In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. publishing has lost two of its largest in-person events: BookExpo and BookCon. Occurring annually, these conventions offered a platform for publishing houses, agents, new and established authors, and fans to meet. Going forward, BookExpo and BookCon will likely be a mix of both virtual and in-person presentations. Past attendees have mourned the loss of a physical convention, regaling the former glories of meeting icons in the industry over drinks and between panels. However, this shift could allow able-bodied attendees to go to social events, while making it easier for disabled fans and guests to attend – a consideration that has been sorely lacking in the publishing community.
From its inception in 2014, BookCon has garnered attention for its lack of diversity in their guest author panel. We Need Diverse Books, a group of 22 authors and publishers featuring BIPOC and women, started a campaign on social media to rectify this poor representation. Their efforts were rewarded with a renewed guest list featuring non-white writers, and an entirely new panel that featured the We Need Diverse Books campaign runners. Since then, they have had various panels about diversity in publishing, as well as big name guests like Angie Thomas, Kwame Alexander, Marie Lu, and Soman Chainani. Along with the original panel from We Need Diverse Books, each year of the convention has had additional diversity panels on topics such as world building or redefining genres. In the years since, Dohnielle Clayton, COO of WNDB, has stated that diversity in publishing “feels like a slog.. we just inch forward… but it definitely is a slow process.”
Adding panels and inviting guests is a good start toward a more diverse BookCon, but it falls short on accessibility for disabled people. Though the convention center that BookCon uses is wheelchair accessible, the event caters more to able-bodied attendants. Numerous attendees have noted their experiences at the convention: the halls were crowded, and the lines began hours before panels or events were set to begin. A disabled person with chronic pain would not be able to stand or remain stationary for however long it took to get in, without experiencing adverse effects.
In 2018, BookCon was shown to have 20,000 people in attendance. Between the crowded lanes and lengthy lines, the crowds can be hazardous for disabled attendees and event guests to maneuver. In 2019, Publishers Weekly published an in-depth article about accessibility in trade shows and conventions. Various testimonials cited the lack of courtesy from the event holders, but more so from able-bodied attendees. Knowing this, BookCon could and should do more to control the crowds so that disabled attendees can have the same opportunities as abled-bodied ones. In addition, the article mentions the endless hoops and paper trails that disabled people must work through to be given medical passes. For able-bodied attendees, it is as simple as purchasing a ticket and showing up.
Rising prices at BookCon are another obstacle for marginalized authors. A weekend will cost $60, while individual tickets range from $10-37 depending on age and what day you attend. Booth prices at BookCon vary with location on the floor plan. If there is guaranteed foot traffic, that location could cost upwards of $1000. This does not even include book copies to give to guests, or travel, hotel, food, or medical arrangements. That is a steep price when there is no guarantee that putting money into the convention will have a viable return. Disabled authors fortunate enough to be on disability only receive an average income of $1200. Thanks to the Trump administration, many disabled people have been pushed out, as the stipulations have made it difficult to reapply for their benefits or they no longer qualify under new guidelines. The possibility of even making it into the convention would mean choosing the convention over feeding themselves, paying for prescriptions, and rent.
A shift to at-home events would provide more opportunities for disabled writers and readers alike. They wouldn’t have to struggle with frustrating accommodations, rising expenses, making travel arrangements, extra medications, and dietary needs. Attending could be as simple as logging in to a Zoom call from the comfort and ease of their home. Such accessibility may improve attendance rates, which have seen a downturn in recent years. Virtual events could provide disabled attendees a more comfortable and affordable option, without the need to fight their way through the crowds. The decision to change isn’t a hard one; the technology is available to adapt conferences to our needs. We Need Diverse Books has created a thorough walkthrough on how to include disabled attendees in this new era of social gatherings. One of the newest digital events to adapt to this model is DVpit’s DVCon: a two-day publishing conference solely for marginalized authors and illustrators to connect with each other.
With the many pitfalls they face throughout the publishing industry, marginalized people have begun to feel that efforts to improve this enterprise are largely performative. Since those that run the publishing world are mainly white and able-bodied, there is a tendency to lean towards marketing and publishing that supports people with similar privileges. There are 57 million people in America with disabilities, yet only 11% percent of them work in publishing. The industry remains willfully ignorant of these prejudices and continues to give platforms to non-marginalized authors, and even white supremacists, over disabled writers. This in turn trickles down into the events that the industry hosts. With only a fraction of the opportunities that white and able-bodied guests are offered, BIPOC and disabled writers continue to face down the insurmountable task of getting through the front door. Meanwhile, the publishing world gives itself a pat on the back for being inclusive. If the publishing industry continues down this road, they will cycle through the same bland stories and alienate an entire market. Designing events that are aimed towards this market of marginalized stories would be a great first step in this long process.
If BIPOC and disabled authors were given a more supportive platform, rather than halfhearted marketing and quiet releases, then publishing houses would see the financial return they so stubbornly believe won’t happen. There are many amazing BIPOC and disabled writers who are vying to be published and are turned away from the Big Four houses. The few who are accepted are then not paid nearly as much as their white and able-bodied counterparts. BookCon has every opportunity to shift over to virtual conventions and potentially even see an increase in attendance and consumer interest. They have no reason to not include more disabled writers and at last provide the kind of stage that would boost the representation of marginalized people, working to make diversity a standard, rather than a niche.