A Conversation with Lee and Low Books

by Ann Parker, Pima Community College, Tucson, AZ

Last week, I shared an interview with Heather Lennon from North/South Books, a company that finds outstanding books from around the world and translates them into English for children in the United States. This week, we hear from Jason Low, Publisher at Lee and Low Books.

Q: Please briefly describe your company and the books you publish.

    JL: The main goal of the company is to meet the need for stories that children of color can identify with and that all children can enjoy. In addition, we make a special effort to work with writers and illustrators of color, and take pride in nurturing talented people who are new to the world of children’s book publishing. LEE & LOW is an example of niche, independent publishing. I like to say we are a throwback to when publishers were family-owned, generational businesses, which is a contrast to all the publicly-owned conglomerates that make up so much of publishing today.

Q: Has the original mission or vision for your publishing company changed over the years? If so, how?

    JL: We reviewed the mission ourselves a few years ago because we were curious about the very same thing. We found that the mission was still relevant and after seventeen years of publishing, the percentage of books published each year by and about people of color remains virtually unchanged (approximately 11% according to the Cooperative Children Book Center in Madison, WI). What has changed is the range of books we offer, which now includes books for children just learning to read from our Bebop Books imprint. We acquired a second imprint at the beginning of 2010 called Tu Books which brings diversity to science fiction, fantasy, and mystery for middle grade and young adult readers. So the mission remains the same, but we are focused on the expansion of the mission, which is limited only by our imagination, resources, and patience.

Q: What have been some of your best sellers? Why do you think they have been so popular?

    JL: Here is a top 10 list:
    Amelia’s Road, Altman
    Bein’ with You This Way, Nikola-Lisa
    Baseball Saved Us, Mochizuki
    Giving Thanks; Swamp
    In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall; Various
    Passage to Freedom; Mochizuki
    The Pot That Juan Built; Andrews-Goebel
    Sam and the Lucky Money; Chinn
    The last two bestsellers are hopefuls from this year:
    Amazing Faces; Bennett-Hopkins
    Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, Neri
    The reason these books were successful was because they represented stories that had not been told before. Each story was groundbreaking in some way. When Baseball Saved Us was published in 1993, our distributor actually dropped this title because they felt the book, which takes place in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, was too dark and would not have an audience. Today, Baseball Saved Us has been our number one selling title every year since we have been in business. Many of our books are about real people who have made significant contributions to society, but are rarely mentioned in history books. A few examples: Dr. Sammy Lee (first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal), Chiune Sugihara (The “Japanese Schindler”), and Juan Quezada (a potter who transformed his impoverished village in Mexico into a thriving community of artisans). This year, the publication of our first graphic novel, Yummy, resulted in a middle grade story about gang life, crime, and murder that was frank, honest, and made readers question good and bad, right and wrong, with no clear answers.

Q: Who is the audience for your books? Are there different audiences for different types of books (i.e., multicultural, non-fiction, bilingual)? Has the audience for your books changed over the years? If so, how? How do you envision this audience changing in the future?

    JL: The largest audience for our books is teachers and school librarians. Educators have fully embraced our mission and have been incredibly supportive of our books. When I joined the company thirteen years ago our attention was split between the educational market and the consumer bookstore trade market. When we took a closer look at our sales, it was revealed that we needed to concentrate more on the educational market. This decision fueled our growth over the next decade. However, the pendulum will be swinging toward the trade market once again in 2011 with the debut list from our Tu Books imprint. While we know the internet will play a role in helping us market and sell books directly to consumers, it will not be as easy as pushing a button. We are going to have to roll up our sleeves and learn how to make the web work for us if we are going to grab the attention of the hearts and minds staring back at us through their computer screens. With all the competing noise vying for people’s attention in the virtual world I expect challenges ahead.

Q: What are some of the most effective methods you use to market your books?

    JL: We use a combination of traditional marketing techniques and online social networking. We have to do both because one cannot assume everyone is plugged in, as some of the best connections with people still occur face to face. I am a big believer in the hand-written thank you note!

Q: What are the biggest challenges in publishing multicultural and/or bilingual books for children?

    JL: I used to say our biggest challenge was finding good stories, but that does not seem to be a problem anymore. Our publishing program has matured a great deal. In the early years we were very much a hand to mouth publisher, meaning when we acquired a story—we published it right away because we had no backlog. We now have many exciting titles waiting in the pipeline, so improving the sales end of the business is now our biggest challenge. The quality of the books has always been there, and this idea is reinforced every time someone discovers our books for the first time. We have become spoiled by the positive feedback our books often bring. The trick is getting our books better known to a wider audience. We feel optimistic that our team is ready to meet this challenge in 2011, so stay tuned.

Q: How do you find your authors and illustrators? What are the challenges you face in finding culturally authentic authors and illustrators?

    JL: Since LEE & LOW was founded in 1991, our ties to literary agents and the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) have grown closer, which makes getting the word out about our needs more efficient. As a result our search for culturally authentic stories has become easier. Discovering unpublished authors has always been a priority for us so we still accept unsolicited submissions in an effort to leave the door open for undiscovered authors. Our annual New Voices Award was founded in 2000, and is specifically open to unpublished, minority authors only. Not only has the New Voices Award resulted in award-winning books, it has also been responsible for launching a number of careers of children’s book authors. But there is always room for improvement. While we have a strong selection of books about African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino/Hispanic Americans, we would like to see more stories about the Native American and Middle Eastern experience, especially contemporary realistic fiction. If any of your readers have any ideas for improving our outreach into the Native American and Middle Eastern writing communities, please do not hesitate to drop us a line at publisher@leeandlow.com.

Q: Given the fact that many small publishing companies have been taken over by large conglomerates, what do you see as being the current state for independent book publishers of children’s books, particularly multicultural and/or bilingual books? What are the advantages that smaller companies have over the large companies? Disadvantages?

    JL: Publishing in general is labor-intensive and despite technological improvements to the production end of the business, the time and effort it takes to create beautiful illustrations and strong writing are unchanged. In fact, publishing’s reliance on the traditional materials of paint, pencils, and the written word is so glaringly old fashioned and out of step with the modern fast-paced world, it is uncanny. There are books that have taken us years to complete and this is simply accepted as the cost of doing business. When you consider the rules of business are all about keeping costs down and bringing projects in on time you begin to understand how completely counter intuitive the publishing industry is. But if there is another more efficient method for manufacturing the creative spirit contained in books it does not exist yet. So publishers big and small alike face the same dizzying reality when trying to create the next big book—great books take time to make.
    There are some advantages to being a small publisher. Our sales and marketing plans can change direction quickly if something is obviously not working. We have a smaller list than the larger houses, so it is possible to spend near equal promotion time on all of our books. A disadvantage of being a small business is that our resources are limited—but whose resources aren’t? Even larger houses do not have infinite resources. Looking back, we have tried numerous strategies to get our books noticed and have had many successes. We have also made mistakes along the way. The trick is not to get discouraged.
    As far as the state of independent publishing, who knows what this industry will even look like ten years from now? Concerning our mission to promote diversity, we predict our books will become even more relevant as cultural diversity continues to be embraced by society. This is already happening. Different cultures are constantly influencing literature, film, music, food, customs, and traditions in significant and subtle ways. I had a meal the other night that utilized Japanese, Indian, French, Spanish, and Mexican ingredients. The popularity of translated mystery novels in the United States (e.g. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels) is intensifying to include works originally published in Germany, Japan, Nigeria, and Korea. The fashion industry has always been a consummate borrower and cross-cultural change artist.
    As a whole, the publishing industry will have to face the impact of e-books. Larger publishers will have an advantage here because they can negotiate lower conversion rates by combining their imprints to bring down costs. As far as predicting what readers will prefer—digital verses printed books—it is too early to make that call. My feeling is that regardless of the format books in which books are offered, the written word and a good story will always be in demand.

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