This is the first in a series of interviews I’m posting with dynamic authors who’ve chosen to self-publish their works. I sought out these women because I admire their work and their work ethic and I know you’re as curious about the inner workings of publishing as I am. Enjoy!
Welcome to a conversation with Zetta Elliott! She is an author and educator having written books for children, adults and teens, but I know her best as an author of speculative fiction featuring kids of color. You can find her work at her website, but her latest title for teens is The Door at the Crossroads.
- As a librarian I have to handpick my titles because I serve Black and Latino teens and I want to make sure the books they read feature people who look like them. If I kept to the top 20 at any given time on the new releases list from the top 5 publishers, I might never fill my shelves but I can always find good titles for them in the self-publishing market. Why do you think that is?
We know from Lee & Low’s 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey that the traditional publishing industry is dominated by straight, White, cisgender women without disabilities. The chances of them understanding and/or responding to the needs of your students are pretty low! I think most corporate publishers are trying to make money and/or win a Coretta Scott King Award and they think the best way to do that is by producing a book with “noble” Blacks. Most young readers I meet aren’t interested in dignified teenage protagonists—they want someone “real,” someone recognizable that they can relate to. Self-publishers are able to respond to current events and many of them tend to be from the communities they represent. Blacks aren’t well represented in the traditional publishing industry but they make up a large segment of the indie community. I know that I’ve worked with urban kids for almost 30 years and I meet with teachers on almost a weekly basis. I listen to their concerns, I hear what the kids are talking about, what appeals to them. Indie authors can be more responsive to the needs of our communities.
- I’ve been writing and conversing with other writers of color in the industry for a few years, but you’ve been working and making it work for much longer. How do you think the publishing industry has changed in recent years with the advent of ereaders? Do you believe that the traditional players like Simon and Schuster and Penguin are dying in the face of Amazon and the ereader market?
I don’t think the traditional industry will ever die out because it caters to a demographic that is alive and well—look how quickly they pivoted after the election and gave a juicy book deal to that alt-right troll! I personally don’t read e-books but I know they’re an affordable option that makes it easy for readers to try new authors and explore different genres. I think print books will always be popular with most readers and I prefer them in the classroom. But we’ve got to meet readers where they are, and that means giving them as many options as possible. I make sure to publish all my indie titles on CreateSpace (print) and in the Kindle store.
- Is there a stigma attached to self-publishing?
Of course! And it’s deserved some of the time because a lot of self-published books aren’t edited very well. There’s also an unfair expectation that self-published books should look just like traditionally published books, which have had a team working on them with a sizable budget. I think many people claim to want diversity but at the end of the day, they’re deeply invested in the traditional system. I just self-published a new middle grade novel and when I looked at most bloggers’ review guidelines, they refuse to even consider indie titles. Review outlets like Kirkus also charge exorbitant fees to review self-published books and even more progressive outlets like SLJ put indie titles in a separate column. So there are lots of ways to make self-published books—regardless of quality—appear as something other or lesser.
- The market is crowded with books coming out every day and in every form. How do you market your books without the push of a large corporate team?
I don’t, really! Marketing isn’t my forte so I just focus on producing the books and then use social media to share the new titles with folks in my network. I mostly rely on word of mouth, and I’m lucky to have a few bloggers who treat my indie titles like any other book. At the end of the day, I figure my job is to make sure the books exist. I trust that they’ll connect with readers someday, somehow. The folks who know me and what I stand for subscribe to my newsletter or follow me on Twitter. Just today my blog got two hits from someone searching for: “books to recommend to an 8 yr old african american girl who is a little rebellious!” I do a lot of school visits in Brooklyn and I’m traveling more, so every interaction with kids and educators is an opportunity to talk about my books. And when I’m talking about larger issues of equity in publishing, the people who hear me tend to visit my website and explore my titles. I know some folks do a big campaign, blog tours, etc. but I’ve got 25 books (and counting). I’d much rather get the book out, send an e-blast, reach out to educator/librarian contacts, and then get back to writing…
- It’s hard to release a book completely on your own. Who’s on the Zetta Elliott team? Or do you have one?
As a Scorpio, I like to say that I’m not a team player! But I have been truly blessed with friends and colleagues who support my work. If I try to name them all, I’ll surely leave someone out but several White women bloggers have featured my books (including the radical librarians at Reading While White). Kristi Bernard is a Black woman blogger who reviews just about everything I write! Sheila Ruth runs the Cybils and KidLitCon and she has always kept the door open for me and many other marginalized writers. I was a professor for almost ten years and I made some key contacts through the Children’s Literature Association; they gave me an award for an essay I wrote a few years back and that grants me a certain kind of legitimacy in certain circles. My academic friends train future teachers and librarians, and they make a point of teaching my novels and inviting me to speak with their students (on campus or via Skype). There are so many folks I’ve never met but who feel like friends; on Facebook they share my links and even though I’m not on Twitter much, I often get tagged when folks are recommending or discussing diverse spec fic or indie publishing. I have a group of women on the west coast—my “rad women”—and we meet online once a month to check in, vent, scheme. Their love and support sustains me. Librarians who aren’t afraid to court controversy sometimes invite me to speak at conferences…I really can’t name all the ways I’m supported by members of my community. Teachers bring my books into the classroom and invite me to conduct writing workshops. The Brooklyn Public Library has kept my head above water by sponsoring my school visits for years and they’ve added half of my books to their collection. You’re sharing your platform with me right now, which I appreciate! It definitely takes a village and I’ve been blessed to be embraced by so many when indie authors are consistently shamed and shunned.
- What do you wish you had known before you published your first title?
I’ve learned not to be precious about my books. I think I had a lot of anxiety about self-publishing because of the stigma, and I thought my books had to be perfect—or else! But no book is perfect and I’ve learned not to let my fear of imperfection stop me from forging ahead. I just had a screw-up with the cover of my latest book, The Ghosts in the Castle, and the roll-out for The Door at the Crossroads last year was a total nightmare. But at the end of the day, the books entered the world and I continued to write. I also don’t compare my books to traditionally published titles. I think you can respect certain conventions but subvert or discard them when they don’t serve your story or your readers.
- What title of yours should all of our readers, librarians, and indie booksellers run out and order right now?
That really depends on the reader! I like to think I’ve got something for everyone with 25 books, but I’m especially proud right now of my latest. I think The Ghosts in the Castle really helped me heal—it’s part of the ongoing process of decolonizing my imagination. And I think it’s interesting to read that book alongside the first couple of Harry Potter books, which completely erased kids of color. I love introducing readers to forgotten historical figures and it was a lot of fun to put Black kids in a castle—that’s something I never imagined was possible when I was a child. The next book I hope to publish is The Return, which is set in Senegal. And then I hope to start The Ring, my Black girl Viking novel! I’ve applied for a residency in Sweden…if I get it, watch out!