A four part series providing lessons learned along the journey of independently publishing my children’s books.
There were many bloggers who took a chance on me in the earliest days. I feel a deep gratitude to them, because somewhere along the way, another person heard their voice and passed the love forward. Social justice activists and educators amplified the voice of Saffron Press through their own platforms and opened my heart to the power of intentional allies. That’s how movements grow, from tiny seeds that are sown and transplanted along the way. This emotional and physical labour often goes unpaid (hence the rising support of Patreon accounts for Bookstagramers) but the investment of personal time and research has made the work of finding data and resources for diversity in publishing much more accessible across social media platforms. This behind-the-scenes work has and continues to be critical to changing what and whose stories are published in the next decade.
Finding reviewers for self-published books is becoming more accessible, thanks to organizations like Kid Lit Exchange. They co-share copies with interested participants who, in turn post their reviews all over social media, GoodReads and even, on Amazon.
Yet, some reviews reveal craters of bias – gaping holes – when written by a person with limited knowledge of the experience inside a book. Picture books may be perceived as only read to or by little ones, but my years of teaching in classrooms have offered unique insight. Picture books are for everyone and don’t have to be written in three or four syllable words to be enjoyed. They are well suited to the Middle Grades and even a High School audience depending on instructional knowledge goals. Some of my favourite presentations have taken place with High School students who love to question and have their thinking disrupted. Picture books can be used as mentor texts to help students infer more complex ideas and even blur information so the reader can explore it further. The reach of picture books is infinite in my opinion. I can understand when a reviewer cultured in the status quo, says they find my text too hard to follow, because maybe my text has disrupted their perception of what a picture book should sound like, especially when written by a person of colour. What I cannot understand however, is when my story is labeled a traditional legend.
Legends are myths, or stories that are not verifiable. Often times, narrators removed from lived experience, tell these stories and would prefer they be left in a romanticized past. Legends become stories that glorify the hunter, and not the lion as the African proverb goes, propelling the danger of a single story over and over again. The single story that is so easily recognizable, the one that sells without too much work, is ultimately, the story that leaves craters in the truth for even more generations to follow.
Very early on, a much-loved independent bookseller invited me to the Reading For The Love Of It conference one year. We were thrilled when she sold through a large inventory of my first book. At the time, I had no idea how many book sales equated to success at an in-person event, so this was one of those experiences that helped me grow.
Dear Sheila Koffman from Another Story Bookshop not only wrote the most endearing review for A Lion’s Mane, she also mentored me when not many in the industry would have taken the time. The self-worth she offered to an aspiring author was immeasurable. Sheila had committed to action by supporting marginalized voices long before the We Need Diverse Books garnered strength. Her legacy of love and truth will remain with me, always.
Action counts. The action of choosing which book to purchase (and whether to support local) is always a political act. With a purchase, you send a direct message to the publishing industry every single time – whose voices you want to hear, and what kinds of stories you want to read. In order for change to happen, we each have to maneuver in some discomfort. That may look like finding creative ways to include #OwnVoices (a hashtag started by Corinne Duyvis to highlight works that are created by authors and makers who share the identity of their characters) in your collection, recommending titles to schools and requesting them at your local library. It may sound like asking more difficult questions about the author and their lived experiences in relation to the content of the work being published. It means not following the crowd, but taking a few minutes to reference valid book sources, so you have the facts before making purchasing decisions.
Loose sheets of paper have acted as pilot trials and audience feedback has provided opportunity for writers like myself to grow and develop our craft. This arc has pushed my own story of Saffron Press forward. An amazing editor, Laura Atkins, taught me how to look beyond my own words, and working with her anchored my editing discipline from the very beginning. Many of the artists who collaborated on projects with Saffron Press have become friends over the years and their talent is beyond measure. Advocates for diverse causes have lifted my heart. Friends who are teachers have raised their voices to ensure Saffron Press was given space at district-led conferences in Ontario, and even more friends stood beside us as they helped us set up tables at community events in British Columbia and Hamilton, Ontario. And those friends and complete strangers who remember Saffron Press on birthdays and holidays, baby showers and library purchasing days, truly drive me to keep on going. There are the virtual allies who are fighting to change state standards so that our children will be seen and heard, by purchasing books and donating them to entire school districts. This is not how it should be, but the only way it can be, for now. These are the humans of Saffron Press – every single one of them – a citizen of change.
I am reminded of the Fred Rogers quote, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Allies who step up and amplify self-published and independent creators, are humans who value and believe in the work that you do. It’s not because they feel sorry for you, it’s because your work matters, and is necessary. They are willing to use their position of privilege to spread good. It’s the kind of activism that becomes contagious. I am profoundly grateful for all the wonderful human beings who have become allies along the course of my journey over the last decade. Among them are small business owners who’ve stocked our titles, or museums shops who include us on their shelves, or Pop-up shops and of course Librarians. Instead of fixating on the label of self-published or independent creator, they read the work through the same critical lens as all other works on their to-be-read piles. This is a community (however small), who not only sustain you, but they help you grow and flourish. Whether you call these random acts of kindness, or political acts, they are all actions that can create change in the publishing industry of the near future.
So, here I stand ten years on, still cultivating the seeds of Saffron Press. We were able to plant 625 trees with the first edition and it went on to win an Honor Award for Multicultural and International Awareness from Skipping Stones, a non-profit organization that requests no payment for submissions. After countless applications to other awards, I am resigned to the fact that an independent press cannot carry the financial strain of award submissions. I acknowledge that having books submitted to award organizations and attending conferences are forms of privilege not offered equitably to us all.
A lot has changed over the last ten years. Traditional publishers and Literary Agents are now actively seeking diverse representation and creators. There are hybrid presses and Print on Demand choices. Publishers Weekly revealed that the number of self-published titles jumped 40% in 2018. Amazon’s CreateSpace (a platform I’ve stayed away from so far to support local bookstores) are thought to hold the title of top self-publishing company in the U.S. The avenues are endless. Self or independent publishing has attracted the interest of humans truly invested in creating change in the world. Social media has been an integral part of the movement for #OwnVoices stories.
The industry has been forced to take a closer look at the gaping holes in diverse representation and are now actively seeking narratives that reflect shifting demographics. Allies have been necessary. Each voice has amplified the collective message but it is their commitment to action that has created real change. Librarians are finding ways to include #OwnVoices titles in their collections, regardless of the way those titles are printed. Chicago Library found space to include the full Saffron Press collection in all 24 of their branches. This is what commitment to action looks like. They found ways to disrupt their purchasing order systems and are no longer accepting exclusion of marginalized voices. #IReadCanadian was launched earlier this year and although their intention is good, voices from the margins were clearly missing. Self-published and independent creators do bring value and accessibility to Canada’s literary landscape. Representation matters, your stories matter and I only see the movement gaining strength as we move into this next decade. Yes, even here, in the Great White North.