A Fine Dessert

KidLit Authors and Illustrators: Time To Step Up

This past week author Daniel José Older laid down some hard truth about the illustrations for the children’s book A Fine Dessert[1]. In the video below he points out that slavery is an “open wound” that America as a whole has been lying about to itself “forever” and that illustrations showing black children as slaves smiling, happy to work hard making fancy food for massa are a problem. Please watch the whole thing, because Daniel really lays it out and what he says is important.

He followed up his panel appearance with a piece in The Guardian that highlights the severe lack of children’s books with African-American people in them.

In 2014, only 5% of the 3,500 children’s books published were about black characters; Christopher Myers has called it “the apartheid of children’s literature”.

This doesn’t even take into account other groups of POC. I suspect that there are very few Latin@, Asian, and Native American characters in kid’s books as well, and that’s just naming three groups.

The article points out that the publishing industry still suffers from the Highlander problem: There Can Be Only One. This has to be addressed, no doubt. At the same time, we should also address the other side of the equation: Authors.

On the panel, Daniel acknowledged that “a book is a creation of a village, just like people are,” and he’s so very right. That means no single entity within the village–editors, publishers, authors, marketers, reviewers, readers–is solely responsible for fixing these systemic problems. However, each entity within the village should do whatever is in their power to effect change[2].

We need more authors from diverse backgrounds writing books with characters like them, and we need more of them to get published. We also need more authors from all backgrounds writing books with characters that aren’t like them, characters that come from minority, marginalized, or oppressed groups, characters that aren’t often found in children’s literature. We need those characters drawn in ways that reflect the vast divversity even within said groups. We need authors and illustrators to create books that reflect the truth of people from these groups, even if that truth is uncomfortable. We also need authors to create books that reflect how the world should be and could be for kids from these groups. Because it’s just as important to look forward and to speculate with hope as it is to look back with clear eyes and reveal hard truths about the way things were and how that impacts the way things are.

We need all of these things. Right now.

Now we get to the part where some authors say: I agree with you, but just look at what happened to Sophie Blackall (the illustrator) or even Emily Jenkins, the author. They tried and they got it wrong and they got attacked!

Yes well, that’s art[3].

Less flippant answer: It’s always worth it to try, to fail, to try again and be better, to learn from your missteps, to grow and keep trying.

Others will rightly point out that this growth that comes out of failure has an impact on people beyond the author, and that is true. It’s imperative to then do your best to learn from others’ mistakes and to put in the work so you can avoid the obvious pitfalls.

How?

This is the part where what I say sounds like a pitch, but it’s honestly not.

Here’s how: You learn how to write the Other sensitively and convincingly. It can be done. You start by reading the book Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. Or, you start by taking Nisi and Cynthia’s workshop in person or online. Or, you start by taking a another workshop or class about writing and the Other online or at a university or at a convention or conference.

And yes, Nisi and I are teaching a class on this topic next month. (You can register here if it fits in your schedule, and you can get announcements of new classes here if not.) And we’ll keep teaching it whenever we can throughout next year and hopefully beyond. Because this issue is important to us, as it’s also important to Cynthia Ward and Daniel José Older and many, many, many other authors and editors and teachers.

Look for these opportunities. Read the book, read articles and blog posts and talk to people and listen. Because we need more authors, especially authors who already have relationships and contracts with publishers, to say: children’s books should be for all children, not just some. Also to say: children’s books that include Black and Latin@ and Japanese and Native American and Nigerian and other characters from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds are for all children, no matter their background, because we are all people and all of us deserve to be reflected in books and all of us deserve to be seen by the Other (relative to yourself) as people worth knowing and understanding.

We need this now. Let’s get it done.

By whatever means necessary.

 

Footnotes

  1. If you haven’t yet heard about the controversy, there are summaries, illustrations, and reactions from various folks, including the author–the illustrator is in the video–at Bossip and VH1[]
  2. For an example of what publishers and editors can do, see this blog post by the LEE&LOW staff.[]
  3. Also, I wouldn’t characterize the criticism as an “attack” though I know some will[]

eBook Library Lending Is Still A Mess And Now I Know Why: Publishers

eBook Library Lending Is Still A Mess And Now I Know Why: Publishers

Yesterday at Book Expo America I attended a panel titled “E-Books From Libraries: Good For Authors?” because I’m writing a piece for a magazine on the state of eBook library lending. What I learned is that the reason things are going so poorly in the world of eBooks and libraries is because publishers, agents, and people who claim to be representing the best interests of authors are super ignorant and will probably destroy everything if allowed to continue making decisions. Since I can see no pixel-stained techno peasant uprising on the horizon, I think we’re all in for a bad time.

The panelists were as follows: Ginger Clark, Literary Agent (Moderator); Carolyn Reidy, President and Chief Executive Officer, Simon & Schuster; Jack Perry, Owner 38enso Inc.; Maureen Sullivan, President, American Library Association (ALA); Steve Potash, President and CEO, Overdrive; Paul Aiken, Executive Director, Authors Guild. I’m going to point out from the start that both Ms. Sullivan of the ALA and Mr. Potash of Overdrive both had really great things to say on the panel and are both very smart about this issue. This is not surprising since they both understand the issue from the side of the libraries. Mr. Perry didn’t say too much at the panel. And Mr. Aiken arrived late, and by doing so saved us from having to listen to him be aggressively wrong for too long. That leads us to: Ms. Reidy.

Early in the panel the moderator asked her to talk about Simon & Schuster’s strategy around eBooks for libraries. This is part of what she said:

Publishers didn’t resist coming up with programs because they didn’t think it was good for their business. … They’re protecting not only their business but every author’s, too. We’re the representative of the author in this transaction. Why would we ever want to do anything to destroy that? Publishers have always thought that having an author’s work in a library is a good thing.

What changes with digital is that you can sit at home and if you have a library card you can order any book, you never have to go anywhere. And if you could get every book you wanted free, why would you ever buy another one? That’s the question we had about it in our first meeting. … That is the danger. You could literally undermine the market for every author and for [the publishers]. … Obviously, there is some discovery through libraries. There’s also some ability for people who people who aren’t ever going to buy books to read them and be a part of the conversation. We’ve always believed that the cultural contribution of libraries is important.

But this frictionless ability for people to download books does make a sea change difference.[1]

There is a lot to argue with in this statement, but what struck me is that last line: “frictionless ability.” That right there is an indication of why S&S and possibly many other publishers will continue to have wrong thinking on this subject.

Borrowing an eBook from a library is Not Frictionless. It’s just not. In the past few years, Overdrive and a small number of other companies that actually build the lending technology have made the process a little bit easier, especially if you have a smartphone, tablet, or other iOS, Android, or BlackBerry device. However, if you have an eInk device from B&N, Sony, Kobo, etc., the process for setting things up and moving library books over is more complex than it needs to be and confuses a lot of people. I’m very tech-savvy and I don’t do it because it’s a damn hassle. Think of all the people who want to do it but don’t have access to the technology needed (it’s less expensive to buy a Nook than a computer or a tablet or to own a smartphone) or just don’t understand how to work it. Now realize that this is a major segment of the population that libraries serve.

This is Not A Frictionless Experience.

When Q&A time came I brought this up and then asked: Why are people in publishing so worried about this problem now? No one is having panels with hand-wringing about all those free paper books in the libraries.

Ginger Clark jumped in to answer that question: “Because [eBooks from libraries] can be pirated quite easily.”

Piracy was the big, scary demon in the room for a lot of this panel. But I thought that most of the speakers were thinking about it in correct ways. At one point Clark asked if “windowing” was going the way of the dinosaur. This is the practice of not selling new books to libraries for months or even years after initial release in order to increase sales. Everyone agreed that it was going away mostly because it didn’t increase sales, it increased piracy. Plus, there was a lot of talk of not making the same mistakes as the music industry.

So for Clark to say that there’s this worry about eBooks in libraries because they’re easy to pirate? Guess what: that’s all eBooks. The DRM scheme that Overdrive uses for EPUB is the same DRM that B&N uses and Kobo and Sony and Google and just about everyone else (except Apple). It’s not hard to strip that DRM (so I’m told) and it is no harder to do so if you buy the book than if you get it from the library. So what it seems that Clark and others are actually worried about is that library patrons are more likely to be evil pirates than everyone else. Leaving out that most of the time when media is put up on a torrent or file sharing service, the original was purchased by someone.

I will also point out that NetGalley, a service that provides free eBook ARCs (advanced reader copies), uses the same DRM. And yet I don’t see any hand-wringing about that. Maybe because the people with access to NetGalley can supposedly be trusted? Because they’re not poor people in libraries.

This fear of library pirating also makes no sense in the face of the data brought to the table by Overdrive President Steve Potash, who said that there weren’t many (or any) complaints of library books ending up on torrent sites. This doesn’t surprise me, since Reidy kept saying how there was “no data” on which strategies for library lending would work best and Potash repeatedly said that he had plenty of data, up to 10 years worth, and yet still there was talk of no data.

After Clark got done saying ridiculous things about pirating, Reidy made an answer that showed she has not ever actually used the technology under discussion.

It may be difficult to download a file onto an eReader — although most of them are made so it’s not — but let’s just say that it is today. It could be completely different in six months the way technology goes. We’re not trying to make decisions on what to do just based on what we see in front of us today. After all, it’s taken us a while to get here and things were much clunkier even a year ago. It’s the fact that a digital file can in fact be downloaded very easily. And once somebody learns how a library system works… it will become easier for them to use.

There is a real difference between a digital file and a physical book. And the fact that you have to go to the library and pick it up ad check it out vs. hit a few buttons.

This woman has a real talent for packing in the fail, doesn’t she? Before we even get to how she completely ignored the part about access to technology, let’s address the part where she handwaves away the difficulties and is sure the ones I’m imagining won’t be there in six months.

First, it’s really not as simple as just clicking and downloading a file, particularly if you’re working with an eInk eReader. Even once you’re in the system it’s not that easy. Second, I spent a long time yesterday talking to reps from Overdrive and 3M (who also have an eBook lending platform) and Kobo, and I specifically asked about how they are working toward making the lending process easy and seamless. Every last one of them said that, yes, it’s a goal and, yes, they are working on it, but they can’t always get it done because the eReader companies have to partner with them, except the eReader companies say that the lending software people have to make it work and it’s all their fault.

The only company with a mostly easy mechanism for eInk devices is Amazon, and apparently publishers (or just S&S) don’t like how Amazon brings library patrons into Amazon’s system in order for this ease to happen, and so some books just aren’t available to the Kindle.

Has Reidy spent even the hour I did talking to Overdrive and 3M and Kobo and B&N and Sony about this? Sounds like not. Because from the answers they gave me, this problem is no where near being solved in six months because no one is really working in concert to make it happen. Including the publishers.

Third thing is that last bit about how eBooks are different because a person just has to click, whereas with physical books you have to go to the library and pick it up. What this immediately brought to mind is that the difference is difficulty. It’s okay to let people have free books if there are barriers in place to ensure they won’t take too much advantage of it. Because how dare they. When I countered with this, Reidy was all: No, that’s not what I mean! But then Paul Aiken of the Authors Guild took control and told me that I had made my point in a tone that suggested I should shut up.

He launched into some tirade about how eBooks mean that people don’t have to come to libraries anymore and then we’ll lose libraries and that will be bad for everyone and did we hear about some library in California that was getting rid of all physical books and going digital only and redesigning their library to look more like an Apple store AND ISN’T THAT JUST TERRIBLE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!? I don’t know why anyone allows the Authors Guild to represent them because this dude is all kinds of out of touch.

You can imagine the look on my face as this all went down, but what made it better is that Maureen Sullivan of the ALA spoke after him and said pointedly that my question was a fair one and also addressed some of the stuff I raised about access to technology and how librarians are often the ones called on to help patrons navigate and understand the eBook lending system. She said very many awesome things over the whole discussion and kept bringing it back to how what librarians want is to ensure that everyone has equal access to knowledge and literature at a fair price. One of the things she said in response to my question really shows how much more she (and probably librarians in general) understands the eBook landscape.

“…this is the classic example of disruptive innovation. It causes a lot of misunderstanding, it brings fears to light. … When we experience disruptive innovation, it’s much more effective to think not ‘either/or’ but ‘and’.”

Yes. That.

Many of the people in the audience were librarians and the ones who got to ask questions also seemed concerned with the attitudes of the publishing folks about a host of things. They swarmed the Overdrive guy once it was over to thank him for standing up for libraries in a similar way to Ms. Sullivan. Overall, I would trust the two of them to look out for the real interests of authors on this issue than some of the others on that panel.

It’s so disheartening to go to an event like BEA and have supposed industry experts show you how clearly they do not understand the deeper issues surrounding eBooks or even the underlying technology. Before Carolyn Reidy makes any more decisions about eBooks and lending, she should be forced to use the system. And not just with one piece of technology, but one from every platform: eInk, iOS, Android, computer, NO computer, library computer. Before Ginger Clark talks about the ease of piracy for library eBooks I need her to talk about all the worrying she’s doing over piracy of eBooks from a major retailer and how that is different. Before Paul Aiken opens his mouth ever I need him to not do so.

Until all of these people and the others like them actually do some real work in concert with the software/hardware developers and the librarians on the eBook lending ecosystem, it’s not going to get any easier or less confusing for library patrons and it’s not going to get any better for libraries themselves. But considering the desire to keep eBook lending from being too “frictionless” lest people stop buying books forever because of Free, I suspect this problem isn’t going to get fixed. Not in six months and maybe not in six years.

Footnotes

  1. I have a recording of this panel which I will provide to anyone who wishes to listen. On this quote, I re-arranged some of what she said to make it flow better, but I did not change the context at all. Also: emphasis mine.[]