Welcome back to Heck YA, Diversity!, our series on diversity in YA. Joining us today is Hannah Ehrlich, marketing and publicity manager for LEE & LOW BOOKS. Hannah's here to give us the scoop on LEE & LOW, an independent children's book publisher that specializes in diversity.
LEE & LOW published its first list within 2 years of being founded. Did the company face a lot of difficulty breaking into the industry?
The biggest difficulties were the learning curve, since both founders, Tom Low and Philip Lee, had no previous publishing experience. Building a company from the ground up is difficult in and of itself, but learning the ins and outs of a brand new industry makes the effort that much harder. There were many lean years in the beginning. There are silver linings, though, when people come from outside of publishing. Tom Low owned and sold a successful business before starting LEE & LOW, which has proven invaluable in maintaining a smooth running business and recognizing areas to grow.
What was the initial reception like by readers? And by retailers?
The initial reaction to the books was strong. Our first book was groundbreaking, as it was the first picture book about the Japanese internment camps. A full page review of that book, Baseball Saved Us, in the New York Times put us on the map. Educators, many of whom had been looking for more diverse books for their classrooms and libraries for YEARS, were excited to see us and continue to support us strongly to this day.
Retail sales proved to be trickier. Certain books of ours did and continue to do well in bookstores. But one problem we ran into early was the problem of returns: in publishing, the return policy of bookstores is a long time-honored tradition which basically says that bookstores can return to publishers any unsold books. This policy worked when booksellers were a cottage industry of mom-and-pop stores, but when the model changed with the introduction of Barnes and Noble and other big chains, the practice became unsustainable, especially for a small publisher like us. We were doing huge print runs and then getting huge quantities of returned books. This policy dictated our decision to shift the majority of our business to the school library and the classroom markets.
Did the company receive any negative feedback?
We have been careful with the books in terms of vetting our content and we have largely avoided any major mistakes in terms of depicting issues of culture in an authentic way. As a result, the reception to our books from critics has been very positive. Of course, not everyone is in line with our mission, and the Internet gives everyone (literally EVERYONE) a voice. So over the years we have received some pushback here and there. Some of the arguments we've heard over the years:
• You're communists (?)
• You're "reverse racists" (that one we get a lot in response to our New Voices Award for authors of color, which I talk more about below)
• By calling attention to these small and unimportant issues (like diversity in children's books), you're stopping us from becoming a post-racial society
• Why does it matter what color a main character in a book is? Can't we all just read books about everyone?
We'll always get some negative feedback from people who just don't see why diversity matters, but in general people have supported our mission.
LEE & LOW has some awesome annual writing contests. In particular, New Voices is now in its 14th year; has the response changed over the years, in terms of volume and quality?
Over the years, the volume of submissions has gone up, although we'd like to see it go up even higher! I think we are in a good moment now, because more people seem to understand why contests like the New Voices contest or the New Visions contest, both of which are for unpublished authors of color, are necessary. There's a greater awareness of the challenges authors of colors face and the fact that they are still so underrepresented in the publishing world (last year, authors of color made up just 7% of the authors published in children's and YA). As a result, we get a little less backlash than we once did (as I mentioned above) from white authors who don't understand why they're not eligible for our award.
In terms of quality, I would not say the submissions have changed dramatically. We've always had submissions from some really talented authors, and many of the early New Voices Award-winning manuscripts, like Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds by Paula Yoo and Bird by Zetta Elliott, have become favorite books of mine and have won major children's book awards since being published. It's really wonderful to see how some of the debut authors we've worked with now have strong careers in children's publishing and many great published books to their names.
Speaking of the contests, Rahul Kanakia's This Beautiful Fever [an alternate history with a protagonist who is both queer and a POC] was chosen as a New Visions Award Honor in 2012. Does that mean there will be more LEE & LOW books that have feature diversity not only in ethnicity, but sexuality as well?
Yes! Although we started by mostly focusing on racial diversity, over the last few years we have been working to widen our definition of diversity. Our company motto is "About everyone, for everyone," which means that we are dedicated to filling in ALL the bookshelf gaps. Last year we published our first book about a deaf character (Silent Star, a picture book biography of William Hoy, one of the first deaf major league baseball players) and we are actively looking for stories that feature diversity in sexuality as well. We already have a few titles in this vein: a picture book called Antonio's Card, several of the stories in our YA anthology Diverse Energies, and a character in Cat Girl's Day Off. And hopefully soon we'll have even more.