Library column: what BME readers want

Sandeep Mahal
Opinion - Libraries 23 Apr 2009

How many times have we had the conversation about ethnic diversity in publishing? Publishers are looking straight ahead for new markets, instead of at the life that's going on around them, Sandeep Mahal writes Our multicultural, multi-ethnic society is a growing and important market for publishers. At the London Book Fair this week, I spoke at an IPG seminar to explore how publishing can become a more diverse industry in what it produces and how it sells. I suggested ways to reach Black Minority Ethnic (BME) readers through libraries the book trade sector closest to BME communities and changing demographics. In recent years, the book trade has shown its commitment to diversity by taking part in initiatives such as BookTrust's DIPNET, Decibel's Books for All and The Reading Agency's Reaching Readers project. These initiatives explored how new partnerships between publishers, libraries and retailers can expand the BME reading market.

Libraries understand cultural and social differences. This is key to their success in reaching and building a strong and loyal customer base. Their connections with local BME people and partner organisations have helped them develop dedicated services and identify gaps in current provision.
The main challenge for libraries is getting hold of books that BME readers want. There are whole groups of people whose stories are not available because publishers don t publish them. They re looking straight ahead for new markets, instead of at the life that's going on around them. Publishing output is slow to change and libraries report complaints of inaction from library users. There is a huge appetite for author events and new titles.
As a clear demonstration of that appetite to engage, 62% of the participants at the 16 Reaching Readers author events 2007 were from BME backgrounds. An event at Manchester Powerhouse Library saw Manchester students meet author Bali Rai. One of the teachers attending said: The Bali Rai event at Manchester Powerhouse Library was particularly meaningful to the Asian students, because they had not met an author who was from their community or ethnic background. As an Asian person his views had more of an impact than a white English author would have had.
There is a hunger for more author visits, and Reading Partners a consortium that aims to get more people reading more by transforming the way libraries and publishers work together - has continued to build on this work. We are opening up rare opportunities for local people to meet writers such as Rageh Omaar, Jackie Walker, Constance Briscoe and Hanif Kureishi. They have all done wonderful events with hugely diverse audiences.
Much more needs to be done to broaden the diversity of publishing output. Research by The Reading Agency and HarperCollins provides some fascinating insights into the habits of BME readers. It reveals a growing demand for non-fiction, particularly books based on the lives of strong role models. This presents huge challenges and opportunities for the publishing industry in producing the right books to meet these demands. 500 readers were surveyed, of whom 72% were women and 52% were under 35. The most popular genre was crime, mystery and thrillers. Literary fiction was cited by only 26% of respondents. Our research also found that BME readers were often being targeted with the wrong material by publishers and the media, and that literary novelists such as Salman Rushdie and V'S Naipaul were not popular with the majority of BME readers.
The research and project findings suggest the publishing industry needs to follow libraries lead and address the lack of diversity and representation. Libraries can help publishers reach new readers. 72% of BME people are active library users, with a quarter borrowing weekly and a third monthly.
Building a grassroots ethnic readership for writers through libraries should be a vital part of every publisher's strategy. Slowly but surely, this connection will make a positive impact on expanding the book market.
Sandeep Mahal is Project Manager at The Reading Agency.

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