by Ann Parker, Pima Community College, Tucson, AZ
Last week, we published an interview with Dana Goldberg of Children’s Book Press. He shared his beliefs and strategies for operating a successful small, independent press publishing multicultural and bilingual literature for children. This week, we present an interview with Wade Hudson, Publisher and CEO of Just Us Books.
Q: Please describe your company and the books you publish.
- My wife Cheryl Willis Hudson and I founded Just Us Books in 1988. We recognized a need for books for children and young adults that focus on the culture, history and experiences of people from African Diaspora. The need for children from the African Diaspora to see in the books they read and love characters who look like they do was — and remains — crucial. These realizations actually spurred us to start our company. As parents who had often searched unsuccessfully for these kinds of books for our two children, we knew there was a demand for them because other black parents had expressed their frustrations to us.
We did some market research to support our business plan and found that roughly, only 1% of the 5000 or so published during 1987 were written or illustrated by an African-American. The few books that were being published had short shelf lives in bookstores. Some had no shelf life at all. So rather than continue to complain to publishers about the need for more Black-interest books for young people, and we did that quite often, we decided to address the need ourselves. Thus Just Us Books was born.
- From the beginning, the primary focus of Just Us Books has been to publish books for children and young adults that spotlight Black culture, Black history and Black experiences, and to give talented Black authors and illustrator opportunities to become a part of the book publishing industry. Our range of published titles includes picture books, chapter books, series, biographies, and young adult and middle grade fiction and non-fiction. We have also published a number of titles that have religious and moral themes because so many parents expressed a need for these kinds of books.
Q. Has the original vision or mission changed over the years? If so, how?
- Although the original mission for Just Us Books continues to drive our efforts, we have added to it. In 2004, we established Sankofa Books. This imprint’s primary purpose is to bring back to print many of the classic titles written or illustrated by Black book creators that have been dropped by larger publishing companies. James Haskins, Eleanora E. Tate, Robert Miller, Rosa Guy and Camille Yarborough are a few of the authors whose work we have republished under Sankofa Books.
Q. What have been some of your best sellers? Why do you think they are so popular?
- A few of our best selling titles include books from the AFRO-BETS concept series: AFRO-BETS ABC Book, AFRO-BETS 123 Book, AFRO-BETS Book of Colors and AFRO-BETS Book of Shapes; AFRO-BETS Book of Black Heroes From A to Z, a title that features short biographical sketches of important Black achievers. Other best sellers include Bright Eyes, Brown Skin, a picture book that spotlights four African-American pre-school children, Jamal’s Busy Day, a picture book about an African-American boy who knows how important school is and compares his school day to his parents’ work day and The Secret Olivia Told Me, a picture book that was a Coretta Scott King Honor winner in 2008. Nearly all of our backlist titles are mainstays of our publishing program and are featured in our regular book list.
- We believe these titles sell well because they are relevant to experiences of many African-Americans and their children and because they are produced with an acute sensitivity, understanding and appreciation for Black experiences, Black culture and Black history. In addition, a major part of our marketing thrust has been to get our books to those who are most likely to respond to them. So we have frequented Black festivals, conferences sponsored by national and regional Black organizations, churches and church-sponsored programs, as well as educational and library conferences.
Q. Who is the audience for your books? Are there different audiences for different types of books? Has the audience for your books changed over the years? If so, how? How do you envision this audience changing in the future?
- When we first stared our company, we felt that our audience would be Black parents, Black teachers and progressive educators of all backgrounds. That still is true to a great extent, but we have expanded that notion to include anyone who loves a well-written and beautifully-illustrated book. Literature should be for all people to enjoy. Through it, we learn about people who are different from us and about places we may never visit and we can even gain a better understanding of the people and experiences within our immediate environment.
Q. What are some of the most effective methods you use to market your books?
- In addition to the marketing efforts I mentioned earlier, we sell our books via channels used by most publishers, including chain bookstores, independent book stores, retail and educational distributors and wholesalers and catalog companies. During our twenty-two years in the industry, we have had exclusive relationships with several major book distributors. But those relationships have not worked very well for us. We now handle our own distribution and have done so for the past ten years or so. We have a warehouse where we do our own fulfillment.
Because Cheryl and I are two of a very few African-American publishing entrepreneurs and the only ones who have a company whose exclusive focus is the children’s and young adult market, we recognize and accept that for some, we have become role models. We do speaking engagements and conduct workshops to share our experiences as publishers and writers. These opportunities have enabled us to shed spotlight on the importance of books and reading and have helped us get our books in the hands of more readers.
Q. What are your biggest challenges in publishing multicultural books for children?
- One of the biggest challenges for any small or independent business operation is having access to the capital required to appropriately implement the plans and goals it has established. This challenge becomes even more acute when a company insists on maintaining its independence and staying true to its initial mission. Independence and a company’s mission are often casualties of outside financial relationships.
- Getting “general market” book buyers to understand that multicultural books are not just for people of color or that “Black-interest books” are not just for Black people is another challenge.
Finally, we must overcome the current view of many people in the retail book market and in many of our schools that certain books are just for specific times of the year, for example, Black-interest books just for Black History Month or that books that focus on Latino cultures for Hispanic Heritage Month.
Q. How do you find your authors and illustrators? What are the challenges you face in finding authentic authors and illustrators?
- We find many of our authors and illustrators through personal contacts and by referrals from other established authors and illustrations. We get a lot of manuscript submissions and art samples sent to us, but we don’t have a staff large enough to review those submissions as quickly as we would like. But we have discovered authors and artists through unsolicited submissions.
- Cultural authenticity and realistic portrayal of Black people and black experiences are paramount when reviewing manuscripts and art. As African Americans, we are aware of and have felt the negative impact that racial stereotyping, gross misrepresentations, cultural and historical untruths and character distortions have had on our society and how they often determine how African-Americans are viewed in our culture. We grew up with the images and stories of Little Black Sambo, Uncle Remus, Aunt Jemima and Beulah and all the resulting baggage. So we place high value on cultural and racial sensitivity and exhaustive research of the subject when we consider manuscripts or art. We are also concerned about the sincerity of the author or artist for the subject as well as his or her respect for the characters and experiences about which he or she is writing about or illustrating.
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 books? What are the advantages that smaller companies have over the larger companies? Disadvantages?
- The past several years have been extremely difficult for book publishing in general. Many large and middle size companies have cut back their list of book offerings and have downsized their staff. In addition, many wholesalers and distributors that had been mainstays in the industries have closed their doors. Most school districts have cut their budgets significantly, thus reducing the amount of money that would normally be available to buy books for the classroom and media centers. Most public libraries have cut back their budgets for book acquisition. Even consumers have been forced to make tough decisions about how they are going to spend their hard earned dollars. So, the economic climate is challenging for the industry in general.
- Obviously, small and independent publishers are impacted more by this economic downturn. The lost of one important account could be devastating for a small, independent publisher. So, right now, I see the difficult economic climate of the country as paramount.
- Acquisition of small and independent children’s book publishers by major publishing companies has been occurring, but this has not had an impact on Just Us Books. The greater challenge for us occurs when major publishers decide to compete vigorously for the section of the market that we have targeted. Their enormous infrastructure, larger budgets, and national influence make it difficult for smaller publishers to compete. This challenge, however, has caused us to be more creative with our marketing as we strive to continue to reach our markets.
- In terms of advantages, small, independent publishing companies can often give a more focused emphasis to an author/artist and his or her creative endeavor. Larger companies are quite often developing and marketing many products at any given time. Usually, the more established, successful authors and illustrators get the kind of focus and attention that a small, independent company normally gives to most of its authors. In addition, small, independent publishers are more often open to signing new authors/illustrators and acquiring manuscripts that don’t quite fit the larger publishing houses’ marketing model for acquisition.
The major disadvantage for most small, independent publishers is the difficulty in securing capital when it is required, which can often have an impact on the level and quality of marketing and promotional efforts for a title or program.
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