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A Direct Approach: Spotlight on Jelani Memory and “A Kids Book About”

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interview by Alexa Schlosser, Managing Editor, IBPA Independent magazine —

Jelani Memory

Jelani Memory’s “A Kids Book About” series takes a direct approach to publishing, both in terms of its distribution model and the tough topics it covers.

Jelani Memory initially thought he’d only print one copy of the book he wrote for his children, A Kids Book About Racism. He had created it as a way to facilitate conversations with his mixed race family, but his friends and colleagues convinced him it could be more than that. Fast forward to today, and Memory’s “A Kids Book About” series now has dozens of titles, covering topics such as depression, gender, and climate change.

Earlier this year, IBPA Independent had a chance to chat with Memory about his publishing strategy, his process for writing the books, his thoughts on the Big Five, and more.

IBPA Independent: What made you decide to publish the “A Kids Book About” series direct to consumer?

Jelani Memory (JM): For us it was really about making sure we had a direct relationship with our customers. We wanted them to tell us what they loved, what they hated, what they wanted us to do next. Great brands are built when there’s that direct relationship.

IBPA Independent: How has your previous role as the co-founder of Circle Media informed the work you are doing with “A Kids Book About”?

JM: Quite a bit. I had a blast building Circle and learned a lot about launching a brand and building product. My time at Circle allowed me to come into the publishing industry with lots of fresh ideas and unconventional ways of doing things.

IBPA Independent: I understand you work with different authors for each book. What is your process for selecting them? Can you tell me a bit about the workshop writing process you employ?

JM: Our process is a bit unconventional. It’s been about reaching out through our personal networks, finding folks who’ve never thought about writing a book and yet have something tremendous to offer the next generation. For us it’s all about authenticity. Does this person represent the topic inside and out? If so, making a book together is quite simple. Now that we’ve been around for a bit, folks reach out to us. We still are looking for authentic voices, not necessarily good writers or folks with big platforms.

Our workshop method has been honed over 45 books. It’s a little bit group therapy meets improv comedy. We spend five hours with the author and create a book together in collaboration. It’s really a thrilling and incredibly rewarding process.

IBPA Independent: I’ve seen you mention elsewhere that it takes, on average, 45 days for you to go to market with a title. How are you able to cut down the production timeline, and how do you benefit from it?

JM: It’s really about taking the complexity out of the process and staying incredibly focused. Since we write all of our books in one day, that speeds things up tremendously. We also do all the design internally, so there’s lots of efficiencies there. Lastly, we aren’t bogged down by all the legacy ways of doing things like the big publishing dinosaurs are. We’re a small and nimble startup.

IBPA Independent: What do you think the place of large, traditional publishing houses is today? Are they still relevant? Why do you think it’s so difficult for the Big Five to tackle the topics “A Kids Book About” so deftly covers?

JM: First, I love books. I love books from Penguin, Scholastic, Knopf, Random House, Phaidon, Workman … I could go on. But publishing hasn’t had a fundamental change for a few hundred years. Hollywood had its Netflix moment; music had its iTunes moment; but books never had their moment. E-readers and Amazon wasn’t it. The process that books have been made with has never really changed. Do I think they’re still relevant, yes, but only for so much longer. The old system has prioritized dominant culture voices, antiquated practices, and upside-down economics. We can make our books faster, pay a better royalty to our authors, and reach customers directly—all while building a culturally relevant brand.

On the topic side of things, I think you have to ask yourself if the folks who run the big publishing companies have the experience to tell these stories like we are. And I don’t mean book-making experience. I mean life experience. When the CEOs of the Big Five are all white men, how many diverse stories can they really tell? That’s not to say they haven’t in the past, but publishing is long overdue for some new voices. Not just authors or editors, but the top brass—the folks who run the companies.

IBPA Independent: Topics and publishing model aside, there are a number of other ways “A Kids Book About” books can be seen as nontraditional children’s books (e.g., no illustrations or imagery, length). How deliberate were those choices? Were they made so the books would stand out, or is there another philosophy behind these elements?

JM: You know, some of those choices were deliberate and some were serendipity meeting creative constraints. We wanted kids to be thinking about their own lives while they were reading our books, not stuck inside the lives of the characters. Having no pictures helps to do this. It’s also about treating kids like they’re smart and can recognize and value good design when they see it. We just wanted the stories to speak directly to the kids, to respect their social and emotional experiences, and hopefully to effect real change in them.

IBPA Independent: Can you tell me a bit about how you market the books? How do you find influencers?

JM: We market across various channels, including Facebook, Instagram, Google, and earned media. Being a brand and going direct to consumer means we can put more energy into marketing our books than a traditional publisher since we don’t lose most of the margin to middlemen and distributors.

IBPA Independent: What’s next for “A Kids Book About”?

JM: Lots, to say the least. We just launched our first podcast of many as a part of our kids podcast network. We’ve also got some incredibly interesting things in store for the rest of 2021 and into 2022. Stay tuned.

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