Barnes & Noble and Black History Month: Guest Post by Kaitlyn Masler and Stella Vlastakis

To celebrate Black History Month, Barnes & Noble created a campaign that changed the covers of classic novels calling them “Diverse Editions”. The cover art on books such as Romeo and Juliet, The Secret Garden, Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and many others were altered to depict the characters as black. Books were planned to be displayed in store windows located at the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, according to NPR.

Controversy quickly followed the launch of the campaign and the sale of all new books was suspended just a day after. Author L.L. McKinney offered her perspective on what Barnes & Noble could have done instead in an interview with NPR stating, “Feature black people, that’s the beginning and the end of it. If you’re wanting to put a spin on classics, feature classics that are by black and brown authors.”

News coverage of the campaign called the idea “literary blackface” including in an article by the New York Post. According to a CBS News article, Barnes & Noble stated they chose the classic novels because they are in the public domain, and the authors would not receive profits from the “Diverse Editions” campaign. In addition, Barnes & Noble used artificial intelligence to find novels that did not explicitly describe the main character as white, and that is how they chose the twelve books. This brings up another issue of when we should use artificial intelligence and when artificial intelligence is not enough to deal with sensitive topics. Instead of relying on artificial intelligence, Barnes & Noble should have had people from diverse backgrounds evaluate the idea for this campaign before it began. People shared their strong opinions about this campaign and what it represents on Twitter. Many arguments are made against the campaign in the comments of a tweet by Publisher’s Weekly which announced the campaign on February 4, 2020.
According to Strategic Planning for Public Relations, the beginning stages to a campaign or strategic plan is to identify the situation and publics. Barnes & Noble did not accurately complete this step of the strategic planning process. As described in the book, analyzing the situation and publics directs the goal, so if that step is not done thoroughly, the goal is not clearly identified. The campaign was criticized very quickly by many different publics, including consumers and authors, and it shows Barnes & Noble did not do the necessary research before creating the “Diverse Editions” campaign.

Following the controversy, Barnes & Noble launched a new campaign to celebrate Black History Month by showcasing authors on their website, such as Toni Morrison and Michelle Obama. Their website included copy that stated, “Join our booksellers during Black History Month as we celebrate and showcase contributions to the arts, to society, and to history, from her (Toni Morrison) and other standout voices.” They also offered consumers of all ages with resources to discover a wide array of books and media to learn more about the history and honor Black History Month. This initiative was a better strategy for Barnes & Noble as it showed appreciation for those who have already made an impact on the black community and the literary arts. The intended purpose of the campaign was to show the value Barnes & Noble places on diversity, and having a sufficient understanding of their publics was the right way to reach this goal.

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