A year ago this month, my book - Hats of Faith -was independently published by Shade 7 Publishing. Since then I've been absorbed into a powerful and growing movement for inclusive books which is filling big gaps left by mainstream publications - and I think it's only going to gain momentum in the book world.
My journey began as a parent. I’m charged with raising a boy who will one day (god willing) be an openminded, aware, respectful, global citizen. It’s my job to give him all the available tools to help him navigate this increasingly complex world. It's because of this great responsibility that when I couldn’t find the book I was searching for about faith-based head covering, I felt like it was my obligation to create it. Previous to this overwhelming urge, I had never written a children’s book, let alone one on such a delicate and complicated subject.
I am not alone. More and more parents and children’s authors are identifying gaps in the market, or are responding to not seeing themselves or their stories represented on the bookshelves of their libraries and bookstores. Motivated by wanting our children to grow up in a world where they have relatable heroes, recognisable scenarios, and helpful information for dealing with complex issues, huge numbers of first-time writers are taking to the internet to self-publish and innovatively market their books. Together, these authors are creating a powerful and very needed movement to fill the diversity gap - #weneeddiversebooks #ownvoices.
Today there more ethnic minority, LGBT+, religious, socioeconomic and disability groups represented across all forms of media than ever before in our history, but because this output is still largely coming from independent and self-publishers rather than the commercial publishing houses, it tends to circulate amongst niche communities.
Without healthy marketing budgets and dedicated promotions teams, the diverse book movement has been largely relegated to the DIY world of social media, with authors forced to self-promote often expensive, small print runs to relatively small audiences. And with the exception of a few brilliant breakthrough publications like Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, which has deservedly become a mainstream phenomenon, most indie diversity champions aren’t able to live from their passion projects.
Slowly, however, commercial publishers are waking up to the opportunty and profitability of representing their audiences. In 2016, Simon & Schuster launched Salaam Reads, which is dedicated to publishing books that feature Muslim characters and stories. Others have since followed, but I would venture a guess that there are a least 10 -20 times as many titles featuring cute animals with sweet stories being published every year than there are books with leading characters of alternative backgrounds or abilities.
I have been told that larger publishing houses are unable to handle delicate subject matter with the care needed and that they wouldn’t fund the research needed to bring a book like mine to life. However, I believe that the real reason is more likely to be a desire to remain risk-averse, uncontentious and universally popular - and thus to protect 'good business'.
But, life isn’t just about good business. As people living in a time when there is simultaneously a powerful movement for equal rights and a worrying surge in religious persecution and race-based hate crime, we have obligation to do more. Although the brilliant people at We Need Diverse Books, Multicultural Book Day, Here Wee Read and beyond are doing amazing work to raise awareness of diverse titles and own voice authors, I believe that commercial publishers also have a responsibility to bring these stories to the mainstream and into the consciousness of the masses, even if they can’t compete with the latest Julia Donaldson book.
With Hats of Faith, we’ve been very fortunate to be able to work with the amazingly forward-thinking people at Hardie Grant Egmont in Austrailia and Chronicle in the US to produce local versions of the book and reach further than we ever could have done on our own. We are too early in the process for me to report on how well this licensing arrangement will work, but I’m hopeful that our partners are excited by and understand this publication enough to market it accurately and sell it well.
As a parent, I vocally recommend other parents of all backgrounds to take to the internet to support independent authors and pay a little bit more for their rich, diverse, current content to help introduce your children to a range of characters and stories beyond the fairy tales of blonde princesses in pink dresses.
As an idie author, I recommend others to secure a commercial publishing mentor and a licensing agent to help them stand on the shoulders of giants and reach global audiences. For me, the co-production/ licensing/ translation routes have so far proved to be the right mix of uncompromising integrity to make the book I wanted and leveraging of the resources of a publishing partner to reach audiences around the world.
Does this approach mean that independent and self-publishers still bear the brunt of the work, cost and risk? Yes. Does it allow for large commercial publishers to take the easy route to doing ‘a good thing’ without taking any risks themselves? Probably. It’s not a perfect approach, but until I find a better one, it’s the best way I’ve found to get what I believe is a very important book into the mainstream and into the hands of as many curious little minds as possible.