Black Authors and Self-Publishing

Systematic exclusion in traditional publishing has fostered a community of self-published authors of color who are committed to social justice.
Zetta_coverI can’t breathe. I am a Black feminist writer committed to social justice. I write stories about Black children and teens, but within the children’s literature community I have struggled to find a home or what poet June Jordan calls “living room.” In “Moving Towards Home,” Jordan describes a place “where the talk will take place in my language...where my children will grow without horror...where I can sit without grief.” If “home” represents sanctuary—a safe space where one can speak in one’s authentic voice, feel valued, and able to thrive—then the children’s literature community is not my home. I am—and likely will remain—an outsider. By industry standards, I suppose I am a failed author. Since I started writing for young readers in 2000, only three of my thirty stories have been published traditionally. I turned to self-publishing as my only recourse, and now face the contempt of those who see self-publishing as a mere exercise in vanity.

Self-publishing or selF-segregation?

Last year a white Facebook “friend” suggested that my decision to self-publish was analogous to Blacks in the civil rights era choosing to dine in their segregated neighborhood instead of integrating Jim Crow lunch counters in the South. In her mind, self-publishing is a cowardly form of surrender; to be truly noble (and, therefore, deserving of publication) I ought to patiently insist upon my right to sit alongside white authors regardless of the hostility, rejection, and disdain I regularly encounter. Zetta_last bunnySince 2009 I have used my scholarly training to examine white supremacy in the children’s literature community where African Americans remain marginalized, despite the 2014 increase in books about Africans/African Americans. This sudden spike (reflected in the latest statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) was not paired with a comparable increase in the number of books by Blacks, however, suggesting that power remains where it has always been: in the hands of whites. Publishers Weekly’s 2014 salary survey revealed that only 1 percent of industry professionals self-identify as African American (89 percent self-identify as white). That the homogeneity of the publishing workforce matches the homogeneity of published authors and their books is no coincidence. The marginalization of writers of color is the result of very deliberate decisions made by gatekeepers within the children's literature community—editors, agents, librarians, and reviewers. These decisions place insurmountable barriers in the path of far too many talented writers of color. I know better than to turn to the publishing industry when I seek justice for “my children:” Trayvon, Renisha, Jordan, Islan, Ramarley, Aiyana, and Tamir. I know not to hope that industry gatekeepers will rush to publish books for the children of Eric Garner as they struggle to make sense of the murder of their father at the hands of the New York Police Department. But I also know that children’s literature can help to counter the racially biased thinking that insists Michael Brown was “no angel” but rather “a demon” to be feared and destroyed. I believe there’s a direct link between the misrepresentation of Black youth as inherently criminal and the justification given by those who so brazenly take their lives. The publishing industry can't solve this problem single-handedly, but the erasure of Black youth from children's literature nonetheless functions as a kind of “symbolic annihilation.” Despite the fact that the majority of primary school children in the U.S. are now kids of color, the publishing industry continues to produce books that overwhelmingly feature white children only. The message is clear: the lives of kids of color don't matter.

Gaping holes in “mainstream appeal”

A friend who is a librarian in Oakland, CA, recently encountered a young patron requesting a book on Michael Brown, and she had to explain that the traditional publishing process will likely take years to produce such a book. Police brutality is an issue of great importance to the Black community—the poet Jordan has called it one of our “urgencies”—yet the publishing industry has failed to produce children's books that reflect and/or explain this reality. According to Horn Book editor-in-chief Roger Sutton, self-published books “aren’t filling any kind of need that isn’t already being met by established publishers,” as he wrote in a blog post entitled “An open letter to the self-published author feeling dissed.”  Sutton finds it “difficult to otherwise think of subjects that scare the mainstream off.” Really? How many children's books do we have about police brutality—mass incarceration—lynching—HIV/AIDS? Homelessness and suicide among queer youth of color? How many books show Black children using magic and/or technology to shape an alternative universe? These are the kinds of stories that I write and am forced to self-publish, because they are rejected over and over by (mostly white) editors whose “most important job,” according to Sutton, “is to understand what contribution your story makes—or doesn’t—to the big world of books and readers.” Longtime editor and children's literature scholar Laura Atkins counters that mainstream publishers seem to worry about “publishing only those books which they think will be palatable to the ‘mainstream.’ This results in books that tend to target a white middle-class audience.” Many members of the children’s literature community clamor for greater diversity but remain silent when another Black teenager is shot down. They cling to the fantasy that white supremacy has shaped every U.S. institution except the publishing industry. Like racism in police forces across this nation, racism in publishing is cultural and systemic; the problem cannot be solved merely by hiring a few (more) people of color.

The assimilation problem

In her essay, “How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion,” published on the site Model View Culture, Kẏra condemns the liberal impulse to position “marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination.” It frustrates me that most people seem comfortable with the reform of the existing system rather than its transformation. The idea of trying something new seems positively terrifying, and those of us proposing viable alternatives are generally shut out of the diversity discussion. At the recent Day of Diversity held during the American Library Association’s Midwinter Convention in Chicago, I once again heard calls for best-selling books that will prove to the corporate publishing industry that there is demand for diversity. Yet Kẏra rightly observes, “When we work for justice and liberation, we can’t accept progress that is conditional on being economically beneficial.” As a writer who prioritizes social justice over popularity and/or profit, I find “living room” in alternatives to the existing system. Since 2013 I have self-published 10 books for young readers. You likely won't have heard of any of them, since indie books are excluded from review by the major outlets—which leaves just a few open-minded bloggers, and without reviews, most public libraries won't add a book to their collection (many don't consider self-published books at all).

I self-publish for transparency

One reason I self-publish is to provide a degree of transparency that is largely missing from the traditional publishing process, and to refute the claim that the low number of books by people of color is a question of “merit.” Atkins, who has written about white privilege in publishing, observes, “It isn’t clear how books are selected, or how they are developed or marketed. So we don’t really see why books are rejected.” Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander self-published his first thirteen books and acknowledges that there's a “long history” of self-publishing in the Black community. Following in the tradition of independent publishers such as Just Us Books, founded by Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson in 1987, Alexander started his own press in 1995 and assumed responsibility for writing, promoting, and selling his own books. But I suspect most fledgling writers simply give up after hitting the publishing industry's seemingly impenetrable wall. As an indie author, I have the freedom to write about the things that matter most to the members of my community rather than waiting for approval from a gatekeeper who lacks the cultural competence needed to truly appreciate my work. Like the books generated by Reflection Press or Blood Orange Press, focusing on diverse authors and readers, my Rosetta Press imprint produces stories that are culturally specific and organic—not forced through a white filter in order to be labeled "universal." Diverse books can foster cross-cultural understanding at an early age. At a moment when 75 percent of whites have no friends of color and public schools are rapidly “resegregating,” the need for diverse children's literature is greater than ever. I am partnering with other artist-activists to develop a model of community-based publishing that uses print-on-demand technology to transfer power from the industry’s (mostly white) gatekeepers to those excluded from the publishing process. Currently, as writer-in-residence at Brooklyn’s Weeksville Heritage Center, I am teaching free writing classes for children and adults and am developing a picture book about the free, 19th-century African American community, which the center will publish independently. I hold “office hours” and have set up a blog so that community members can “ask an author” any questions they may have about writing and publishing. Instead of investing in a costly (and often antagonistic) MFA in writing, I encourage aspiring book creators to first take Maya Gonzalez's online course "The Heart of It," which puts “the power of children’s books in the hands of the people and the community, in part by demystifying both traditional and self-publishing routes,” she says. An award-winning author of more than twenty books for children, Gonzalez is driven by a desire to restore voice to those who have been silenced: “Through the reclamation of storytelling we can hear and learn from each others’ experience. We can know each other again...perhaps for the first time. We can tell the stories we know we need to hear. And we can heal.”

Libraries producing stories

I am hopeful that more public libraries will embrace a community-based publishing model and assist diverse patrons as they learn how to tell their stories, becoming producers and not just consumers of books. Public libraries have served as a sanctuary for me since I was a child, and I had a library card in this country long before I had a green card. The Brooklyn Public Library sends me into dozens of schools every year, enabling hundreds of kids of color to meet an author who lives in and writes about the magic to be found in their community. Most of my thirteen books for young readers aren’t part of the library’s collection, but perhaps that will change over time. I am hopeful that in the future the bias against self-published books will diminish as gatekeepers realize that it is unfair to punish writers of color for failing at a game that’s rigged. Until then, I will continue to self-publish, and I will offer my “organic” writing to the members of my community. I will find a home where my creativity can flourish. I will insist upon my right to breathe.
Zetta Elliott is an educator and author of thirteen books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book BIRD. She is currently writer-in-residence at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, NY.
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Kirsten Corby

Good essay. As an indie author, I had not yet considered the movement as a tool of liberation. Exciting! I too hope public libraries embrace community publishing. It is my dream in fact. (I'm a librarian as well as an author.) Best of luck to you.

Posted : Oct 15, 2019 12:38

Rey alonzo

Hello zetta, I am a publishing consultant from one of the self publishing company who supported African market. I talked to a lot of authors in African which I am really amazed and honored by there stories. When I read your article, I was deeply honored to help and assist African author to get publish their book, to help them to boost their confidence and assist them throughout the publishing process. I will make sure everytime I talk to my authors I will highlight your thoughts and ideas. Thank you.

Posted : Mar 14, 2016 10:45

Robert goodman

I am a Black author. I wrote, Born of Rage, 'Untamed Spirit' published in 2003. Don't feel like the book got the response it should have due to marketing. However I have other completed novels and intend to have them published soon. Would love to connect with other Black authors.

Posted : Jan 29, 2016 10:03

Troy Johnson

Very interesting article. The wealth of out bound links to external resources is just terrific reminiscent of the early days of the net, and sore missed from articles today. Thanks Zetta & SLJ. Zetta I think you are doing the right thing, by self-publishing. I think the best thing we must do is figure out how to make what you are doing far more effective. Lamenting the lack of consciousness from the handful of multinational corporations responsible for the books Black folks read will get us nowhere, as demonstrated by what has been published over the past century. Editors will publish books they no are risky, but feel are important. This generally is not done with important Black books (I don;t count celebrity books as important). A traditionally published book by Michael Brown could have been published yesterday--if that was desired by a major publisher. What we have to do it help the the worth independently published book, find it's audience. Part of the problem as you've pointed out is that there simply are not enough Black people working in publishing--especially Black men. Libraries (as evidenced by this article) have been doing their part. In fact, you should consider attending 9th National Conference of African American Librarians, August 4-8, 2015, St. Louis, MO: There one can learn more about the tremendous efforts libraries are taken to embrace independently published books. Finally, 30 Books! I'm way behind, Zetta. Which books of yours am I missing that I must have on your page: Any other info for the page is welcome too.

Posted : May 29, 2015 09:06

Zetta Elliott

Hi, Troy! Thanks for reading my essay, and for all you do to promote Black authors at AALBC. I've tried to connect with BCALA in the past but will try again; I think targeting gatekeepers is an important strategy. I don't have 30 books in print, but I do now have 13 books for young readers and plan to self-publish three more this year. Let me know how to update the books listed on my AALBC author page. You can email me at info at zettaelliott dot com.

Posted : Jun 13, 2015 03:38

Deborah Blake Dempsey

What a powerful piece, Zetta. Powerful. I have been writing and working towards publication for many, many years and last year I finally indie published my first children’s book. I've been to writer’s conferences for both Children and Adult books and there has been a glaring lack of openness to diversity over the years. There is certainly not enough presence of diversity in the children's section (there are more animal tale books than books on people of Asian, East Indian, West Indian, American Indian, etc., or for those children who have two mothers or fathers or being brought up by their grandparents because their parents “can’t take care of them” for whatever reason) and for adults book, well, the fact that there is an "African American" section in some bookstores which mixes fiction and non-fiction together instead of integrating these books into the "Fiction and Literature" or the correct non-fiction section completely baffles me. At conferences I am usually one of the few "obviously" diverse people there and while I have had mostly lovely times, education, and networking opportunities, it sometimes seems so limiting. When the publishing industry and buyers can truly embrace the delights and opportunity of personal awareness and soul expansion by appreciating other people's difference and show an openness in reading about people who are different from themselves written in the cadence and language of those people, I truly believe this world will be a better living experience for everyone. I am hopeful that keeping the need for diverse books front and center can help evolve the current landscape of literature. We are living in a country sometimes called "the melting pot" because of our diverse peoples who have found homes and new lives here and yet we deny ourselves the opportunity to become better people by learning and accepting others. Books are powerful tools humans have been gifted with. If we can't each tell our stories and learn from each other then we are in bigger trouble than my heart wants to believe. Television, movies and music have begun the change. It's taken time, but it's happened and is happening. It's time for literature to catch up. Keep up the great work and keep fighting the good fight.

Posted : Apr 04, 2015 01:37

Zetta Elliott

Thanks for the support, Deborah, and congratulations on your first book! It's certainly time for the publishing industry to embrace diversity and equity but there will be a lot of resistance (as we saw with the Deadline Hollywood article on the "danger" of having too much diversity in television):

Posted : Apr 08, 2015 06:17

Kevin A. Lewis

This is coming in a few days late, so it's doubtful if anyone will notice, but... Although I see a lot of your points, Zetta, I think it's useful to realize a few things about kidlit gatekeepers... No 1, all decisions they make on the entry end are whim-driven; no calculus, no market-based factors in play-all that stuff's end-loaded after they sign whomever they decide to bring through the turnstile. They're not prejudiced as much as unwilling to leave their comfort zones, although as with any field, there are more than a few lazy flakes and downright idiots one has to step over or around. The content one has to offer is almost beside the point, although as you've noticed, if you've got content that's challenging, that's often just a reason to hide on the fire escape till you're off the premises. There's nothing personal in all this, though-you just need to know this going in and not expect to find more than a small handful of exceptions. To use my good self as an example, for the last 2 years or so, I've been shopping around a YA novel about an old lady who entertains and horrifies her great-nieces with her memories of life as a Jewish schoolgirl on the run in the heart of Nazi Germany. Now I knew going in this was going to an expensive idea for most YA gatekeepers-rather like trying to sell a Park Place hotel to somebody whose Monopoly board doesn't run past Marvin Gardens. So I was ready when an agent from a prestigious West Coast agency was totally honest with me and admitted after a long string of superlatives I won't bore you with that the only reason she didn't sign it was that Nazis give her the screaming meemies and she won't touch anything even peripherally connected with the Holocaust, and never mind the larger bestseller list. Since then, I've had several other reads/rejections, all of which have been wiggy, evasive variations of what I call the "Hot Potatoe Two-Step".... I don't draw any conclusions from this other than most gatekeepers prefer their teen danger to take place in a safely remote wading pool with a lifeguard on duty and don't have the sales skills to handle anything better. It always takes time to land a book of whatever kind, but as Dr. Lector observed, "I have Oodles..." I wish your endeavor success by all means, but caution against assuming any kind of sinister agenda in the industry; God knows I've seen lots of empty rhetoric about "diversity" from agents who don't have any in their list, but be of good cheer-they ain't prejudiced, just shallow. Try to cultivate as much emotional distance from your work as possible-otherwise it's going to be a long, strange, and queasy trip...........Peace out.

Posted : Mar 26, 2015 12:16

Zetta Elliott

Hi, Kevin. Thanks for the encouragement and for taking the time to share your own experience. I agree with you about "whims" in publishing, but I do have to insist upon the fact of racism as well. It could be implicit bias, as defined in the recent PBS documentary American Denial: But whether the racism is conscious or not, we can't ignore the fact that 90% of the people working in publishing are white and 90% of the books for kids feature white children. The bias is real and there's history to it--I recommend John Kevin Young's book Black Writers, White Publishers:

Posted : Mar 28, 2015 06:57


I enjoyed your article (came over here by way of DEAR AUTHOR) I'm another indie author of color, and I'm so glad I made the leap. I'm going to link to your post on my site, because it needs to be shared. I can only speak for myself, but self-publishing has afforded me the opportunity to buy film equipment. My next step is indie film making. But it all starts with the written word on paper. My very best to you, and please know that what you're doing is greatly appreciated.

Posted : Mar 25, 2015 05:09

Zetta Elliott

That's amazing, Onyx! I feel like I've been creeping towards film for a while now but haven't taken the leap--you've inspired me to think about it some more. I do find that once you take control of the production and distribution of your art, so many other things seem possible... Good luck with all of your projects!

Posted : Mar 28, 2015 06:44

Maggie Lynch

First, I have to say your cover is beautiful and the story of The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun is one that transcends race and can easily appeal to the mainstream. That makes me wonder if the reason the book was not accepted was because of the illustrations featuring a black character. If that is the case, I am truly sad for all children. In terms of self-publishing, I would encourage you to take your desire to have your voice heard as a badge of commitment and that self-publishing is the way to control that. As you may be aware, there are many bestselling novelist who are living traditional publishing and self-publishing now because they have realized the importance of control over their books, their message, and their writing life. Though it is true that some of the gatekeepers--those who publish literary reviews and award prizes--still turn their nose up at self-publishing, there are others who are coming around. More important is that the majority of readers do not pay attention to those gatekeepers. To gain market share, I encourage you to band together with others in your genre with an agreement to cross promote titles, or to join an author cooperative where you can gain better access to bookstores and libraries through shared goals and networks. The publishing game has always been tough. Traditional publishers have always looked for the "guarantee of financial success" first and that has gotten even more that way in the past decade. I have had careers in both traditional and self-publishing. I personally believe that self-publishing is the more satisfying approach both for the soul as well as the pocketbook. Writing is a solitary pursuit. However, marketing and distribution is best done with others. I hope you find your group. I would be happy to talk to you privately about options that maintain your self-publishing control yet provide group marketing opportunities.

Posted : Mar 20, 2015 01:40

Zetta Elliott

Thanks for your encouragement, Maggie. I'm heading to California next month to meet with other indie authors about forming a possible collective; indie authors/presses really do need to stick together and support one another. As for The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun, I was thrilled with my illustrator's depiction of a dark-skinned Black girl but when I submit manuscripts, there are no accompanying illustrations. Publishers probably did reject the story because it was about a Black family even though people of all races were impacted by 9-11 (though you wouldn't know it from looking at the available picture books).

Posted : Mar 20, 2015 06:24

LS Bergman

Thank you Zetta! As an IndieAuthor from the Caribbean, now living in Germany; I can completely identify with your article. Having dwelt upon the embededness of race in my historical romantic novels set in the Caribbean of the late nineteenth century ( - you come up against the same hesitancy to publish. Publishers do not want to go there necessarily. So, I say, stay positive and self-publish, raise your game, and do it anyway, because a good story deserves to be told irrespective of the gatekeepers. Thanks again for your inciteful observations, and best wishes to you!

Posted : Mar 19, 2015 12:02

Zetta Elliott

Thanks for the encouragement, LS--I'm glad you found a way around the gatekeepers!

Posted : Mar 19, 2015 11:52

Gary Taaffe

Zetta I’m a white Australian author. The hero of my series is a 13 year old Aboriginal boy. I set out to show a wonderful side to the Aboriginal people who are usually maligned in my country. There is no anger, angst or politics in this series, just black and white doing their best to live together. It’s a very uplifting series for boys and girls and as such, they’re very popular in schools right across Australia. In fact, many schools have bought full sets to give to each and every student in the school, using the Governments Aboriginal Education budget. Teachers like them because students can learn about Aboriginal traditions and customs in a light-hearted story that kids can relate to, which is very different to everything else out there. I seem to have found a voice that resonates right now. I’m self-published and wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, I’m way beyond the argument and see it as a waste of my time and energy. I’m an entrepreneur. I can write what I want, when I want and market it any way I choose. Gatekeepers don’t rule my world. I sell direct to schools, libraries and the public and I do very well out of it. I recognise that my books are not mainstream, they fall into a niche. So I market to that niche only. I don’t try to market to those who are not interested in my stories. My niche appreciates me and I find that very fulfilling. Authors with books like yours and mine should work together. To package our books in sets and to promote each others’ works. Our niche seems a little disjointed. If you or anyone else wants to get together somehow, then get in touch through my website I’m giving away the first four books in my series here if you’re interested in checking them out:

Posted : Mar 19, 2015 04:18

Jeremy Kester

Incredible piece. Thank you for that perspective.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 10:30

Zetta Elliott

Thanks, Jeremy!

Posted : Mar 19, 2015 08:02

Susanne Bayes Carlisle

I must say although I empathize, I have a writing degree and I know that I will self-publish when the time comes. We have an author here in town who makes $3-4k a month self-publishing. I have learned more from her about how to make a living as a writer than I did in my two years obtaining my degree which completely and totally ignored self-publishing. It's tough to get published no matter who you are or what your skin color is. If you think writing is hard, that's because it is. It just is. Either way, this is a brilliant insightful article and I'll tell you one thing right now: no stigma here. Anyone who thinks--like your facebook friend--does not work as a writer.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 09:06

Zetta Elliott

You're right, Susan--there's no stigma to self-publishing when you know the system is rigged and largely inefficient. It IS hard for all writers to get published, but I have to insist that writers of color face specific challenges that most white writers do not. I blogged about this over at The Rejectionist: I'm glad you've found an indie author to serve as a mentor--having guidance and support helps a lot.

Posted : Mar 19, 2015 07:50

Guinevere Thomas

Excellent piece! Zetta Elliot is always shedding much necessary light on this subject. It's the reason why I'll continue to support her and all her efforts to bring books that feature topics the "mainstream" world isn't talking about.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 06:06

Zetta Elliott

Thanks, Guinevere! You and Libertad are doing such important work by reviewing indie books and shining a spotlight on indie authors. Everyone should learn more about Diverse Book Tours and your fantastic blog:

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 06:21

Zetta Elliott

Thanks, Guinevere. I left a comment earlier with links to your blog but it seems to be gone. You and Libertad do so much to shine a light on diverse indie authors--thanks for all you do at the Twinjas blog.

Posted : Mar 19, 2015 07:45

Kathy Ishizuka

Thank you, Zetta, for a great piece, which we plan to bring into print.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 05:10

Zetta Elliott

That's wonderful! Thanks so much, Kathy. As so many others have remarked, this essay wouldn't have appeared in this form without brave editors who were willing to take a chance on me.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 06:11


Thanks for this thoughtful look at the self-publishing option. I particularly like the idea of the partnership of libraries with self-published authors. That's an exciting idea and a new one to me. I was very sad to hear you consider yourself a failed writer on the evidence of only 3 traditionally published stories in 15 years. I've been trying seriously to write for a few years longer than that and in that time I've never met a writer who took less than 10 years of serious daily effort at the craft of writing to break into the traditionally published market. Most take more like 12-15 years to see the first publication of their work. When my first book came out in 2009 I had a cohort of 22 who also had debut MG & YA books that year. 6 years later only half of us have managed to get a second book traditionally published. I don't say this to in any way diminish your experience of exclusion for so many of your stories. I think the big players in the book world suffer (and have made you suffer) from a kind of data blindness. They have oodles of numbers at their fingertips about what has sold well from them in the past. They have people whose sole job it is to mine that "data" for the secret to the next big thing. But that data will only bring them to the thousandth iteration of Fancy Nancy or Wimpy Kid. It won't ever lead them to discover the next great work of children's literature. I hope that you will always think of yourself as a successful creator of literature regardless of your publishing category. The happy truth you've demonstrated is that you don't need a big publisher to succeed. The sadder truth, that I suspect time will soon reveal, is that the big publisher needs you to succeed. I hope they find the courage to look away from the phantom of past sales data and see the literature they are missing. The literature that will serve the majority of reading children in the future.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 11:56

Zetta Elliott

Hi, Rosanne. Thanks for your thoughtful response. By *industry standards* I'm a failed author, but you're right--each writer can redefine her idea of success. If I can reach one child who felt invisible before seeing herself mirrored in the cover of my books, then I'm happy. That does mean having other income streams, which can be a real challenge. But I know I will continue to write whether or not I win any awards or sell thousands of books. Publishers always look for "comps" but many of us are writing books that are truly distinct and have no precedent; the industry needs to embrace innovation and stop trying to preserve its existing model, which fails to serve so many.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 06:09

Valerie Haynes Perry

Dear Zetta, As an African-American writer who has self-published five books going on six, I find your article timely and thought provoking. As long as we describe and regard one another as "white," "black," "Asian," "Latina/(o)," and so on, there will be a need to depict people of color, specifically, in books. Sadly and with great disappointment, too many negative distinctions are perceived between various racial and ethnic groups for a child of color to feel positively represented in books that illustrate white children, only. Books represent mirrors for all readers: when a black person looks at their reflection, they do not see a white person and vice versa. To be honest, I try to put these issues behind me in order to maintain focus on improving my skills, and expanding my readership. Yet, I thank you for raising this important matter. Like many writers, I sent out at least 100 query letters without being offered representation by agents. The consistent response was, "You write so well, but I don't know how to sell this." Traditional publishers are offering less support to writers in general. Editors are primarily salespeople who lack the skills to improve manuscripts. "Success" is subject to all kinds of definitions. If a writer masters craft; does their best; completes work; takes himself or herself seriously; develops a meaningful body of work; and connects with an audience, that is certainly valuable regardless of how her or his work is published. I equate these values with success.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 10:19

Zetta Elliott

Congratulations on your books, Valerie! I heard the same thing over and over: "You write beautifully, but there's no market for this." As if markets are organic and not shaped, developed over time. African Americans have immense spending power but children's publishers refuse to market books to those readers. That's how I know it's not really about money or merit--it's about power. I'm glad you've taken back your power--good luck with all your books!

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 06:03


Great article, Zetta. For a good way to get a review in PW, submit to and then I'm sure the books will be put into libraries.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 08:30

Zetta Elliott

Thanks, Greg. I'll definitely look into Do you know anything about the diversity of the reviewers? You've probably seen Malinda Lo's series on reviewers' resistance to diversity in YA:

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 06:00


Zetta, thank you so much for writing this piece. I've shared it happily on twitter, and I hope it gets read as widely as possible! I've seen and faced the challenges myself, and was on the verge of self-publishing after being on submission for two years, when Month9Books expressed interest. I'm glad that there are many venues for writers now, but I do see the disadvantage marginalized writers who choose to write marginalized narratives face. It is an uphill battle. But we keep on.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 08:08

Zetta Elliott

Thanks, Cindy--you're the Twitter queen! I'm too slow to operate effectively on Twitter so I appreciate all the tweets and retweets (keep me posted on the "Moving from the Margins" summit). I'm glad you found a receptive press. I do think many writers of color feel pressured to change their narratives in order to "stay in the game." It's reassuring to know that self-publishing enables marginalized writers to hold onto & share their "organic" writing.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 05:56

I. W. Gregorio

Kudos to Zetta for an incredibly articulate, rousing article - and to SLJ for the wisdom to publish it. I think that the argument for POC to self-publish is incredibly strong for the reasons you mentioned, and I am trying to brainstorm ways to support these books and give them the audience they deserve. I'll be pondering this for a long time, thanks to this article.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 07:50

Zetta Elliott

Thanks, I.W. So many people want to promote diversity in kid lit but don't think about the ways they may be placing additional barriers in the path of struggling writers of color. I really appreciate that you're taking time to think about the problems and possible solutions.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 05:52

Amy Cheney

p.s. THANK YOU for the dark skinned girl on the cover of the Girl Who Swallowed the Sun! That is fantastic, and again, NOT DONE in the publishing world. People, where have you seen the full color of the spectrum of people of color on the cover!

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 02:09

Zetta Elliott

Amy! Thank you for taking the time to read my essay and write such a thoughtful, useful response. I have a book for you (An Angel for Mariqua) and have written elsewhere about the need for books about the 2.7 million US kids with an incarcerated parent. I will definitely be in touch--and thank you for drawing attention to the rampant colorism in children's literature.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 02:44

Amy Cheney

great zetta!! looking forward to it. I have been aware of you and the great work you do for years, so glad to finally connect 'in person'

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 03:53

Amy Cheney

Zetta, Thank you, thank you for this brilliant and forthright essay. I truly appreciate you laying everything out so clearly and eloquently. I am with you. I want to make sure you know about "In the Margins" and YA Underground. The first is an award that we created 2 years ago to find, review and honor books by, for and about kids in a cycle of poverty, custody control and homelessness. As you know, due to systematic racism, these kids are predominately African American and Latino. In any case, we brought to light the book Juvenile In Justice by Richard Ross - an incredibly important book that I reviewed for Adult Books for Teens column as well as YA Underground, and that then won the Alex Award!!! Ironically, after it won, ALA/YALSA/someone made a rule that self published titles could not win these awards. Mike, (above) I am very glad you are rethinking your biases about this! In any case, In the Margins works to find, review, discuss these self published titles and also to nurture authors into realms where libraries can purchase their books. I'd like to say, however, that those realms - i.e. Ingram's, Baker and Taylor, etc, all involve limited returns and are not friendly to self-published authors. The systematic exclusion of people of color in the publishing, reviewing, awarding and distribution industries makes our libraries anemic at the very least.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 02:00

Kiera Parrott

Thank you, Zetta for sparking this much-needed discussion. And thanks to all the commenters who've added their voices so far. As the book review editor here at SLJ, I'm incredibly interested in these conversations. I don't think it's self-serving (too much) to take this opportunity put out a call for librarians interested in reading and evaluating all kinds of materials for kids and teens--including self-published and indie works. If that describes you, I'd love to chat (

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 12:54

Zetta Elliott

This all started because of something progressive you tweeted, Kiera--I can't recall what the remark was, but I was encouraged enough to reach out to you with a proposal on behalf of indie authors of color. Thank you (and Sarah, and Shelley) for making SLJ a welcoming space for a range of writers, opinions, and ideas. THAT is true diversity/equity.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 02:37

Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Thank you for this brave and honest essay, Zetta. I also appreciate School Library Journal's decision to publish it and give voice to writers who have chosen to publish outside the corporate mainstream. I am glad these options exist and am proud to be one of the reviewers who will consider self-published books. At The Pirate Tree, we review children's books by and about people of color and also books that address social justice issues. In the years I've reviewed books that address social justice, I have found certain boundaries and topics that appear to be "beyond the pale." I applaud Zetta's efforts to bring some of those issues to light. These include not only the ones stated in the essay but also novels like her wonderful (and well-loved by kids) Max Loves Muñecas, which portrays boys who make dolls and children affected by authoritarianism, dispossession and poverty in Central America.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 12:43

Zetta Elliott

You have every reason to be proud, Lyn! It has meant a lot to me that you have reviewed my books for The Pirate Tree. You're an esteemed member of the kid lit community, and I hope other reviewers will embrace your commitment to social justice.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 02:34

Mike Jung

I've been making attempts to involve myself in pro-diversity work, most notably as a member of the We Need Diverse Books team (and I should note that I'm not speaking as a representative of WNDB, but rather stating opinions which are mine and mine alone), and I have been and will continue to focus my own efforts on building a career as a traditionally published author, but it now occurs to me that my comfort in doing so is based at least partly in my unwillingness to view self-publication through a lens of complete legitimacy or social importance. Thinking of self-publication as a community-based publishing model isn't a new thought for me, but thinking of self-publication as an arena in which to actively, productively defy the publishing industry's embedded biases and unspoken demands for assimilation IS. It isn't that I haven't heard that argument before, but my previous interpretations of that argument have always been shaped by thoughts of frustration thresholds, work ethic, or procedural dissidence. I must confess that I've been one of those people who perceive self-publication with a significant degree of skepticism. There are people I deeply respect who pursue it, and that's provoked some change in my feelings about self-publication, but only a limited amount. I've tended to view those people as outliers, and I've also been inclined to view their success almost exclusively on economic terms. After reading this, however, it's impossible to dismiss the idea that there are far bigger, far more important things to weigh when thinking and talking about self-publication. It seems I may have to internalize the knowledge that I've been, at least partly, and maybe grossly, wrong.

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 10:10

Zetta Elliott

Thanks for keeping an open mind, Mike. I've certainly felt like an outsider both within the mainstream publishing industry and among those diversity advocates who are more liberal than radical. If we truly value diversity, I hope we can all try to remain open to the range of options/ideas/possibilities when it comes to creating a more just system.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 02:31


Thank you SLJ for publishing a much desired voice in this industry & culture. I appreciate your boldness, Zetta, and your excellence as an educator. You leave me troubled, yet hopeful; a fine state in which to contemplate the actions I need to--and will--take.

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 08:11

Zetta Elliott

Thanks, L. I'm heartened to know that you're already planning to ACT. Too many people become paralyzed in the face of injustice, but we CAN create change.

Posted : Mar 18, 2015 02:18

dana alison levy

I'm so glad to have read this, and glad that SLJ published it. This offers information, critique, hope, and perspective in one thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. Thank you Zetta, for sharing your story, both here and in your books.

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 07:09

Zetta Elliott

Thanks, Dana. There's so much potential for growth and change in publishing right now. I hope others who read this piece will feel hopeful, too.

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 08:47

Edith Campbell

Zetta, You offer little space for doubt in the opportunities of self publishing. I like that you mention what libraries have begun to do to empower our communities.

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 05:56

Zetta Elliott

Thank you, Edi, for sharing articles with me about libraries and self-publishing. It's a natural fit and I hope more library systems will consider how they can promote writing and publishing in their communities.

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 06:54

L. M. Davis

Fires, thank you for the data that you have presented here. They provide an important context for what we see in brick and mortar and virtual bookstores. Second, I really needed to read this. I am in a doubting space right now, so it's good to read things that help me know that I am a part of a collective movement to provide alternatives.

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 04:22

Zetta Elliott

Don't give up! If I hadn't discovered the CCBC statistics, all my stories would still be sitting on my hard drive. Self-publishing doesn't close any doors--I really believe that. I have a picture book coming out with a small press next year; I have little control over that project, and so self-publishing allows me to call the shots on the editing, design, and illustration of my other books. Stay open to all the possibilities!

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 06:59

Philip Nel

Great piece, Zetta! Also, very, very helpful for me, personally — I'm writing a chapter on this very subject, and will be able to cite your essay. Not incidentally, I cite you a number of times in this book-in-progress. So. Thank you!

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 04:11

Zetta Elliott

Thank you for being such a staunch ally, Phil, and for taking these issues into account as you theorize about children's literature. You were one of the only allies who called out white supremacy when you blogged about Ferguson--I won't forget that.

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 04:55

Philip Nel

Thank YOU, Zetta. I'm honored to be considered an ally. And I'm grateful for your work, and the work of so many others.

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 06:51

Kori D. Miller

This is one of the best essays I've read, on this subject, in quite a long time. Publishing a well-reasoned, thoughtful essay, about something that matters, is the right thing to do. And, this is the right time to do it. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, "You don't get cookies for doing the right thing."

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 03:34

Zetta Elliott

Thanks, Kori! I'm looking forward to talking with you tomorrow at

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 04:44

Zetta Elliott

Debbie and Ebony are members of my incredible community of authors/educators/artists/activists, and I couldn't do anything without their support. I want to echo their sentiment---the editors at School Library Journal showed real courage in publishing my essay. Yesterday I learned a new term, "white fragility," which explains the silence and/or dismissal I generally face when I speak my truth. Scholar Robin DiAngelo describes it is “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering [in whites] a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” I'm grateful for true allies within the kid lit community. They're rare, but they're there! You can read an interview with DiAngelo here:

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 02:20

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

Like Debbie, I am also writing to thank SLJ for publishing this insightful essay. As always, Zetta's voice is a much-needed clarion call for change in the children's publishing industry and for those of us who work in schools and libraries. I will be sharing this with my students at Penn, and with interested colleagues in reading, literacy, and English education.

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 12:58

Debbie Reese

This is excellent. Thanks, SLJ, for publishing it, and thank you, Zetta, for your words and all those links, too. There's a lot here to ponder as we move forward.

Posted : Mar 17, 2015 12:47



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