A four part series providing lessons learned along the journey of independently publishing my children’s books.
Having run a small press over the last ten years, I appreciate the financial risk taken on by publishers when considering an unknown name, and subjects they may be less familiar with. Books have to make money, and most traditional presses here in Canada at least, rely heavily on Federal and Provincial Arts funding programs in order to survive. They fill the need of the masses and publish what fits current market trends and policies. This is one of the reasons why they ask you to study the market before making your submissions. It’s not only beneficial to a publisher; it is extremely beneficial to the creator(s). Aspiring authors and illustrators need to understand how to market their work and this is a first step towards building a platform. Any royalties on an advance depends on sales of your book, and when that includes wholesale, your royalty return (if you sell anything above your advance) will often result in less than a dollar on each sale.
Ten years ago, the issue of Climate Change had not yet reached its current awareness. People told me nobody would care about the paper used for printing. But for me, it was a real enough issue that I committed to using responsibly sourced paper from the very beginning, even when it risked any financial return. Today, I feel comfort in the fact that my decision was not based on a marketing trend, but founded in the knowledge that this was the ethical thing to do. As an independent, your values may outweigh the demands of profit over people. And without the broad support of traditional distribution channels for your books, those decisions are tough calls.
Self-publishing and independent makers have pushed forward despite the inequities. With Amazon forever rising, it’s made it much easier to sell online. However, some local bookstores choose not to support independent authors if your books are available on Amazon, since that choice hurts their own sales. Traditional publishers though, are able to sell freely on all channels available through their distribution chains, including Amazon. The belief to support small, local business comes at a steep cost to independent authors.
Our own voices may never have existed in publishing spaces, unless the narrative of the industry was shifted, unless classic texts and their gatekeepers were disrupted. The perception of those holding positions of power needed to be changed, and we had to challenge whose stories were being told, and by whom. We did this by raising our voices, even when it caused emotional pain. Although We Need Diverse Books has helped to push the conversation forward, advocates for this issue understand that the industry has not kept pace. The work has, and is still being done, so that space can be created for marginalized voices to exist, without prejudice.
Sometimes, that kind of shift in mindset requires data, such as that compiled by the librarians at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education Cooperative Children’s Book Center, who began documenting books by and about African Americans in 1985. Today, that data has been interpreted further by Sarah Park Dahlen and David Huyck (see infographic above) to show that the quantity of books may well have increased, but children’s literature continues to misrepresent marginalized and underrepresented communities. Some titles categorized as diverse, only continue to perpetuate the cycle of inaccurate texts. Choose carefully.
Here in Canada, both Shimona Hirchberg at Booknet, and Deborah Dundas at the Toronto Star, have shared data about the state of diversity in Canadian children’s books in 2018. One discouraging, yet not surprising statistic, is that the number of persons of colour represented as main characters in picture books, is almost equal to the number of animals as main characters. That is 74 persons of colour, and 72 animals respectively. Only 7 characters from the 241 picture books surveyed represent south-Asians. White main characters top the data, at 90 out of the 258 counted in the Toronto Star survey.
There have been moments when I’ve questioned the investment of personal time and finances, the sheer exhaustion and vulnerability shared when I’ve spoken out about problematic titles over the years. Decades after I was at school, I am still reaching out to educators, publishing experts or persons presenting in schools, because they don’t know the difference between a hat and a Sikh dastaar. In the age of technology, accessibility to information is at our fingertips, and yet the work is still not being done. Why?
Having faced patronizing comments and even a threat to cease and desist, I wonder if speaking our truth is worth anything at all? If people care about diversity, then surely all voices deserve a seat at the table? Inclusion means having to be better listeners and acknowledging our own blind spots. Striving for equity means facing our greatest fears and working to overcome them. It means having to be courageous. I’ve learned that until we control our own narratives, the world will only see us the way it fits for them.
They will monetize our silence,
or silence our voice.
As much as the conversations around needing diverse books have skyrocketed in recent times, a resistance to including books with the Sikh identity on diverse picture book lists or podcasts remains (I will share more about this issue in a later post). Now that platforms have been firmly established to market our stories, (predominately by independent creators), traditional publishers seem more willing to take a risk on us. With a title released last year (The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh by Supriya Kelkar and illustrated by Alea Marley, to be featured on this blog shortly) with a main character of Sikh identity, and Fauja Singh Keeps Going, (by Simran Jeet Singh and illustrated by the talented Baljinder Kaur), to be released from Kokila Books this August 2020; the traditional publishing landscape is finally shifting gears.
This is why the work has been necessary for so many years – to create spaces for marginalized voices – to ensure that when our children look up onto the walls and shelves of their learning spaces, they too see that we exist in the world.