How Much Diversity Do You Expect To See When You Enter A Barnes & Noble? Unsurprisingly – Very Little.

This post was inspired by a recent trip to Barnes & Noble. It was right after the end of my book-buying ban, so you can be sure I was eager to buy new books again.

I went into the store hoping to find any of these 5 titles:

However, the only author I could find in the shelves was Cisneros, which is expected because she has manged to enter mainstream readership after a long career.

I left the store with only one book in hand and very annoyed that this happened to me yet again. Sometimes, I’m not able to find any of my top choices at all. I do request some of them at their front desk if I really want it, but how many times am I supposed to do this? The next time I visit I invariably want a new book but am unable to find it yet again, which means I must request it yet again. It gets tiring.

On this day in particular, I was inspired by my indignation to investigate the diversity of authors that Barnes and Noble stocks and sells in their stores. I soon realized that this was a monumental task and that it would be better to lower my scope.

So I decided to take pictures of all the book displays presented in the main entrance of the store to begin my research. This was a small enough sample for me to manage, though it was still very time-consuming. 

Before I begin, I do want make it clear to everyone that I understand this is all anecdotal evidence and that my sample size is very small. I understand that books on display near the entrance are not indicative of a store’s entire collection. 

I am also very aware of the fact that many people buy books without even thinking about the author’s ethnicity. One of the points I want to make is that when there is such little diversity of authors on store shelves, readers are more likely to buy books by white authors by mere coincidence. This leads to more sales for white authors and the perpetuation of the myth that books written by people of color don’t sell. 

It’s an endless, self-propagating cycle that is very complex, but one that could be remedied if we had more people of color being published and their books actually promoted and displayed on store shelves. 


Below, you will see pictures of shelves on display, the total number of unique books on the shelves, and the percentage of those books that were written by people of color. 

 

Total # of unique books: 29

  • 4 of them are by people of color 
  • That amounts to 13.8% 

Shelf 1

Books by PoC:

  1. Shelter – by Jung Yun
  2. Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of A Fist –  Sunil Yapa
  3. In The Country –  Mia Alvar
  4. The Turner House –  Angela Flournoy 

Total # of unique books: 19

  • none of them were written by people of color

Shelf 2 & 5


Total # of unique books: 22

  • 3 of them are by people of color.
  • That amounts to 13.6%
  • Possibly 4? The book marked with the question mark is by Elena Ferrente. She is an elusive figure. I do know she’s Italian, but am uncertain of her ethnic make-up.

Shelf 4

Books by PoC:

  1. milk and honey –  Rupi Kaur
  2. One With You –  Sylvia Day
  3. Tokyo Ghoul –  Sui Ishida

Total # of unique books: 20

  • 3 of them are by people of color
  • That amounts to 15% 

Shelf 3 & 6

Books by PoC:

  1. Wonder – R.J. Palacio
  2. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – Marie Kondo
  3. When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

Total # of unique books: 30

  • 1 of them is by a person of color
  • That amounts to 3.3%

Untitled design (5)

Books by PoC:

  1. something to food about: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs – Ahmir Questlove

Total # of unique book: 18

  • 4 of them are by people of color
  • That amounts to 22% – that’s better…

Shelf 9

Books by PoC:

  1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens: The Visual Dictionary – Pablo Hidalgo 
  2. Kill ‘Em and Leave – James McBride
  3. The Wait – DeVon Franklin and Meagan Good
  4. Paul Kalanithi (again)

Is 138 books a big enough sample? I did take more pictures, but I don’t want to overwhelm you…

You know what? I’ll show two more just to drive the point home. These pictures were taken from a second, side entrance. The selection was surprisingly more diverse! But only a little.

I won’t bother showing the other side of the display because the diversity count was very low and you have seen enough to get the message.

Total # of unique books: 21 (foreground only)

  • 5 of them are by people of color
  • That amounts to 23.8% – a new record!

Lack of diversity in bookstores

Books by PoC:

  1.  The Water Museum – Luis Alberto Urrea
  2.  When the Moons is Low – Nadia Hashimi
  3.  Born On a Tuesday – Elnathan John
  4.  South Haven – Hirsh Sawhney
  5.  The Ultimate Betrayal – Kimberla Lawson Good

Total # of unique books: 26

  • 4 of them are by people of color
  • That amounts to 15%

Untitled design (8)

Books by PoC:

  1.  The Book of Harlan – Bernice L. McFadden
  2.  That Other Me – Maha Gargash
  3.  Pleasantville – Attica Locke
  4.  The Summer of Me – Angela Benson

The Results

Results

The point of showing all these pictures and numbers was that fair representation of people of color in the publishing industry continues to be a problem every single day.

No matter how much visibility people of color have gained in the last decade and despite the passionate and tireless work we do to promote our work, our voices continue to be relegated to the margins. 

We will continue to be bold, proud, and unafraid until we achieve a more accurate representation of the country’s literary talent. I will never be satisfied with a statistic that says less than 20% of books on store shelves are by people of color. And I refuse to apologize for wanting the more accurate statistic of 30% and beyond. 

We have a long way to go before reaching that point, but I’m in it for the long haul. And I have much more to say on this topic. 

As I alluded to earlier, I took many more pictures that I did not show today. So expect a similar post in the near future where I will be evaluating the diversity of books on display in the Young Adult section. Stay tuned. 

P.S. – Feel free to download these images and scrutinize them at your leisure for authors I may have missed or misrepresented. It’s possible, but I tried to be very thorough.


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34 thoughts on “How Much Diversity Do You Expect To See When You Enter A Barnes & Noble? Unsurprisingly – Very Little.

  1. Fascinating. What a lot of research must have gone into these stats. Your entryway sampling was a good idea. I wonder what the Book of Harlan is about–i want to look that one up now.

    1. Yes, it was quite a lot of work! But I enjoyed it and thought it was important that I do this.

      I placed a hyperlink for every book that was written by PoC for your convenience 🙂

  2. Wow, it is really shocking when you see the stats on representation in an actual bookshop. This is a great post, if a depressing one!

  3. Yay awesome post!! I love the.spirit of.your blog and readership because all the usual comments sections would be full of people fighting to the death about the statistics and the value and conclusion to be drawn from them. If I can compare this to how the bog bookstore is set up here then these are.probably the popular and advertised books you are being drawn to upon entering the store/ a floor. So this definitely shows what’s being pushed and celebrated and except for the “flavor of the month”‘poc works it’s a.desert. It really shows how poc works are included just enough that we can be vilified for calling for for inclusion since there are like three famous poc works in there 🙁
    In other.news, Ink is so good, hope you find.a copy and can’t.wait.to hear your thoughts!

    1. I love what my blog is turning into as well! Thank you for being a part of it. 😀

      I wish I had the time to scrutinize the store’s entire fiction section haha. But I think the entryway sample is indicative of bigger trends because they’re the books that have recently been published and the ones getting attention.

      Ink sounds amazing! I will let you know as soon as I get my hands on it.

  4. Great post. I agree with you that the selection in major-chain bookstores aren’t very diverse, which is why I was elated when I visited Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore, and found every book I usually search for when I visit Barnes & Noble. For example, I spent most of last year searching for The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma in the B&N stores I visit, but have never been able to find it in the stores. And I really didn’t want to order online. So now I’m waiting for the trade paperback to come out (in June, I think) and hopefully it will be in stores then though I’m starting to think I’ll have been luck at an indie shop. It’s the same too with Nnedi Okorafor. I haven’t been able to find her books in B&N physical stores, though I’m more optimistic here and think that people love her books too much and keep buying them out (I hope).
    It seems like a cycle that’s hard to break though, since the major stores are most likely to feature very popular books that will guarantee sales and the majority of those books are by White authors. But then, part of the reason why those books are mostly bought is because they are featured prominently in stores.
    Also, I think region/area is a factor too (not sure but I assume so from having worked in retail in other types stores). I think the stores carry books that are most likely to appeal to people in its area, which helps sales but limits people’s access to authors of different backgrounds.

  5. Independent bookstores are amazing indeed!
    My city has a large one and their selection is much better. But I wanted to highlight B&N specifically because it’s the biggest retail bookstore in the country, so it sends trends.

    Though I think I should begin to reconsider my weekly visits to the store. I really do loving shopping there but they make it difficult to leave the store satisfied every time.

    I agree about the regional factor, generally, but my store is in Austin, TX. It’s a city with lots of ethnic and cultural diversity, but this B&N didn’t seem to notice.

  6. I’m sort of surprised that you found as much as you did. I thought there would be even less. Guess I’m cynical.
    I hope you get a copy of Ink soon. It is one of my favorites.

    1. Hah!
      I’m glad it’s not less! Though the results are still depressing and unacceptable.

      I’m looking forward to reading Ink. Will definitely be reviewing it on the blog when I get the chance.

  7. This is such an interesting post! And what a lot of work must have gone into it. Although, it was probably kind of fun (if depressing). I’m feeling inspired to have a closer look at my own bookstore now. The one here is much, much smaller, but it would be interesting to see if the percentages are similar. Also, you could eventually do the same in an independent bookstore and compare the results! You know, when you have the spare time… 🙂

    1. It was definitely fun but exhausting! haha

      I DO want to try Book People. It’s a massive independent bookstore that I think should have a better selection. It would be interesting to research at the very least. I may try it eventually, though not any time soon. I need a break x)

  8. So glad you made this post! It’s so important that we recognise this. Our silence can be mistaken for acceptance, and that’s just not the case.
    Also, just thought I should mention that Elena Ferrenta is Italian, and her work has been translated. I’ve been meaning to read that series because it gives a detailed account of life in Naples and how people were affected by war. It spans a long period of time, I think. But don’t quote me on that.

    1. So Ferrente is a native born Italian? Thanks for clearing that up!

      Thanks for reading. We often don’t think about the diversity of authors and display and I think we all should. We can’t accept 80%+ of authors on display being white; it shouldn’t be the norm and we should keep challenging it. I will!

  9. Wow. The research for this post must have taken forever. I love how passionate you are about this topic. I’ve never really thought about the ethnicity of the authors in B&N. Maybe because I don’t go into the store with a list of books I want. I just wander the shelves until I find something that looks good. I’ll try to look for author diversity next time I’m there.

    1. Yes, it took far longer than I expected. :s

      Most people don’t think about the race/ethnicity of authors at bookstores either. I do understand that. But it’s important that we take note of this disparity and bring it to light.

  10. Wow great post! The most recent time I’ve noticed a large amount of books that were diverse (on the features tables) was only during Black History Month. And when they do feature ethnic/diverse books on the store tables/bookshelves a lot of them seem to be those same stories I’ve heard/read before. I try to shop at Barnes & Noble to support brick and mortar book stores, but they have one of the most crappiest selection of diverse/variety period. I live near two stores and they never have the books I want in stock or even if a book is a couple of years old, I still can’t find it in stock. I think the buyers for the stores could stand to branch out and get a wider selection of authors and genres. Usually when it comes to diverse books I find stuff through Amazon, other online book stores. I sometimes have better luck at Books-A-Million or even local indie shops.

    1. That’s a great point. I remember visiting it during February and the selection was a bit more diverse, but they were books we have all heard about. Which is fine, but what we really need is new people of color being published more frequently and actually promoted.
      I also shop at Barnes & Noble because I want to support brick and mortar bookstores, but I may have to reconsider shopping at other places. Their rewards system is a great perk, but I often leave dissatisfied because I couldn’t find the books I wanted. :/

  11. You are so right, about the endless cycle of promotion and purchasing of white authors. Blogs like yours are lighting the way for more awareness and hopefully more purchasing of authors of color! I am like you, I want to support brick and mortar stores, but it’s challenging when they don’t stock what you want. Kudos for making requests of authors you want to see. Maybe if more of us did this, they’d feature more diverse authors.

  12. This is an excellent post! My blogger friend, Kristen @ Kaycee Writes, just posted a really good piece on her blog about the dark side of fandom. I’m in the process of writing a few posts to help her promote a new Twitter chat that starts on May 20th called Fandemonium where we’ll discuss the lack of diversity in books, TV shows, and movies. We’d love it if you can join us. You’re 100% right. There is not enough books written by or about people of color. Most authors don’t even mention the ethnicity of the characters, leaving the reader to make an assumption. There’s a severe lack of diversity among the current hyped-up books, and when the author does make an attempt at being diverse it’s usually not a very good one. You clearly put a lot of work and research into this post and it shows. 🙂

  13. Thanks for letting me know about this. I will definitely join the chat
    I think there are a fair number of books being written by people of color (despite the obstacles they must face), but one of the problems I see is whether they’re being marketed properly and getting noticed. Barnes & Noble displays are obviously not the only way to market books, but it’s an important way given that they’re the biggest retail bookstore in the country.

    One problem I have when authors don’t mention the ethnicity of their characters is that most people will assume that the characters are white. Especially when it’s left up to interpretation. One example is The Hunger Games. Collins claims that Katniss never had a specified ethnicity, which of course left everyone to assume she was white due to white being the default. What I never want authors to do is to write ethnically vague/ambiguous characters and then claim their work is “diverse.” I have so much to say about this, haha, so I will definitely be joining that chat. 🙂

    1. “One problem I have when authors don’t mention the ethnicity of their characters is that most people will assume that the characters are white.”

      Indeed. I thought about this issue a lot when I read Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy a couple of years ago. In a post called, Racial Diversity in Children’s Books: The Pros & Cons of Subtley (June 2014), I wrote: “It’s difficult to write about race or ethnicity in a clearly recognizable way without over-emphasizing the stereotypical differences between racial groups that are the easiest to describe, such as skin color, which is a controversial and—to put it mildly—imperfect indicator of racial, ethnic, or cultural background.” [I didn’t put the link to the post because I’m not sure what your policy is on unsolicited links]

      Interestingly, my own children have assumed characters are PoC when it turns out they are not (such as Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables). We live in a very diverse community (their public school does not have a racial majority), and my daughters can’t imagine a homogeneous community where everyone is white, even when that’s what the author is trying to describe.

  14. It’s so frustrating and sad that you can’t find the books that you want to read in Barnes and Noble. We don’t have any (I don’t think) B&N in the UK, so I’m not sure what sort of bookseller they are on the whole, and what their reputation is like, but there’s just not any excuse for it in modern publishing and retailing anymore.

    1. Thank you, Samwise.
      You’re right about there not being an excuse anymore. Which is why bringing these statistics to light is so important.
      I will try to do a similar post for an independent bookstore sometime in the future and hope that the stats are better.

  15. This is fascinating! And also frustrating. I’m beginning to understand why I’ve read so few books by PoC, and I really want to read more.

    1. It’s important that all readers try to understand and analyze their reading habits.

      I do acknowledge that most people buy and read what they are naturally drawn to. But what we may not be aware of is that what we think we’re naturally drawn to may be driven by systems and methods that marginalize people of color. For example, most bloggers and reviewers review books written by white authors because there are probably more of those kinds of books, so of course they are more likely to be reviewed. More reviews means more promotion means more interested readers which leads to more sales. It’s a cycle that is difficult to break.

      But I’m doing my best to be as loud and conspicuous as I can be, so the work of people of color is recognized as well.

  16. I can’t say I’m surprised. The people that work there don’t even know have the authors people may request at the desk. The front desk is where it’s at and it holds only the bestselling white authors at the moment and maybe Toni Morrison if she has a new book out. 🙁 This is why we have to keep blogging about and recommending books by authors of color. You’re doing a fantastic job! 😀

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