Wordstock, Portland's premier literary event, has a bit of a diversity problem. Out of almost 200 authors scheduled to speak or appear at the annual book fair, only two are African American – Roscoe Orman, Sesame's Street's Gordon and children's book author; and Anjuelle Floyd, author of a collection of interconnected stories set in the Bay area, "Keeper of Secrets."
Add Oregon's Japanese American poet laureate Lawson Inada, Chinese American poet Tung Hui Hu, Seattle writer Kathleen Alcala and a couple of others, and there you have it. The number of writers of color represented at Wordstock can be tallied on your fingers.
But according to festival director Greg Netzer, Wordstock organizers were aware of the monotone image of their event and, ironically enough, they set out this year to attract more authors of color.
"I'm concerned about (the lack of diversity) too," Netzer said. "It makes me sad to say it."
One key reason they failed to attract more African American authors is bad timing, Netzer said. The Miami Book Fair, one of the largest and also one of the most diverse fairs in the country, had scheduled its event the same weekend. Nearly all of authors of color the Portland group had invited – including Walter Mosley, Ha Jin, Edwidge Danticat and others – had made their schedules for Miami.
"We wanted to go after the big names," he said. "As you can tell we were not very successful, but at least we tried."
Netzer said Wordstock has a limited amount of money to pay for author appearances, and relies on the marketing money of publishers to pay the way of authors. For example, to pay for Toni Morrison to appear in Portland would have cost Wordstock about $80,000. But much more also goes into choosing authors. Netzer says Wordstock looks for writers who are producing interesting work. And more than half of their authors are recruited from publisher or author inquiries.
Wordstock's inability to lay on a festival that looks like writing America, comes at a time when Black publishing is flourishing like never before.
Talk show host and author Tavis Smiley, whose book "The Covenant with Black America" made #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, has recently expanded his publishing company, SmileyBooks.
"There has never been a wider representation of African American authors, both in the mainstream and self-publishing (than there are today)," said Cheryl Woodruff, president of SmileyBooks.
Woodruff, a graduate of Reed College, said she received a call this last week from the Miami Book Fair to try and reserve authors for next year's event. In the last 10 days, she said, she's had at least six calls from book fairs across the country to reserve authors for 2008 events. It's this simple human interaction that connects publishers, authors and book fairs, she says.
"When a fair or organization has a clear and ongoing commitment to diversity, who wouldn't want to be there," Woodruff said, adding that everyone involved is in the business for the love of books and the power it gives to people.
But despite the growth, many Black publishers and authors are having a difficult time marketing their products to a wider audience. According to an article from Black Issues Book Review from November 2006, most African American authors must rely on "radio, word of mouth, church group appearances, book signings and the occasional 'Oprah effect.'"
The magazine's publisher, Ken Smikle, launched a small advertising insert titled "Blacks & Books" that focuses on books by or of interest to readers of African descent, to help authors reach more readers.
As for next year's event, Netzer says Wordstock organizers are committed to boosting the number of authors of color. "I hope we will do much better next year," Netzer said.
The Wordstock book fair runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Oregon Convention Center, Exhibit Hall A, A1 & B. Tickets are $5, available at the door. A full schedule of authors and events can be found at www.wordstockfestival.com.