Kellie Magnus and Telling Our Stories

Kellie Magnus reads Little Lion, no doubt to adoring fans. (Image from Diane Browne's Blog)

Last weekend I chatted with Kellie Magnus about the recent Kingston Book Festival (KBF), the Caribbean publishing industry…and when we’ll be able to enjoy the next Little Lion book.  I’d wanted to chat with Kellie before KBF but as the event’s main coordinator Kellie was knee deep in final preparations for what turned out to be a successful event.  Most importantly, KBF’s success and Kellie’s many other activities ensure that the conditions are…right…for Jamaicans to tell their stories, about or featuring Jamaica and otherwise.  And that’s so important, that we tell our stories…or else others else will tell them for us, through their lens using their voices.  As Christopher John Farley noted during this year’s KBF: whoever tells the story creates its meaning.

I first met Kellie when she travelled to New York to promote her first Little Lion book.  At the time I was simply happy to be able to buy a book with Jamaican characters for my nephew who was just learning to read.  It wasn’t until later on, through the magic of Twitter and a couple of in-person meetings while I visited Jamaica, that I began to pay more attention to the work that Kellie was doing not only on her own books but also for the Jamaican publishing industry.  Her most recent efforts culminated in a successful Kingston Book Festival: 9 days and 24 events meant to “Celebrate the Arts” and explore all aspects of the book trade.  Because the KBF is hosted by the Book Industry Association of Jamaica (BIAJ), the Festival is able to offer everything from school tours to author readings to panels on the business of books.  The latter is so important because, after all, publishers however much they’re interested in publishing interesting books must also publish books that will sell.  The BIAJ is also able to partner with other organizations, which is helpful considering that the KBF is entirely organized by a small team of volunteers.  With Kellie as head cook and bottle washer, a team of 9 volunteers planned 9 days of well-attended and insightful events.  All 24 events were produced on a small budget and many with the help of partners, such as the National Library of Jamaica, the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, and the JCDC.  Yet the KBF planning team is only in a brief rest mode before beginning to plan for next year’s event, which is a milestone one: 25 years of the BIAJ.

Kingston Book Festival, held annually in March in Jamaica. (Image from KBF's twitter page)

Kingston Book Fest, held annually in March in Jamaica. (Image from KBF’s twitter page)

The KBF began in the 1980s as a book fair but it petered out until 2011 when a BIAJ board member was approached by Chris Issa with an idea for a partnership: use his hotel – Spanish Court – as a base to market both the hotel and Kingston.  That turned into a revival of the BIAJ’s previous book fairs when in 2011 they took up the hotelier’s invitation and did a small event at the Spanish Court hotel to gauge interest.  By 2012 the book fair was back – held at Emancipation Park – along with a full week of events.  Support and expectations grew during those two years so 2013’s KBF happened on a wave of good momentum.  Unlike Calabash — that popular festival focused on literary fiction, o when will it be back? — and T&T’s Bocas Lit Fest, the KBF covers a wider range of issues in the book industry because it is hosted by the BIAJ.  And that broad focus has is helpful for invigorating all kinds of readers, writers and publishers.  Already there is talk of a new publishing imprint being formed and this year Jamaican publishers were able to meet with U.S.-based publishers and are exploring the possibility of getting books sold in the U.S.  The latter is so important because, as Kellie notes, forming networks to facilitate distribution and publishing deals is important.  Kellie also points out that though Twitter and other virtual meetings places provide a good opportunity to introduce people quickly and easily, there is tremendous value in getting people into a room to meet, greet, and talk.  And, just as importantly, attendees can see all the books published and available.  There are so many books and there’s nothing like seeing most of them in one space.  Currently, the KBF is the only book festival in the Caribbean that includes this business focus, which is an advantage.  KBF’s broad focus is also a good springboard for maximizing the potential of the Caribbean market; after all there are French, Spanish, Dutch-speaking Caribbean people all eager for a broad literary diet.  But they have to be able to access the books…and most importantly we Caribbean people must write what can be published.

Maybe — and I see no reason why not — one day the KBF can be something like the London Book Fair?  Hmm…yes, why not?

Kellie here as one of The PSOJ's 50 outstanding Jamaicans under 50.  She was recognized as one of The Educators. (Image: The Jamaica Gleaner)

Kellie here as one of the PSOJ’s 50 outstanding Jamaicans under 50. She was recognized as one of The Educators. (Image: The Jamaica Gleaner)

A consistent theme in my chat with Kellie was that educating writers about the business of books is critical.  KBF provides an excellent forum for this: authors can come to an event to read or present their book ideas and can learn about what publishers look for in book proposals.  The 2013 KBF included a seminar facilitated by JAMPRO that was a primer on the book industry.  Not only was the session useful for authors — and future KBFs may include workshops on nitty-gritty topics like publishing contracts, editing your work, and how the industry works (things like royalties and publishing rights) — but it was also useful for investors.  As much as authors need to know about what makes a book salable  investors also need to understand that publishers need capital.  During that session, Ian Randle Publishers shared the long process for securing the Caribbean rights to Usain Bolt’s biography…seems like a no-brainer for the Caribbean right?  Well it takes money too to make it happen.  Conversely, how would a Jamaican author sell his or her rights internationally?  Authors must also know where their content will be valuable.  So, related to education about the industry’s workings and capitalization is that authors must know what content has appeal, locally and globally.  

This year’s KBF also took authors and others in publishing into Jamaica’s schools…where they met many young, opinionated Jamaicans who were not shy about what they wanted to read.  So any Jamaicans out there thinking of writing a YA novel?  It’s this kind of unstructured interaction and the feedback generated that’s important for an event like the KBF, and the feedback is being circulated to authors and the wider industry so that folks have a fuller idea of what’s wanted, what’s needed, and what will sell.  A Champs or sci-fi or fantasy rolling calf YA novel anyone, Kellie prods?  Remember, many people passed on a book about a boy wizard that was written by a young single mother from Scotland.  Books about a pale boy who sparkles and the girl who loves him have taken the U.S. over.  And there’s a series of books all the rage about a wimpy kid and a little Rasta boy who loves to play cricket.  I mean, I just learned this past weekend that my older nephew, about whom my sister was despairing regarding his interest in reading, lost her in the bookstore…when she found him he was in a corner, shoes off, totally engrossed in a book about that wimpy kid.  Simple, attractive, well done content wins…but we must write them.  We must tell our stories.

Additionally, Kellie points out that Jamaican authors simply to speak.  How?  Well not every book has to be about the Jamaican experience, Jamaican history, or be set in Jamaica or Jamaican society…sure those are fine (and needed) but, remember, simply telling a good story and telling that story well are important.  Simple, well done content.  And I wholeheartedly agree with her…telling a good story is part of telling our story; use your words and your voice.  And before you ask, we did talk about blogging and how that figures into the 21st century publishing landscape.  Kellie agrees that it’s a way for writers to get exposure for their work but she isn’t aware of any blog-to-publishing-deal stories…and she noted that publishers need to be more aware of blogs as a source of talent.  We also talked about competitions as a way for authors to get exposure and feedback on their material.  Kellie immediately gushed about Roland Watson-Grant (@sketchernovel) whose debut novel “Sketcher” will publish in May…and is being published as a direct result of his entering a competition with a short story version of the novel, being short-listed, and parlaying that into a publishing deal.  She commends Roland for his “singularly good voice,” “good writing,” and for taking advantage of the opportunities that have come his way since the competition.  Maybe not everyone will score a deal but surely these literary and writing competitions are useful for getting exposure and recognition for their work.  Consider Jamaica’s Diana McCaulay and Diane Browne who have won writing competitions and received added exposure for their work.

little lion at batAnother project that Kellie is working on  — Carib Lit — will be also improve the ability Caribbean people to get their stories published.  Carib Lit will be a regional facilitator for authors, publishers, and other actors in the industry to know about each other.  The Carib Lit database will feature listings of, among other things, bookstores by island, publishers and bookstores by genre (for example, some stores or publishers might only publish children’s literature), and Caribbean book festivals.  The website will be launched in April at the 2013 Bocas Lit Festival.  And, after that, there are the BIAJ Book Awards in November and then the short break for the KBF team is over because it”ll be time to buckle down with KBF 2014 planning.  

But what about Little Lion?  With all that Kellie has on her plate Little Lion was temporarily set aside but she’s on track to publish 2 more books in the series this year.  She’ll also be publishing another book titled “You Can’t Just Read This Book,” a children’s book that will combine reading with physical activity.  One particular interaction during KBF 2013 reemphasized for Kellie why she’s a Caribbean author — and brought home why events like KBF are important for the future of writing and publishing in Jamaica: she was on a school tour, introducing authors to excited students when one of the authors there told a student that the author of the Little Lion books was Kellie.  Kellie fondly recalled how impressed the student was at learning that she’d written about Little Lion and how delighted the student was to meet a real author.  We both chuckled remembering that the books we read when we were younger were written by authors who we had no chance of meeting and often didn’t look like us, like Enid Blyton.  So yes, for that child and others on the school tours, the authors of the books they read are not all foreign, dead, or both.  That, I think, is why Kellie takes on so much but excels at getting those tasks done: yes because she enjoys it, but also for children like that student who now know what an author looks like, that an author can look like him or her, so that the many budding readers will have lots to choose from…and so that the budding authors out there will have the right conditions and access to the resources and knowledge to be able to tell their stories.

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