This Melbourne-based online bookstore wants to help you diversify your bookshelf
19.03.2021

This Melbourne-based online bookstore wants to help you diversify your bookshelf

Amplify Bookstore owners Marina Litchfield and Jing Xuan
Words by Riley Barber

Amplify Bookstore gives readers the opportunity to discover new and exciting books by authors of colour.

The publishing industry has a diversity issue. 

There is a clear lack of BIPOC and First Nations voices both among the writers being published and within the publishing industry itself.

That’s where Amplify Bookstore comes in. The online bookshop launched last year, right in the middle of the pandemic, when Australians were stuck at home and found themselves with more spare time to pursue activities like reading.

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Run by two university students, Marina Litchfield and Jing Xuan, the online bookstore aims to diversify readers’ bookshelves by exclusively selling books by BIPOC and First Nations authors. 

“We both realised that in a regular bookstore, because the industry is so white, it’s really difficult to find authors of colour on the shelves and so with Amplify, we just hoped that it would just be a lot easier for people to find books by authors of colour,” says Xuan.

Both women hail from Singapore and came to Melbourne to study. Throughout their childhood and adolescence, they grappled with their identities because they didn’t see themselves represented in literature. It wasn’t until recently that they finally found books that reflected their own experiences.

“I was 20 when I first read something that reflected my identity. At that point, I was two years deep into a literature degree, so I was reading constantly for uni, let alone all the reading I had done up until that point that had made me want to do a literature degree,” says Litchfield.

Xuan describes crying at 3am after reading a book written by a Singaporean author.

“It was insane for me to finally read a book that had Singaporean history in it, that characters were eating Singaporean foods, and it was an overwhelming experience, because up until then I’ve never read a book that I felt like I connected with the characters so deeply, and I related to what they were doing so deeply.”

But Amplify isn’t just for readers of colour to find themselves in literature. The bookshop also wants to help non-BIPOC readers diversify their bookshelves and broaden their reading scope.

“Only 11 per cent of books published in 2018 were by people of colour. If you don’t pay attention to reading books by authors of colour, if you don’t put in the extra effort, that’s what happens to your bookshelf – it’s more likely to be very white.

“You’d have the one or two big hits by POC authors, but you’re not going to get the same variety that you would unless you put in the effort and seek it out,” says Xuan.

 

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On all levels, the publishing industry is incredibly whitewashed. In a survey by Lee & Low Books conducted in 2019, the results found that 76 per cent of the racial makeup of the industry overall was white.

In 2012, Roxane Gay researched every book reviewed by The New York Times the year before and found that of the 742 books reviewed, 655 were written by white authors. 

Additionally, an analysis of the 2012 New York Times bestseller list by Lee & Low Books found that of the 124 books, only three were written by BIPOC authors, with only one of those books featuring a protagonist of colour.

According to Dr Natalie Kon-yu, a senior lecturer at Victoria University, the problem is that there are not enough BIPOC and First Nations people in what she calls “gatekeeping” roles.

“Editors, publishers, even high school educators, university educators, anyone who works in and around, and enables, the publishing industry. There’s a lack of diversity in all those places, and what both of those things tend to lead to, I think, is an exoticisation or marginalisation of the work of writers of colour and First Nations writers in Australia,” she says.

Bookstores like Amplify, Dr Kon-yu adds, help to highlight the inequity in the industry, as well as promote writers that readers might otherwise overlook.

“It kind of runs against that idea of, ‘Oh well, I haven’t read all those books by BIPOC authors because there’s actually not that many’, when in fact, if you can fill a bookstore, then there is that many. You’re just not trying hard enough.”

Both Litchfield and Xuan hope that their bookstore will help create demand for more diverse books, and prompt publishers to make significant changes surrounding how they publish and promote books by BIPOC authors.

“People buying more will mean the publishers are like ,‘Oh, it does sell’ and they’ll produce more. So classic supply and demand,” says Litchfield.

Both the creators of Amplify and Dr Kon-yu agree that the importance of reading diversely lies exactly in why we read in the first place – to expand our knowledge and understanding of the world. To develop our emotional intelligence and cultivate our ability to empathise. 

“The best thing about literature and texts is that they enable you to see the world from someone else’s point of view. And if we’re only looking at the world from a very narrow point of view, then I don’t think that engenders things like an end to racism, or more racial, ethnic tolerance in our culture, which we desperately need because we are living in a particularly racist period in Australia.

“So we need more tolerance and empathy and understanding, not less,” Dr Kon-yu says.

“In a perfect world, the make-up of the books and the authors that you see reflects the society that we live in. Obviously, it will vary between countries, but it would reflect the actual communities,” Litchfield adds.

 

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Shop Amplify Bookstore’s range here.