MAKING OUR OWN MARKET: Dr. Zetta Elliott on the power of self-publishing

An important part of the conversation of Making Our Own Market is opening the door to quality, independently-created books. Self-publishing has long empowered African-American children’s book authors to tell our stories and blaze a new path.

A bedtime storyWade and Cheryl Hudson self-published their AFRO-BETS ABC Book when they found few children’s books that reflected African-American culture and history. Their success led to them creating their award-winning publishing company Just Us Books.  Acclaimed author and poet Kwame Alexander, self-published his first picture book, Indigo Blume and the Garden City. It was nominated for a 2013 NAACP Image Award.

But self-publishing still brings a stigma. The books are less likely to be reviewed, considered for school and library collections and seen as on par with traditionally-published titles. At The Brown Bookshelf, we grapple with covering them too. We receive a range of work from outstanding to less than professional. But if we want to change the face of publishing, we need to welcome self-published treasures too.

This week, we put three amazing children’s book creators who have independently published front and center. First up is Dr. Zetta Elliott, a professor, children’s literature scholar and award-winning author. Even with accolades for her traditionally-published picture book, Bird (illustrated by Shadra Strickland, published by Lee & Low), and acclaimed speculative fiction YA novels A Wish After Midnight, Ship of Souls and The Deep, she has struggled to find homes for her work. But rather than keep her stories out of children’s hands, Dr. Elliott is bringing them to kids herself. Check out her powerful post, It’s Not Me, It’s You: Letting Go of the Status Quo, on The Huffington Post. We’re honored to have her share her journey and insightful thoughts on publishing for kids.

Objectives over Illusions

By Zetta Elliott

zettapicI started working with kids when I was sixteen—25 years ago—but many people in my life were surprised when I began to write for children in 2000. I clearly recall the stunned look on the face of my graduate school advisor when I shared my ambition of becoming a children’s book author. For five years he had guided my evolution as a scholar, and the only writing of mine he had read focused on representations of terror and trauma in African American literature.

Earning my PhD should have prepared me for the yearsbird of rejection I was to face as an aspiring author. I entered the publishing arena fully aware of “the myth of meritocracy,” and I knew all about the long history of racist stereotypes and deliberate distortions of the Black image in US popular culture. A decade of studying lynching taught me a lot about white supremacy and so I knew, as Mychal Denzel Smith recently explained, that “the ‘real’ racists” have no need to hide behind burning crosses and white hoods. I understood how institutional racism operates invisibly so that certain people are privileged while disadvantaged individuals are blamed for their lack of success. Yet it still took me a long time to relinquish my illusions about the industry and embrace self-publishing—why?

Like most lovers of literature, I bought into the popular perception that people who self-publish are devoid of talent and lack the commitment it takes to win a legitimate shipofsoulspublishing contract. I was certain that my storytelling skills were so extraordinary that eventually I would be recognized by the very best agent who would then introduce me to the most discerning editors. I never imagined I would become an award-winning author and still be left with more than twenty unpublished manuscripts. If publishers were so desperate for multicultural material, why weren’t they knocking down my door? What did I do wrong?

Well, I naively believed that an industry dominated by women would welcome a The-Deepfeminist writer with a commitment to social justice. I wrongly assumed that the people who work in publishing care about children of color as much as I do. I made the mistake of thinking that publishers would be eager to woo African American consumers who have a collective buying power of over one trillion dollars. I met with white female editors who spoke passionately in public about their commitment to diversity but then manufactured reasons to reject my work. As my eyes opened to the ugly reality of racism in children’s publishing, I let go of my illusions and spoke out. I rocked the boat and, no doubt, burned some bridges. I also began to reassess my priorities and search for alternatives.

At this point in my career, self-publishing is probably the only way I can put my books Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00049]in the hands of the urban kids I serve. I published four chapter books this month and plan to publish four more books in the fall. That will still leave me with fifteen unpublished manuscripts, but at least eight more books will exist that reflect the realities—and fantasies—of kids and teens of color. The publishing industry has barred me from entry and the bias against self-published authors ensures that my books won’t compete for any major awards; they won’t be reviewed in any of the major outlets and bookstores probably won’t stock any of my titles. But some child somewhere may open one of my books and find a mesmerizing mirror that makes him or her want to read more.

For the past three years I have taught at a community college in Manhattan; most of my students come from low-income communities, many are immigrants, and the vast majority are people of color. Very few of my students love to read, which makes college-level work challenging for them. As a professor I often leave the classroom feeling frustrated and demoralized; in one sixteen-week semester I can’t reverse years of inadequate public schooling, poor study Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00047]habits, and a general disinterest in literature. I have decided instead to focus my energy on making an intervention in the lives of younger students. Armed with twenty-five years of experience and (eventually) twenty-five self-published books, I believe I can get—and keep—kids excited about reading.

So have I given up on traditional publishing? Yes and no. The overwhelming whiteness of the children’s publishing community has led many to plead for greater diversity in the ranks of editors, reviewers, agents, and conference organizers. My voice used to be part of that chorus but I no longer think simple inclusion is the solution. As Jelani Cobb points out, “To speak of diversity, in light of this country’s history of racial recidivism, is to focus on bringing ethnic variety to largely white institutions, rather than dismantling the structures that made them so white to begin with.” I think what’s needed now is innovation—entirely new ways of connecting kids Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00046]with books. And so I’m willing to collaborate with anyone who shares my core objectives:

  1. To generate culturally relevant stories that center children who have been marginalized, misrepresented, and/or rendered invisible in children’s literature.
  2. To produce affordable, high-quality books so that families—regardless of income—can build home libraries that will enhance their children’s academic success.
  3. To produce a steady supply of compelling, diverse stories that will nourish the imagination and excite even reluctant readers.

If you, too, are willing to trade the publishingPageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00045] industry’s illusion of equity for these basic objectives, I hope you’ll keep an open mind when a self-published author offers you a book. My four new titles are available online now and will be available through the major distributors (Baker & Taylor and Ingram) in the coming weeks, which means bookstores, schools, and public libraries can add my books to their collection. I hope you’ll give one a chance!

Find out more about Dr. Zetta Elliott’s wonderful books and scholarship on diversity in children’s literature on her website and her blog.









5 thoughts on “MAKING OUR OWN MARKET: Dr. Zetta Elliott on the power of self-publishing

  1. Thank you for featuring Zetta and highlighting the best of indie published books, Kelly! There are a few awards out there (IPPYs, Writers Digest, a new SCBWI award), but there need to be more, and we need to know that the judges actually care about diversity and have expertise. In the past, BCALA has recognized indie titles, but their awards are primarily for general adult fiction and nonfiction and scholarly titles.

  2. I wasn’t sure how to react when Zetta Elliott left children’s publishing – or, I thought she did. But, her success, and the success of writers like Neesha Meminger in reaching readers is reassuring. I’m glad that she’s choosing to continue to use her voice.

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