Jean So, an English professor at McGill University who contributed to the New York Times study, said what is defined as a bestseller for each individual publisher and bookseller is “a black box.”

“It’s really opaque,” So said. “Knowing how many copies a book sells is notoriously difficult. It’s not even clear that publishers and booksellers use these standards or some other measure.”

But even if those standards were transparent, he said, the numbers show it “generally doesn’t benefit minority writers.”

“Publishing is super white, so any screening process done for top-selling titles will likely amplify those effects,” he said.

Kemp said it’s very possible she’ll never sell another mid-level novel again.

“Publishers will look at the numbers and they’ll think my mid-level debut failed because people didn’t want to read the book — rather than the truth that they just couldn’t find it,” he said. said Kemp.

She continued, “Young people will wander the shelves of Barnes & Noble looking for, and never find, books with characters that look like them.”

Barnes & Noble CEO: ‘I fundamentally disagree’

When asked for a response regarding the criticism, Daunt said, “I fundamentally disagree.”

He said “the warnings voiced recently on Twitter jump to the shadows and miss the good work being done at B&N bookstores across the country.”

Warnings voiced on Twitter recently jump to the shadows and miss the good work being done at B&N bookstores across the country

-James Daunt, CEO of Barnes & Noble

“By enabling good book sales at the store level, good books will have more space and better presentation, as well as real support from the booksellers in each store,” Daunt said. “When we just took what was imposed by the publishers, about 80% of the books ended up being returned unsold. Indeed, the bookstores were filled with books that customers had no interest in reading. Now we sell the most of what we buy.”

Ultimately, Daunt said he believes the policy will provide “much more aggressive support for new writers, including those of color, than previously possible.”

As the best-selling author of several children’s books, Yang said she was skeptical that the policy would benefit authors from underrepresented communities, especially short stories.

“If there’s no chance for me, what chance does anyone else have?” she says.

Kemp shared similar doubts.

“I just want to get a clear idea of ​​where the values ​​of these companies really lie,” Kemp said. “Do they value diversity, equity and inclusion? Or do they value just profits? What if they choose profit – which, as a private company, is absolutely their right – I just wished they would say so.”

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