Friday, January 10, 2014

Island Fiction: The Story of the Series (Part 4)

I feel it's worth digressing a bit from the story of the series here, to say that I have been able to make  some observations about Caribbean children's book publishing, because I have  been engaged  as a published author, YA series editor and in the volunteer work as  Regional Advisor of the SCBWI- Caribbean South. ( In 2012 I handed over the chapter to a budding new Trinidadian children's book author, Marsha Gomes)

If I had a blue note for everyone in Trinidad alone who has approached me about getting published, I would be significantly well-off today. I have in fact shared such a degree of intellectual property and networking benefits that  one publisher, after giving a contract to yet another writer I had recommended,  asked why I didn't set up an agency and take a commission - which is typical industry standard.

My interest is not in talent management. It was and is no skin off my back to connect people and to advance the careers of those whose talent I admire, especially when they can present a current, 'publishable' property for review. Many of the beneficiaries do not even know that it was on my referral that their work was viewed. Every author/ illustrator gets published based on the value of his or her own work and talent. And its not even about opening the door, but firstly knocking on the right door at the right time. A referral can always help. So why talk about this behind-the-scenes benevolence now?

Because all this  unseen effort allows me to  observe some characteristics about us as a creative collective, that may be  responsible in part for the slow growth in the field of Caribbean children's book publishing, and therefore, may be worthy of our contemplation and discussion.

I notice that we tend to function in a secretly competitive way while masking our true desires and ambitions with talk about community. We do not seem confident enough as yet, to believe that when  it is earned because we've done the work, "what is mine can and will come to me" and if we are wholly engaged in our own creative work, from this stage of self respect we can safely elevate others, and by extension the entire field.

Some of the self-sabotaging attitudes I still encounter include a sense of entitlement. The frustration we feel on the journey can render us bling (like the typo, so it'll keep:) to the wealth of talent that exists in others and on the planet, period. By not seeing and valuing others we close ourselves to the nurturing we enjoy when we celebrate good / promising work. Also, at this stage of the process, writers remain grossly unaware of what's already on the book store shelf and in the library. No matter how cute, cool, mysterious or fun, your rendition of an idea is, it may already have been done. If you can do it better, you need to do a comparative study. Otherwise the manuscript may be best counted as practice on the way to the next.

Often the bubble of expectation is unrealistic and based on some presumed power, which many writers project onto  published authors,  series editors, literary agents and publishing houses. The real power is in meeting the market with a winning work - a formula that is as easy to crack as winning the lottery. So, be patient, and play - do the work, do the work, do the work.

Most writers who approach me for help have done no home work about the craft of children's book writing let alone the business of publishing. With so many search engines just a click away, this becomes more and more annoying as the years pass and the technologies advance, equalising access to information.

Sadly, many deem writing for children easy enough for anyone to do, that they will resist being critiqued, edited or receiving advice for revisions - as if there is no benchmark.

Some parents  bring their child forward with vanity publishing, in a premature effort to participate in what is a business proposition, book publishing. (Not that there aren't some children/ young people/ related projects worthy of publishing.) Artificial advancement of budding talent (of any age), circumvents actual growth and lowers the standard of an entire region of publishing. Building a career may not be sustainable through a momentary boost of inner circle support - unless one is willing to build a brand. And that is an entirely different kind of work from the work of writing.

After listening to his/her tirade (also necessary at times for growth), I may refer a hopeful author  to a method of  advancing themselves by doing the work. This  process is most easily enabled by spending TT$1. a day in the next year on an SCBWI membership. 1 out of 100 times, their eyes will glaze over as they begin with another round of griping and  slew of excuses.


Ask another author how many Caribbean books they have read to their kids, borrowed from the library or purchased as gifts and they confess - none. Some haven't  read current books in the field in any genre published in any market, and are depending only on a childhood feeling and memory of what kids'  books are like, in order to nourish their own work.

Who will be our readers, if our writers don't read? If everyone wants to get published and no one wants to consume the work that we produce collectively?

That brings me to Gerald Hausman which was where I left off in Part 3 of this series of posts ISLAND FICTION: The Story of the Series.

What I noticed about this prolific and accomplished author was that balance of confidence based on actual professional experience and humility, born of a sincere appreciation for the work.  Let me add, quickly that we have never met in person. It seems possible though, that slugging through months on end, author to editor, editor to author, back and forth via email and occasional phone call, that a sense of acquaintance really  deepens through the thick and thin of it.

- He showed up with a publishable work of exceptional, original quality that adds significant literary and market value to the entire IF series. His manuscript was very near final draft.
- He knew his way around contracts and, when it counted, had a representative to negotiate on his behalf. (If you don't have an agent, hire a lawyer. I did.)
- He was willing to be flexible with what he had come to expect for himself, in order to share of himself. By bringing his name and rich catalogue to the brand, Island Fiction,  he benefitted every  other author who would make the cut in the series.
- With all his experience and inspired talent, he considered feedback fairly and graciously.
- When the series was published I know for fact that he read the other five titles which he had no hand in, because he went on to write Amazon reviews for all the authors, whom he has never met.

For me, that's what success looks like - a fully engaged creative talent who has no doubt about his own craft and generously gives where he finds worthy effort.

So yes, there was always an option for me to include my own book as a part of the series launch, but the more I invested myself in the role of series editor, I appreciated my decision not to do so. This would  have felt gratuitous. I want my own YA novel, if it makes it to light of day,  to earn its way into the heart of a publishing editor who would champion my work, the way I was doing  for  the manuscripts I received. As much as I was able I wrote personally making a comment even to those I refused, because  I know first hand that just to be read, to be considered seriously can be a boost.

Over the course of 24 months, one by one, just the right stories and writers came to me. Each felt like a jackpot blessing. I am not saying IF is flawless, or above critique, but I do stand by the perfection in the selections I made.

In my opinion, IF titles are still  the best Caribbean tween novellas on the market for both boys and girls and based on my visits to schools, are especially loved by reluctant West Indian readers. Yet, despite the dearth of YA literature, and the favourable reviews, the series  has neither the commercial, nor educational  support to enable individual sequels, or additional titles and authors.

So what's up with that?

Well which is your favoUrite? Have you read one? Any? Offer a peer review that encourages Caribbean publishing, without patronising the work at hand.

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(Blog on next time for Part 5 )

Above All,
Happy Writing,

1 comment:

moongazer said...

I really thank you for the opportunity to write a story that challenged me and helped me to grow. That would not have been possible without you. You have done a lot to move the needle and it has moved. It will never go back to the way it was and I know that we all appreciate that.

Thank you Joanne.