retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Yesterday, MNB reported on how Barnes & Noble had to back down from a diversity-oriented project that it hoped would be seen as positive and would improve its tarnished reputation.

On more time, here's the background…

The company partnered with Penguin Random House to publish a series of classic novels -  including Lewis Carroll's “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein” and L. Frank Baum's “The Wizard of Oz" - for which the covers would portray characters from the books as being dark-skinned.  None of the words would be changed, but the covers were meant to pose a provocative question:  Did you ever consider the ethnicity of the characters in these classic books?

The thought was that for the most part, ethnicity was never mentioned in the books or factored into characterizations, but the assumption always was made - regardless of the the color of the reader - that they were white.  The new series of covers - marketed as "Diverse Editions" -  were meant to suggest to people of color that these characters could look like them and help them engage with the classic titles.

To say the least, the effort backfired.

The criticisms of the series focused on the fact that these novels were not representative of the black experience, and therefore minimized it by trying to suggest that the white experience was universal.  One critic called it “the classics in blackface.”  Others argued that it would have been more powerful and appropriate to republish and promote classic novels by black authors.  And it didn't help that the series was released for Black History Month.

Barnes & Noble has pulled the books from its shelves and website.

The company released a statement, saying that the new covers were "not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard."

And I commented, in part:

I have no doubt that their intentions were positive, that they wanted to make classic novels more accessible to children of color.  But it assumed that people cannot relate to characters who don't look like them or live like them.  One of the things that literature - and art in general - can do is give us access to lives and experiences unlike ours.  Our lives and insights are broadened, not narrowed.

I totally agree that the companies would have been better off making books by black authors more available and accessible, which makes me wonder how many black people were in the room when these decisions were made.  I'm not judging here, because I don't know, but is it possible that this misguided attempt to be more diverse actually reflects a lack of diversity?

I spent some time yesterday on the phone with Alex Ortolani, the company's director of corporate communications, to get a sense of how the initiative was conceived, and one of the things he told me was that the media - and this includes MNB - misunderstood one core fact about the issue.  The "Diverse Editions" were a) just new book jackets with new art that were being put on existing books, and b) were limited to only Barnes and Noble's Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan, and was initiated by that store's management.

This fascinated me for several reasons.

I was surprised that a single store in such a big chain could do something so ambitious (and, it ends up, controversial) on its own, though to be fair, this is exactly what new CEO James Daunt promised when he bought the company last year.  (Daunt promised to make the chain's stores more like independent bookshops, autonomous to a large degree and in touch with their local communities.)

Ortolani said that the Fifth Avenue store could in fact do this because it is such a big and busy store … and agreed that even though the idea went off the rails, it was in keeping with the company's new mandate.

One of the things that Ortolani conceded was that one of the company's original statements about the controversy - "the booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles…" - could be seen as blaming the Fifth Avenue store, but said that this was not the intent.  He also said that this misstep will not change the company's new strategic direction, and that individual stores will continue to be urged to be ambitious in their efforts.

As I think about the Barnes & Noble situation, I have some additional observations:

Especially after my conversation with Ortolani, I remain utterly convinced that this was a well-intentioned idea that just went wrong.  Barnes & Noble did the right thing by reacting fast, and it will do the right thing if iut does not over-correct based on the controversy.

It occurred to me that all of the artists commissioned to do the new book covers were, in fact, people of color … and none of them objected to the project on moral or ethical grounds.  They did the artwork and they cashed the checks.  This doesn't let Barnes & Noble or Penguin Random House off the hook, but it does suggest that not everyone of color was offended.

I also think that this is an easy fix for Barnes & Noble, and an enormous opportunity.  If  were Daunt, I'd announce - no later than Monday - that I am underwriting a major marketing program that will highlight the work or both major and less well-know authors of color, complete with in-store and online displays, readings, book signings.  And, I might even underwrite a) a project that would bring to the public the work of unpublished minority writers, and b) writing programs in schools around the country where they are desperate for this kind of investment.  Barnes & Noble, I would guess, could get a lot of publishers to get involved in such projects, and it could be winner for everyone involved.  All they have to say is, "We made a mistake.  We learned from it.  And here's what we are going to do about it."

There is one silver lining in all this, and I must admit I am surprised by it - all the attention suggests to me that Barnes & Noble's brand has a lot more power and equity than I might have expected.  People may have been disappointed in Barnes & Noble, but they are only disappointed in brands they care about.  That is a foundation upon which Barnes & Noble can build.

The good news for Barnes & Noble was that for at least a couple of days this week, it got more headlines than Amazon.  It also was the bad news … but I'd suggest that the company look on the bright side.

As Robin William's literature teacher says in <i>Dead Poets Society</i>, "Carpe diem.  Seize the day."

Every business can learn another lesson from the same movie, as expressed by Williams' character:   "I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way."