By Marina Sano
In 2020, my pet project has been starting up an online bookstore with my friend and uni-peer, Xuan. After meeting when working for Myriad magazine, a People of Colour (POC) initiative, we’ve continued to bond over finding diversity in reading and media. With this has come our baby: Amplify Bookstore, an online bookshop dedicated to supporting BIPOC authors.
Amplify is the first of its kind in Australia, though there are stores dedicated to other diversities, such as the queer bookstore Hares and Hyenas and Sydney’s multilingual children’s bookstore, Lost in Books. Still, the number of diversity-dedicated stores in Australia is a meagre Google result when compared to similar searches for the US (1, 2, 3) or UK which yield lists of publishers, imprints, and stores dedicated to diverse and inclusive books.
Though I grew up overseas, I was in a dedicated Australian space and as such, grew up on a steady diet of the same Australian childhood favourites as my peers who were raised here. The thing is that this reading list never reflected my identity to me, nor many (if any) outside of the white norm. Then going on to study English Literature in Australia, I came up against this same issue: the only way I found books by or about people like me was if I actively sought them out – an option I didn’t realise I had until I was an adult. This is why we started Amplify: to make it easy for everyone to read stories about people like themselves in a way that streamlines the process to feel less like searching for that ever-elusive needle in a haystack.
We’ve both learned a lot in this process (starting a bookshop at 21 – alongside a global pandemic and first year Master’s coursework – has been a lot), and I’m proud to be able to say that by the time this post goes live, the shop has been up and running for almost six months. There are three things about diversity in publishing that I’ve discovered along the way:
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1. People (including book people) think that BIPOC authors are a lot less available than they are.
One of the questions we have received the most since starting the shop is “how are you going to make money with such a niche list?” alongside assertions of how ‘niche’ our selection is. But mostly, it’s actually not.
BIPOC authors, though underrepresented overall, are still present in the catalogues of other book retailers, at a global scale (I’m looking at you Big Bucks Bezos) and domestically in both chains (i.e. Dymocks) and large indies such as Readings. This might be releasing a bit of a company secret, but listen: these companies actually overlap hugely with Amplify’s stock list and recommended authors. It’s just that the types of titles Amplify is stocking aren’t titles that these other stores regularly push in their marketing.
So, yes, it is a niche in that we are focussing on a certain demographic, but it’s not the kind of niche where we have to scour the world for titles to stock our shop with. The books are available in ‘regular’ stores and with the main Australian book distributors. You’re just not paying the same level of attention to them.
2. There are some books that are still very hard to come by.
The places where our stock list does get niche are, generally, the places where we haven’t actually been able to stock the books, or they are only available in Australia via Booktopia (essentially, the Australian Book Depository).
The fact that the books from our bookstore are available on Booktopia, to the general public, means that they’re perfectly obtainable by the broader retail market (i.e. other book shops). What this shows us is the bookshops’ collective lack of interest in selling or otherwise promoting these titles.
Other than that, there are some titles that are genuinely difficult to come by. These include indie presses from overseas and foreign self-published titles. For example, we were in contact with Saqi Books (a fantastic UK-based publisher of North African and Middle Eastern voices) for a while, but as a start-up we just don’t have the means and funds to personally freight the books to Australia (yet!). A publisher with Saqi’s mission doesn’t exist in Australia (Australian or otherwise), and it’s unfortunate that unless the bigger stores show greater interest, publishers like Saqi will remain inaccessible here.
Saqi isn’t the only example – the Australian publishing scene has a long way to go before it’s bringing in all that it can.
3. Donated and second-hand finds tend to be even less diverse than the bookshop pickings.
This is anecdotal, but it really holds up. Finding the right second-hand books is hard.
Amplify has a pre-loved section, and stocking it has involved Xuan and I scouring Facebook marketplace, Depop, op shops, and any other second-hand offerings we find. However, where regular bookshops have at least some ‘diverse’ picks, these locations frequently have none. They have the offshoots of what is being marketed and sold in mainstream bookstores and thus reflect even less diversity, accordingly.
There’s an argument to be made that the books by BIPOC authors are just soooo good that people aren’t giving them away. But really, it’s a lot more likely that they’re just being put in second-hand selections at the same rate that they’re being put in new bookstores, so in significantly lower numbers than white authors.
Still, finding the books is possible. It’s a little difficult, but it’s possible. And really, it’s not too much worse than the pickings on a bookshop catalogue.
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So, diversity in publishing is a bit grim, but we hope it doesn’t have to stay this way. The more Amplify grows, the more contact we’ll have with other book people, and the more they’ll realise that our selection isn’t so niche after all. Some publishers are looking at increasing diversity across the board (1, 2, 3), so these difficult-to-find books and dismal second-hand pickings should begin to improve.
Starting Amplify has been full of surprises!
Not all the surprises have been encouraging. Despite knowing and anticipating the lack of marketing and attention given to books relevant for us, we still underestimated the extent of this lack of marketing. The process of digging through monthly catalogues and cross-check books to assess their suitability for Amplify is far more effort than we anticipated. Unfortunately, despite their best intentions, our contacts at the publishing houses have also (reasonably) had their attention guided towards the books for which marketing materials and advance proofs do exist, which tend not to be the books we are able to stock.
Still, some surprises have been positive. We knew there was a marketing issue for diverse books in mainstream bookstores, but we didn’t realise that there would be such easy access to so many relevant books that we would outgrow my spare living room space in a matter of months. Also, while we had hoped that our mission would impact people, we didn’t realise just how much. Many of the comments and messages we’ve received since opening have thawed our jaded hearts and helped fuel our fight against silence and erasure of BIPOCs in publishing.
Despite knowing these challenges going in, as well as the other bigger challenges, which primarily are the shop’s main raison d’être, we’ll hopefully be a part of the change towards wider representation in literature and book shops.
Marina Sano is a writer, editor, and owner of Amplify Bookstore. As a Japanese and Australian writer, her writing reflects ideas of being in-between cultures and people, with a passion to expand the range of experiences that we see represented in publishing.
Image credit: Jing Xuan Teo, 2020.