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“We’re not getting fresh voices, we’re getting fresh faces”: A conversation with Formy Books

A sibling of publishers like Lantana Publishing and Knights Of, Formy Books are out to increase Black representation within children’s publishing. What makes them different is that they are an independent, family-run CIC (Community Interest Company). At a time when the publishing industry is after diverse stories, Formy Books’ first inspiration is none other than their own family and they have, quite literally, told their story in a picture book called Later. A tender look at Afro-Caribbean family life, Later features a stay-at-home dad and working mother. The core team consists of editorial director, Curtis Ackie, and their partner, Ebony Lyon serving as head of marketing. Since launching in 2020 they have published several well-received titles, including A Grand Place. In this interview, Ebony speaks on the company’s genesis and mission and the myriad of problems plaguing the publishing industry.

Jane: What does “Formy” mean?

EBONY: Formy Books started off the back of trying to find good representation for our children in picture books. It happened organically as we just wanted to read books to our youngest, Miko and Yari. Over time, we adopted the name. We didn’t really think about it too much, but we’re always asked how to pronounce it or what it means.

Jane: Formy Books was born during the height of the pandemic in 2020. How did this publishing company come to be?

EBONY: Curtis decided to make a book about their family. They noticed a gap in the market: there weren’t any books about an Afro-Caribbean family featuring a stay-at-home dad and a mum that went to work. Our first title started out as a surprise. Curtis wrote it and commissioned the illustrator by themselves as it was going to be a surprise for me and the children. They didn’t want to go down the traditional publishing route. They didn’t want to have our stories, experiences, and words changed and filtered. It wasn’t going to go on sale, so we weren’t thinking of how it was going to be received. It was for the family and that’s how our journey with Formy Books started. There are different routes to publishing and we’ve learnt there is a huge opportunity for those wanting to self-publish or start publishing companies.

Jane: Formy Books is a CIC (Community Interest Company) because its priority is making a difference, not a profit. How do you connect with your readers?

EBONY: We created Formy Books as a limited company and quickly realised it didn’t make sense for us. Any profit that we do make goes back into the company and we are dedicated to offering a fair payment structure, commissioning emerging writers and illustrators, and giving back to our community. Book donations and ensuring we get them into the hands of those who may not be able to afford them is one of the ways we do this, along with paying creators half of the advance payment upon signature, and half upon completion. 

We created this publishing house to produce beautiful picture books that redress the lack of black representation in this industry, both inside and outside the books. Yes, we’re really concerned about who creates the books as well as who inhabits them. I think that distinction gets flattened a lot. The statistics are always about increasing representation in terms of who the books are about. Whilst that’s obviously important, and a huge focus, we are equally as concerned with representation off of the page. I think that we also need to measure who is making them. The two metrics need to be run alongside one another to really understand what is happening in the industry.

“We’re really concerned by who creates the books as well as who inhabits them.”

We want to work with our local community in Luton. We want to amplify emerging black creative talent because we know that the talent available is just phenomenal and we want people to see it. While our first book was not written with an audience in mind, there actually was an audience wanting to consume it. I think that speaks volumes, that all of this happened off the back of one book that was written as a surprise for our family. There are so many who have enjoyed the book, supported our crowdfunding campaigns, given us advice and help, and offered to volunteer. People have found our family interesting and want to learn more. Whilst we don’t choose what to publish based on what would be perceived as a typical publishing audience, I believe that audience still buy and enjoy our books which is important. I think that’s something we can take a lot from. We don’t have to filter our stories for them to be enjoyed.

Jane: There certainly is a wealth of untapped artistic talent in our community. Which children’s authors and illustrators do you dream of working and growing with?

EBONY: We do want to grow, but when I say grow, I don’t mean in the number of books we put out. We’re never going to put out more than 3 to 4 a year. We’re never going to be one of the major publishing houses, so why would we even try to compete in the same remit? What we do want to do is hone our craft. That means that in terms of authors and illustrators we dream of working with, we’re just focused on emerging talent. We just want to amplify the wealth of creative talent out there. Realising you are the first to publish something incredible is so special. We want to work with voices that aren’t necessarily heard or artists that are not necessarily seen. That’s the issue that needs redressing and that’s what we seek to do. 

If those making key decisions within the industry remain homogenous then we’re not getting fresh voices, we’re getting fresh faces. Everyone is being filtered through the preferences of those who are in charge. The teachings are the same, the agents are the same, the publishers keep doing the same. I think that’s where we’re different, because we’re really focused on what is going on behind the book. I believe that authentic representation comes with who’s writing, illustrating, producing, marketing, and editing the books. It’s true that there have been great strides in the industry, but we’re in our little corner and doing our own thing.

“We’re not getting fresh voices, we’re getting fresh faces. Everyone is being filtered through the preferences of those who are in charge.”

Jane: I love this idea of “incidental inclusion”. I think it’s hard to publish stories you do not understand and that means publishers keep telling a certain type of story they find it easier to work with.

EBONY: My children want silly. They want all genres. They want fun, adventure, or dinosaur books. I’m not saying serious stories aren’t needed, because they are. I grew up in a majority white area in the ’80s and ’90s, an ex-mining town. I was the only non-white child in my school for years. I could have really, really benefited from books that embraced my hair and my skin so I’m glad there are books like this available for children now.

But that’s a singular part of my story. We just want children to be children and we’re fighting for it. We want to focus on incidental inclusion, you know, the main character or characters just happen to be black. It’s not spoken about and we want to ensure there is no ‘othering’ or positioning whiteness as the ‘norm’. Sure, we’ll put in snippets of culture, but we’ll try to do it as authentically as possible and if it does come about, it will come from the writers and the illustrators because we want them to have that freedom of expression.

We just want to be. As you said, there seems to be a trend, not just in children’s literature, but in terms of what gets commissioned and what gets published. You must, as Toni Morrison said, wonder who it’s all for. I do feel uncomfortable if I know that the whole team behind a book, other than the writer, is non-black, or if the book has been marketed using certain language, or using black trauma as a selling point. I know when books have been written for me. I can see the edited bits that try to explain me to myself, and it takes me straight out of the book.

“I know when books have been written for me.”

Jane: Do you have any advice for people wanting to set up a publishing company dedicated to Black representation? 

EBONY: Have a vision and stay firm with it. We’ve had a vision and we’ve stayed firm with it, even if it wasn’t necessarily fashionable or profitable. I’m not from a publishing background and people found it weird we were starting an imprint. I think every industry needs new ideas and publishing is no different. We can’t continue with this who knows who.

Let’s think about the state the industry is in now with rapidly increasing paper costs and small indie bookstores facing huge pressure from giants like Amazon and their hold. Picture books sometimes sell for 5.99 on that platform. Who is getting paid?! How is anyone supposed to be making a living? How is anyone who hasn’t come from money supposed to think this is a career for them? We aren’t available on Amazon and we realise that our books may be more expensive than others, but that’s how we value them and that’s how we will ensure we continue to pay our creators fairly and continue to print our books in the UK. We try to donate as many books as we can which helps to balance things out for those who can’t afford them.

There’s this romantic idea that if you love your art, you will graft and suffer for it. I don’t think that you should suffer for your art. I think you should be paid and compensated for your art, and I think you should be paid the value you put on your art. The industry is trying to find undiscovered talent with all these schemes but they’re missing the point. There is a huge pool of phenomenally talented people that won’t even apply: you’ve lost them already. You’re asking them to produce pieces of art or writing to get into the mentorship in the first place when they may not have the time, energy or resources. Many people work long shifts in zero-hour contracts. Publishing professionals just don’t understand because there is no diversity, especially socio-economic, amongst the decision-makers. They don’t understand what it’s like to be poor.

We’ve all seen the dire statistics about the publishing industry, whether we’re talking race, sexuality, ability, and so forth. How many black disabled creators are there within children’s literature? How many black working-class people are within publishing? Not even a single percentage point.

FORMY BOOKS is an independent family-run publisher, creating a diverse range of beautiful and inclusive children’s books. Their mission is to increase positive black representation across all genres in children’s literature. They are passionate about platforming and amplifying black creative talent in publishing. Their titles include LATER and A GRAND PLACE. You can find them on their website and on Twitter @formy_books.

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her @verybookishjane on Twitter.

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