Small or independent publishers of children’s books have always faced economic challenges and for many of these quality publishers, 2023 is proving to be even more challenging than past years. The economic effects of the pandemic, coupled with the rise in book censorship, have resulted in diminished sales for many small publishers, who do not have either the deep marketing resources or the reliance on backlist titles to boost sales during lean times. Quality small publishers, such as Lee & Low, Enchanted Lion, Levine Querido, and in Great Britain, Knights Of, Flying Eye, Firefly Press and Five Quills, are looking for creative ways to stay in business and serve our industry. One break-out example is a fund-raising auction to benefit Levine Querido, organized by authors who feel it’s imperative for small publishers of children’s book to be able to continue their work.
I recently interviewed Arthur A. Levine, President and Editor-in-Chief of Levine Querido, founded in 2019, to publish outstanding books by and about historically underrepresented minorities (including creators who are Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, disabled, LGBTQIA+, or who practice a minority religion.) His insights on the financial situation of his and other small publishers is of interest to all SCBWI members who support independent publishing and recognize the vast benefits of seeing it continue.
LIN: Since you founded Levine Querido, what have you found to be the advantages of being a small independent publisher?
ARTHUR: I think the biggest advantage has been to clear all the obstacles to creative freedom, to be responsible for all the choices in a book's life from acquisition (where I follow the instincts that have always led to my biggest success, from Peggy Rathmann's GOODNIGHT GORILLA and Gary Soto's CHATO'S KITCHEN to Phillip Pullman's GOLDEN COMPASS and J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER) to the nuances of editorial work, to the ability to make jackets that stand out instead of conforming to trend, to the choices of paper and finishes, and the size of the print run. I got into this business because I love books and I've always loved to read. But the Ursula Nordstrom idea of creating great books by applying the skills and perspective gained as an adult to the deeply remembered emotions of your childhood self...seems to have lost currency in a publishing process heavily guided by financial departments relying on comparisons ("comps") to current books whose success can be imitated. You can see how this freedom allows many independent presses -- from Flying Eye to Enchanted Lion, to Lee & Low -- to build programs that have recognizable aesthetics and missions.
LIN: How would you describe the kind of success LQ has met with? What was the economic impact of that success?
ARTHUR: We were lucky enough to have Daniel Nayeri's EVERYTHING SAD IS UNTRUE and Darcy Little Badger's ELATSOE on our very first list. These books so clearly announced our intentions to create books by and about historically under-represented minorities. Nayeri won the Printz that year, and that helped Everything Sad sell well over 150,000 copies. Darcy Little Badger won dozens of awards for her debut, and her next book, A SNAKE FALLS TO EARTH made her the first Native American to be honored by the Newbery committee. Last year Donna Barba Higuera became the first author to win the Newbery and the Pura Belpré for the same book, THE LAST CUENTISTA. We're really proud to have helped such extraordinary writers find an audience. And of course it helped the company a great deal (and would have helped even more, financially, if those successes had not happened during the pandemic and supply chain crises when the cost of printing and shipping books leaped 200%!)
LIN: What are the financial challenges of running an independent children’s publishing house?
ARTHUR: Well, first of all, to start a publishing company that prints books you have to first raise money. If you're lucky, you raise enough to pay for a small staff (an incredible staff in LQ's case!), contracts for authors, illustrators, designers, freelance art directors, and copyeditors. You pay to create galleys and advance copies of picture books. You pay to ship those books to award committees, review journals, and influencers. You pay for the printers and shippers, you pay for the office space, etc. And you do all this from the finite amount of money that you raised from your friends and family. You don't notice these costs when you're working within a corporation: someone else pays everyone's salaries, you have access to an art department, etc. The flip side to having creative control is that you have to pay for everything that goes into those decisions. You also have no backlist at first -- unlike a large publisher, LQ can't rely on a goldmine of books that are still on best-seller lists to bring in income when the industry frontlists are challenged.
LIN: Does the current atmosphere of book banning affect this issue?
ARTHUR: Oh my goodness, yes. Especially for LQ. For us, books by LGBTQIA+ authors, Black authors, Indigenous authors... are what makes up our program; it's not a small percentage. And these are the books most targeted by banners. Libraries and schools are our biggest customers (and especially appreciative of the badges of quality that are awards, and things like the 50+ starred reviews we've received just this season.) Now imagine a world in which librarians and teachers (brave as they are) fear for the jobs, for their safety, in an environment where book banning is at historic highs.Then you get not only the bans themselves, but what my Marketing Director Antonio Gonzales Cerna calls "Shadow Banning." That's when that fearful atmosphere causes folks to self-censor, to not even buy a book for fear that it will blow up. The damage to our institutional sales has been very real and significant.
LIN: How can people who care about quality children’s books support LQ and other similar publishers?
ARTHUR: I think the first line of support is to simply request our books from your library. Ask your local independent or B&N to order the books for you if they're not on the shelves. Buy the books. In the case of LQ we were blessed by the response of two SCBWI members (who had no previous relationship with LQ) who heard me speak of this on the podcast "The Book of Life" and volunteered to set up "Friends For Levine Querido." They are running an auction from September 3 through 13 with amazing opportunities for signed books, conversations with famous authors and editors and agents, portfolio reviews, a spot at a retreat, and even a weekend at a beach house with food and drink and expert children's book advice included! We were overwhelmed by the love and support. If folks want to visit the auction, the link is HERE.
LIN: What is the future of independent children’s publishing?
ARTHUR: I think we all work in a very special industry, one that recognizes the value of protecting endeavors that support communities of all kinds. For instance, people recognized the importance of local, independent bookstores and supported them in their battle to survive the incursions of chains and online retailers. Now they've come back strong despite the ongoing challenges. I think the same will be true for independent children's publishing. Smaller operations may have economic challenges to overcome, but structurally they may be better for many authors. Smaller independent publishers have the chance to provide a vital alternative and truly fresh approaches. (Or, in LQ's case, a style and process that harkens back to more editorially-led times.) They have the chance to give access to people who never had it before. And I believe we will.