Julie Vuong talks to one half Knights Of, a new inclusive children’s indie giving undiscovered talent a seat at their round table
Openness is the theme when I meet Aimée Felone to talk about Knights Of. Described as an inclusive indie for children’s books, and named after the Arthurian legend in which all individuals were given equal voice at the Round Table, the publisher launched in October last year to seek under-represented authors and illustrators willing to tell unheard stories. What they received was an "overwhelming" and "noisy" reception, recording one million hits in a month across all its digital platforms.
Knights Of hits the ground running at a time in publishing when diversity is a - perhaps the - hot topic; but according to Felone, children's books still have a long way to go. Recent projects have sought to address this, from the FAB Prize from Faber, which runs again this year, to short story anthologies such as A Change Is Gonna Come, conceived after an open call-out for BAME writers from the Little Tiger Group. Where Felone and co-founder of Knights Of David Stevens, a former editorial colleague from Scholastic, believed they could make a difference was in books for the middle grade-to-pre-teen audience.
Untapped market, unheard voices
"The emphasis on diversity is invariably on adult, picture books and YA," Felone observes, "but middle grade is most lacking in diverse authors and illustrators." Believing YA is in good hands, thanks to the likes of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan, she is certain Knights Of is right to pursue a younger demographic. "For us it’s about early readers, ages five up to teens; no YA or picture books. Reason being that picture books is a business model neither David nor I know, plus it’s expensive and we don’t have the contacts. YA is where diverse writers are, which is great, leaving middle grade the most-needed area - so we want to bolster that."
Felone, young, ambitious and from south-east London, is the ideal poster-girl for promoting stories that reflect a wider view on the world, including her own. A fan of Jacqueline Wilson and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from a young age, she is driven by her own experience to make a difference. "I don’t think there was an author or character who looked like me growing up, and now I think back, I wonder what kind of impact that could have had."
Not just about BAME
Overall, the children’s sector is buoyant: according to Nielsen BookScan, statistics from 2016 show that one in every three books sold in the UK is a children’s book, while the print market saw an 11.7% increase to a full-year value of £394m. What the figures fail to point out is how few inclusive stories are reaching the next generation. "Knights Of has grown out of the frustration about diversity and inclusion in publishing," Felone says. "We’re not a temporary stop measure, but aiming to do something that effects real change - from the stories we publish to how we hire people and our everyday messages of inclusion."
The focus is not just on ethnicity. "We’re not BAME publishers; we’re more than that," Felone says. "The books we want to publish are commercial first and foremost, and I want to stay away from more niche and issue-driven stories. Diverse does not necessarily mean 'woe is me' tales, but more a diverse range of characters involving gender, social economic backgrounds and disability. Moreover, we forget sometimes that people in the north don’t have access to the same resources as we do in the south, and even I have to acknowledge my own privilege there. We’re trying to be as widespread as possible."
To reap the best results, Knights Of hasn’t sat back and waited for the stories to come through. "We definitely have to look harder for authors," she says. "We’re seeking out talent, rather than just expecting them to fall on our laps. For the past few months we’ve been speaking to agents across the UK and Ireland and realise we can’t rely solely on them to get what we need. That’s why we’re talking to writing groups like New Writing South and New Writing North."
Invitation to the round table
To find unheard voices, Knights Of has had to go down the unconventional in its submissions process. "It’s completely open," Felone says. "We have a live chat on our website where people can pitch ideas, and these come straight to my inbox on my phone. It’s meant to be short, snappy, and from there we decide if we want to see the full manuscript. There’s been a really great response to the live chat; I’ve had authors come to us saying it’s helpful to speak openly about what they need to do." Knights Of is building a hashtag online called #BooksMadeBetter to provide a space for under-represented voices to support one another.
While the pitches fill up Felone’s mailbox, she already has a clear idea of what Knights Of wants. "I’m looking for a UK equivalent of Jamaican-American author Nicola Yoon, and would love to see a younger pre-teen romance with a funny undercurrent. Also, a STEM-based protagonist boy of colour. They usually get put into niche spaces, especially black boys, so I’d love to see an aspirational story rather than your standard inner city one."
Opening up spaces in the business itself has been of great importance to Knights Of. "We’ve committed to giving shadowing roles for everyone in our company," Felone says, "and we’re paying them too. All too often we’re told a person from a BAME background hasn’t got the right experience, so we’re aiming to remedy that." Fair pay and exposure will be granted to Knights Of authors too. "Children’s marketing tends to get forgotten, so we want to show our dedication to our authors by contracting in a minimum marketing spend," Felone reveals. "While this spans traditional areas or marketing, we’re also speaking to faith-based groups, food banks, youth groups, and other spaces where children are engaging in books."
An announcement is due soon regarding Knights Of’s first and only 2018 release, while the goal next year is to bump that up to three and six books a year thereafter. "That’s if we’re still around," Felone laughs. However, she isn’t being wholly flippant. The journey from a steady job at Scholastic to the unknown and unsalaried territory of launching a start-up has been risky, but ultimately rewarding. "At the beginning, I was relying on my own personal funds; I had quite a few sleepless nights," she remembers. "But I was confident, thanks to our financial backers, that the funding would come through. We have a small group of investors, who are interested in the 'why' of what we’re doing. Let’s face it, publishing is a risky business, and you can put all the work in the world into a book without any guarantee of success. But I have no regrets. This is something I’m 100% passionate about."