Cheryl Willis Hudson
Editorial Director Just Us Books, Inc.
Tell us about Just Us Books, Inc. What does your company stand for and how does it differentiate itself from others in the marketplace?
Just Us Books, Inc. is an independent press that publishes Black-interest books for young people. We publish concept books, picture books, chapter books, poetry, non-fiction, biographies, and young adult fiction. We are a full service company, as are the majority of larger commercial children’s book publishers. That is, we do every thing from acquiring and editing manuscripts, giving them creative direction, to handling the production, manufacturing, promotion, distribution and sales of our titles.
We are committed to publishing the best children’s literature possible and our titles appeal to children and adults of all backgrounds and ethnicities. African-American history, culture and children, however, are the centerpieces of our publishing program. I think what distinguishes us from others in the marketplace is the level of our commitment to reflecting authenticity in our titles through the voices of our authors and the vision of our illustrators. These authors and illustrators and editors create from their own experiences as people of African descent. Our publishing policy and practice encourages us to tell our own stories.
Prior to the establishment of our company, other houses published African- American literature within their lists but did not give these titles special attention. Just Us Books responds to a hunger and a need from the African-American community to see more of our lives and interests reflected within children’s books that are being published as a whole. The themes of our books are universal but they reflect a sensibility that is unique to an African-American experience.
Wade Hudson and yourself are the founders of Just Us Books. How did this partnership come about and what does the future hold?
Just Us Books, Inc. was founded by my husband and myself in 1988 and we’ve just celebrated 16 years in business together. Actually, the name of our company reflects the fact that it was just the two of us who started the
business: Wade is a writer and has a public relations background and I am a graphic designer. Before we started our company we had created stories for our two children that were a reflection of our community. They were stories populated by children who looked like them. Although there were some African American books available for children, there were not nearly enough to meet our needs and demands. We thought there should be many more titles that reflected the variety and diversity within the Black experience.
Prior to forming our own company, Wade and I had collaborated on several book ideas and proposals that were turned down by a number of trade publishers. Because the focus was culturally specific, i.e. AFRO-BETS® ABC BOOK, the editors who responded to our proposals, for the most part, did not see a viable market for Black interest books. They thought that “Black titles would not sell,” and that Black parents would not buy books for their children. Our personal experience was quite the opposite. Our friends, who were also parents, were always looking for children’s books that featured children who looked like their own, but they could almost never find relevant titles. Many of the Black interest books published at that time were biographies. Some of the stories promoted stereotypes or unflattering images of Black people.
In the USA, February is Black History Month. The few Black interest books that were published were made available in libraries and bookstores during that month. Wade and I knew there was a need to have African-American literature available all year round. We also felt there was a need for real-life and contemporary stories rather than solely standard biographical treatments of the same historical personalities who were presented over and over again.
After rejections from major publishers, we decided to self-publish. The successful publication of our first title, AFRO-BETS® ABC Book, which sold 5,000 copies in less than 4 months time, convinced us that we could do more and our press, Just Us Books, Inc. was born in 1988. We followed the AFRO-BETS® ABC Book with AFRO-BETS® 123 Book and our all time best seller, AFRO-BETS® Book of Black Heroes From A to Z. Our first picture book, Bright Eyes, Brown Skin, followed soon afterward, and it has become a favorite for the pre-school set. It’s clear that Just Us Books has succeeded in establishing a strong presence within the publishing industry with both the quality of our titles and our aggressive marketing and post-publication support. Not only have we published veteran authors and illustrators, but we’ve also introduced new talent to the field. Other major publishers have taken note and followed suit. So here we are and we continue. Now some larger publishers have established imprints dedicated to African-American titles.
How does Just Us Books Inc compare to rival publishers in terms of advances and royalty fees?
Our company matches industry standards in terms of royalties. Our advances vary depending on the author, illustrator and level of experience. I would say that for the most part our advances are modest. Many of our authors and illustrators however, appreciate the modest advances because their books remain in print and yield good returns over the long haul.
You are inundated with submissions on a daily basis. How do you filter through these and what would make a submission stand out from the crowd?
We pay careful attention to all manuscript submissions whether solicited or not. Typically, those that stand out have short, cover letters, and a clear focus. These manuscripts are neatly typed, are proofread and show some knowledge or familiarity of our publishing program. Non-fiction titles are well researched and fiction submissions reveal a unique voice. The stories are child-friendly and read well silently as well as aloud. Outstanding entries are well written; show attention to craft and respect for the reading audience. They are not simply cutesy, stereotypical or throwaway stories. They do not reinforce racial stereotypes. Since we hear from agents as well as individual writers and illustrators a query letter is preferred to a complete manuscript. Currently, we are looking for contemporary YA fiction. Two years ago we were looking for chapter books for middle readers. In the future we will be looking for picture books. We have a very small staff so this process requires patience.
A sure-fired turn off for our editorial review board is an impatient, first-time author who wants an immediate response. This author calls or emails us frequently to check his or her manuscript’s status; wants referrals to another publisher who can help him or her faster than we can, and is looking for large advances because he or she knows “we can make a
lot of money from this book.” We encourage aspiring writers to visit our website and review our guidelines before contacting us. Always send that SASE for return of the manuscript.
What should a first time author expect once a manuscript has been accepted?
After a manuscript has been accepted, a first time author can expect to have a close working relationship with our staff. He or she may be asked to re-work certain portions of the script. The author will see working layouts of the book and will be expected to respond to sketches and the whole illustration process if it is a picture book. He or she may be asked to rewrite once illustrations have been commissioned. There will be meetings and conferences with the assigned editor, review of pages, review of copyedits, marketing data, review of cover art, etc. If the work is nonfiction, the author will be expected to provide leads and documentation for the visuals. Just Us Books is a very hands-on company and we tell all of our first time authors that publishing is a process, not an event. Although we consult with the author and illustrator during every phase of the process, the final decisions are ultimately the publisher’s. A minimum of nine months is generally required for production and sometimes it takes as long as two years from the date of acceptance until publication. Most of all, a first time author should expect to do a lot of waiting. The birth of the book, however, is usually a beautiful thing. We give our authors a lot of tender, loving care and there’s a great deal of follow-up once a book
has been published.
What key industry events do you attend annually and why?
We attend Book Expo, ALA, NEA, NABSE, IRA, The Black Child Development Institute and a variety of other national and local conferences and conventions. Book Expo is the trade show in the US and it’s essential for making contact with bookstores, chains, independents, distributors, other publishers, and industry professionals as a whole. It’s a great place to showcase forthcoming titles. ALA is the national association of librarians and is essential for that market. NEA is a national teachers’ organization.
IRA is a national association of reading professionals. There are other conferences that give us marketing opportunities for specifically African American audiences or niche markets.
What can we expect from Just Us Books Inc in 2005-2006?
We plan to expand our list in the area of young adult fiction and have several titles in the pipeline that are exceptional works. I’m Late, a story by Mari Evans, about teen pregnancy is forthcoming. We will acquire more titles for our SANKOFA imprint. We will introduce more concept books that feature AFRO-BETS® Kids. Robo, Glo, Nandi, Tura, Langston and Stef are the characters who were the basis for our first published books and they will continue to tell their personal stories.
Marketing possibilities via the Internet are tremendous and we will continue to utilize this medium to bring more of our books to a wider audience. Whether that audience is an individual just surfing the web, a parent looking for relevant reading material for a child or a teacher looking for classroom materials in a specific subject area, we will continue to publish Black interest books for that audience. Wade and I and the Just Us Books staff (which now includes our children and other family members) love what we do and we plan to do more of it.
2004 brought about the launch of SANKOFA BOOKS, a Just Us Books imprint. Can you tell us a little about this new imprint and the strategy/reasoning behind it?
We are very proud of the establishment of our SANKOFA imprint. Through SANKOFA Just Us Books is bringing back books that helped to lay the foundation for Black-interest children’s literature, These books are timeless classics—as important, relevant and necessary today as when they were first published. The first four authors we’ve signed are literary leaders and innovators who’ve produced tremendous bodies of work. We see it not only as a responsibility, but an honor to keep books like these in print. SANKOFA (represented by a bird that looks back while walking forward) illustrates the importance of learning from and building on the past to create a better future. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do through this new imprint. In making these books available again, we hope new generations of readers will be inspired to celebrate the diversity of Black history, heroes, and culture—just like their readers were years ago.
There are so many wonderful books by talented writers that are out of print. So we’re bringing back titles by Camille Yarbrough, James Haskins, Robert Miller, Rosa Guy, Mari Evans, Eleanora Tate and others.
This is a very exciting area for us.
What kind of feedback do you get from parents who have bought your books for their children and in what way do these letters influence future projects?
Our favorite words are, “OOOOOh, I love this book!” Whether it comes from a 5 year old, a new parent who is now purchasing Bright Eyes Brown Skin or Jamal’s Busy Day for his or her own children because he or she read it as a child, it feels good to know that our work is appreciated. New parents reinforce the views we had as parents over twenty years ago. Grandparents also have a great appreciation for being able to buy the kinds of books that were never available to them in their own childhoods. Ma Dear’s Old Green House by veteran author Denise Lewis Patrick and the new illustrator, Sonia Lynn Sadler, for example, has gotten rave reviews from young children and grandparents alike. We’d like to publish more beautiful picture books like this that resonate with the positive images and rhythms of Black life.
In many areas of the Black community, Just Us Books is seen as an institution. So, parents feel comfortable sharing many things with us, especially ideas for new titles. When parents told us, for example, that they needed more books that would appeal to boys we published Sharon Draper’s adventure series, Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs and Dwayne Ferguson’s Kid Caramel: Private Investigator. SANKOFA was a response to parents who couldn’t find certain books that were just available only a year or so ago. They want to build their own home libraries with books that have lasting value for their children.
While we can’t do everything that parents and teachers want, we do respond to their feedback. There’s a great need and there’s tremendous talent waiting to be tapped. Our readers have grown with us. The greatest satisfaction for Just Us Books as a publishing company is knowing that we have made a difference.
We’re thankful that our efforts have been so well received are inspired to do a lot more.
Thank you for the opportunity to share some of our story with you.
Cheryl Willis Hudson
Just Us Books, Inc.