The Future of Poetry with Kirsty Melville, President & Publisher of Andrews McMeel

Andrews McMeel Publishing is a major player in poetry’s resurgence with a new generation of readers. Their list includes bestselling poets like Rupi Kaur and amanda lovelace (whose most recent title, the mermaid’s voice returns in this one has over 400 reviews on NetGalley). With a focus on young, digitally-engaged poets from all over the world drawing upon their diverse backgrounds and experiences, they connect with audiences who may never have seen themselves reflected in poetry before.

In honor of National Poetry Month, we sat down with Kirsty Melville, President & Publisher of Andrews McMeel. In this interview, she tells us what she thinks is behind poetry’s current boom, where she’s looking for new voices, and what trends she sees on the horizon. She describes how the publishing industry is becoming more responsive to what readers are looking for, and how booksellers can use poetry to engage with new customers.

What do you think accounts for some of the popularity behind popular poetry from a diverse group of poets, especially among millennials?

The impact of technology, really. The ease of being able to connect and communicate online has opened up sharing. The ability for people to share their work online, and to share their books. And then for the books to be available at retail so that [readers are] having an experience online and then able to buy a physical book. Poetry lends itself to the experience of reading in short form online. You have that short, shareable mechanism that something like an Instagram distribution platform provides. It also provides building awareness. People want to read poetry privately and it’s a form of reflection, so you see them purchase the same poetry in a book so they can experience the same work.

One of the things that I’ve found most exciting about the poets that we publish is that it’s a global phenomenon.

One of the things that I’ve found most exciting about the poets that we publish is that it’s a global phenomenon. Lang Leav was this poet we published. She was born in a Thai refugee camp — she’s Cambodian originally, raised in Australia. She started posting her work on Tumblr. I saw that she had this fan base in Asia; young women in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines were reading her work. I saw this community of young women who were totally involved and interested in what Lang had to say.

Young women see themselves reflected in [these] poets. So, you have someone like Rupi who is Punjabi-Canadian and she’s a brown woman. So suddenly brown women are seeing themselves reflected in the work of poets and spoken word artists. And then you have someone like K.Y. Robinson who’s from Houston and who’s African-American. She’s writing work and young women are seeing themselves reflected in her work. Or you have Upile Chisala who’s from Malawi; she’s speaking to African women. I think what’s happening is that the internet is facilitating young people seeing themselves reflected in the writers of today and responding to that.

People can finally have poets who are not dead white men writing about things that are relevant to them. Poetry has always been the form of talking about the meaning of life and expressing emotions around life and loss and trauma and understanding the world. All that’s happened is that the Internet’s facilitated that sharing.

Where are some of the places that you and your team are looking to keep up with emerging voices, emerging trends, or communities that you hadn’t known about before?

I think because I’m Australian, I’ve always had a global outlook. Last year I went to the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. One of our authors, Najwa Zebian, who is Lebanese, was on the panel there. I was fascinated to see the Arab world responding to poetry. Rupi had been there 2 or 3 years ago and had a similar response.

I was in Sydney in Australia and we are publishing a young aboriginal boy who is 13 years old who won the Australian Poetry Slam a year ago called Solli Raphael. And he writes about some of the issues that he, as an aboriginal and indigenous young man growing up in Australia [deals with]. Environmentalism, for example.

I’m looking in communities who haven’t had their worlds expressed.

I think a lot of young people see the world as a place they communicate, so I’m looking everywhere. And I’m looking in communities who haven’t had their worlds expressed. amanda lovelace, the author of the princess saves herself in this one, she has a strong feminist orientation and LGBTQ fan base.

What’s your strategy for moving poetry away from its reputation of being intentionally oblique or rarified, broadening the perception of poetry as something that is for a lot of different kinds of people?

This resurgence in poetry is providing an awareness of the power of poetry in people’s lives. I actually think that we as a culture are committed to poetry as a genre. At Foyles in London you can see Rupi Kaur next to John Keats in the poetry section. It’s bringing more people to poetry, bringing them more to discovery. Once you’ve read one type of poetry it can lead you to another.

Rupi recently wrote an introduction to a Kahil Gibran edition of The Prophet that Penguin Random House is publishing. [Young people are] interested in the genre and people want to write poetry. So there’s this great canon. [But] there’s room for everyone.

What trends do you see emerging in poetry for the rest of 2019 and beyond?

I think a lot of the themes that we’ve seen around feminism and self care and personal expression and identity and immigration.

We’re publishing a book next year with Ahmed Badr who was a refugee who started a platform called Narratio, which is about helping refugees write poetry about their experiences. He’s worked with the United Nations and so he’s been working with refugees to help them express their experiences through poetry. He was an Iraqi refugee who wrote a poem about the experience of having a bomb dropped on his house. He read it at the United Nations. He’s a student at Wesleyan, actually. He had launched this website in part because he wanted to be able to help others write about [the refugee] experience.

Greenpeace has enlisted Solli Raphael to be a spokesperson for their latest video. It’s pretty amazing how young people are embracing spoken word poetry as a means of communicating.

Anything else you’d like more people to know about poetry publishing?

One of the things that I have always been passionate about advocating for is booksellers to bring poetry out front. Young people are going into bookstores and buying poetry. So, poetry in the front. Put it on the cash rack. Have a display! It’s National Poetry Month now, so there probably is. But make poetry relevant again. Bring it back. I think it’s a way of bringing more young people into the stores.

It sounds like what you’re saying is that it’s less about booksellers making poetry relevant, but booksellers realizing that poetry is relevant and that it is what the next generation wants.

Yes, exactly. Poetry has always been there but for some reason gets a bad rap. But if all booksellers could treat poetry the way they treat fiction bestsellers… Put the poetry up front and see what happens! They might sell more than they realize. I think a lot of people are looking to break away from their digital lives and poetry is a form of self-care. I think that the things a lot of people are looking for are for nurturing and reflection and time for themselves. And reading a book of poetry is the way to do that. To be more human again.


Bio: Founding publisher of Simon & Schuster Australia, Kirsty moved to the U.S. in 1994 as Vice President and Publisher for Ten Speed Press and led in its transformation from a niche publisher into an internationally recognized, award-winning company. She subsequently departed Ten Speed to work as Publisher for San Francisco’s University Games, was appointed Publisher and Executive Vice President of Andrews McMeel Publishing in 2005, ultimately being named President and Publisher in 2009.  

Known for best-selling humor, poetry, inspiration, entertainment and children’s books, Andrews McMeel is home to an extraordinary and vibrant selection of writers, artists, poets and comic storytellers. A global, independent, and integrated media partner, Andrew McMeel distributes creator content through global syndication; book, calendar and greeting card publishing; digital consumer experiences; and entertainment licensing. Under her leadership, Andrews McMeel has published many #1 New York Times bestsellers including Milk and Honey and The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur, with more than 7 million copies sold, How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You by Matthew Inman, more than 1 million copies sold, the Big Nate children’s series by Lincoln Peirce, over 5 million copies sold, and Posh puzzle and coloring book program with more than 10 million copies sold.  Since 2013 she has been at the forefront of changing the way poetry is perceived and marketed, helping grow and expand the poetry category for readers worldwide.

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Preeti Chhibber: Making publishing more diverse and dynamic

NetGalley Insights chats with writer and publishing professional Preeti Chhibber on her career path, her mentors, and the other people making publishing a more inclusive industry.

There’s a lot of talk in the publishing industry about efforts to address diversity and inclusivity. We’ve listened to panels all year long from Tech Forum to London Book Fair. Preeti Chhibber is one of the people doing the work to make it happen.

Frankly, she does it all! She points out where the publishing industry is falling short in terms of representation, both at a systemic level and in the titles that are being published. She produces content to make the industry more diverse, like her contribution to A Thousand Beginnings and Endings and her podcast Strong Female Characters. And with her Marginalized Authors & Illustrators database, she is giving publishers no excuse for a lack of diverse hires.

She spoke with NetGalley Insights recently about how her career path evolved, her mentors and collaborators, and the other players who are making publishing a more inclusive and dynamic industry.

Tell us about your career trajectory: What was your path from children’s publishing to being a professional cultural critic and enthusiast, a podcaster, and all-around advocate for a more inclusive pop culture?

It wasn’t so much a path as it was something that happened side by side. My work in children’s publishing inspired my advocacy because I was noticing a trend of our kid lit to be very monochromatic. It was rare to see books by and about people of color. Then I started realizing that we work in an industry where we can affect what is and isn’t published, and if I was going to be vocal about books, why not look at the rest of the media landscape as well? I had a vested interest, after all. In terms of the criticism and podcasting, I’ve always written about pop culture on my own time – I grew up on the internet and in the era of blogging and WordPress, so when I realized I could get paid to do this, I had a portfolio ready to go when I started pitching.

What brought you to book publishing and what were your early days in the publishing industry like? What piqued your interest? What challenges did you face?

Book publishing sort of happened by accident. I don’t mean that in a “I fell into this job” kind of way but rather  “I can’t believe this is a real job.” I was, as so many young South Asian American students are, pre-med when I was in undergrad. And I was struggling because I am terrible at math and science. I’ve always been more of a reader. My brother was in New York at the time, and he met a woman who worked at Tor and he facilitated a phone call between us where she told me about her work, and I was flabbergasted. This isn’t an industry discussed in the Indian community at all. We get doctors, lawyers, engineers. Publishing? What is that. But as soon as I realized that I could be a part of something that got books into readers’ hands… that’s all I wanted.

Chhibber contributed to this 2018 short story collection reimagining the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia.

Early days were interesting. I got my start in kid lit at Scholastic in 2008, and it was just when the industry was starting to think about how we were being impacted by the Internet. I saw the rise and fall of several e-readers and e-reading apps in the span of four or five years. It was so frustrating to watch as an entry level position without the power to say anything!

It’s always a challenge in publishing to disrupt the status quo. The industry is so old and so slow to change, but it needs to change. When I started, it was so difficult to get noticed without knowing someone (I only got my job by meeting someone at NYU who put my resume in for her position when she left). Publishing is not an equitable industry, and it’s something that needs to be addressed. The pay is low, the work is intense, and you have to come from some kind of privilege to be able to afford to work. I heard an HR rep on a panel once brag about an entry level assistant who had to work an extra job in addition to her work at the publishing house in order to afford to live in the city. I’m… still mad about it.

Who were mentors and colleagues who inspired and encouraged you along the way? How did they help you find your path?

In 2015 I started working for a woman named Ann Marie Wong, who was the boss that I think people dream about. She was so supportive and encouraged new ideas – together, we started the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) partnership with Scholastic Book Clubs as well as a Young Adult initiative. I also want to shout out Sona Charaipotra, who co-founded Cake Literary, a book packager for commercial, diverse children’s literature. She, as a fellow desi woman in publishing, has always been available for conversations about new jobs, or negotiating, or in my case, quitting the industry to write full time for a year. It can be difficult to navigate the business side of some of these old companies, and having women of color around who have done the Thing and can use their experience to help guide you is invaluable.

What has it been like to go from working on behalf of other people’s books to being a writer yourself? Was this always the goal or was it something that developed along the way?

Writing is definitely a goal that developed along the way. It was just so far out of my understanding as something that I could do. Growing up, I had Arundhati Roy or Jhumpa Lahiri as examples of Indian women who were writing for a living. And… I am not either of those women, who are literary bastions of excellence. Early on in my career, an executive said that it was so important to understand the line between Writer and Publisher, and knowing what side you stood on. I know now what a ridiculous thing that is to say, especially considering how many of my colleagues are incredible writers… but when I heard it at the time, it stuck with me for years.

But, as I started noticing what books were being published, I thought I had something to say, a book to write for the kid I’d been. The kind of stories I wished I’d had. So here we are.

It’s been an interesting experience, because I know the publishing side so well, but I’m not as familiar with being a writer… and none of those writerly insecurities are stymied by knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. They might actually be exacerbated by the fact? Like, I can imagine what the meetings are like discussing a book which is not helpful, ha!

We know that moving forward is a collective effort–who have been your biggest supporters? Who are some others that are doing important work to make publishing more inclusive?

I already mentioned Ann Marie Wong and Sona Charaipotra above—but I’ll add women like Dhonielle Clayton, Ellen Oh (who were our colleagues on the side of WNDB when we launched the SBC partnership). In terms of who is doing good work right now to make the industry more inclusive? Patrice Caldwell and her People of Color in Publishing organization, Alvina Ling was an inspiration when she started the diversity committee at Little Brown. And honestly, every single publishing professional who speaks up about the inequity of the industry, many of whom I’ve had the privilege to work alongside like Kait Feldman, Celia Lee, Cassandra Pelham, Trevor Ingerson, Eric Smith, Jennifer Ung, Cheryl Klein, Nancy Mercado, Namrata Tripathi, Zareen Jaffrey. And so many writers (including the aforementioned Ellen, Dhonielle, and Sona) who won’t let publishing coast, like Daniel José Older, Justine Larbalestier, Laurie Halse Anderson, Heidi Heilig, Kayla Whaley—I could go on and on and on, this list is by no means exhaustive, but there are so many incredible people doing the work. We’d be here for hours!

Tell us about the efforts you have made to create communities in publishing, like your Marginalized Authors/Illustrators Database.

Yes! I created the marginalized authors/illustrated database because there is a thing in publishing called IP (intellectual property) – where the publisher will come up with an idea and then hire an author to write the book. I was noticing that editors tended to keep going back to the same list of cis, straight, white authors and I wanted to do what I could to equalize the playing field as much as I could… so I created a resource for editors to find a more diverse group of possible creators. It throws the excuse of “Well, I just can’t find any” out the window. Here! They found themselves for you!

[To request access to the database, fill out this form!]

Bio: Preeti Chhibber is a YA author, speaker, and freelance writer. She works as a publishing professional. She has written for SYFY, BookRiot, BookRiot Comics, The Nerds of Color, and The Mary Sue, among others. Her short story, “Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers” was published in the anthology A Thousand Beginnings and Endings (HarperCollins, 2018), and her first book, Peter and Ned’s Ultimate Travel Journal comes out this year (Marvel Press, June 2019). You can find her co-hosting the podcasts Desi Geek Girls and Strong Female Characters (SYFYWire). She’s appeared on several panels at New York Comic Con, San Diego Comic Con, and on screen on the SYFY Network. Honestly, you probably recognize her from one of several BuzzFeed “look at these tweets” Twitter lists. She usually spends her time reading a ridiculous amount of Young Adult but is also ready to jump into most fandoms at a moment’s notice. You can follow her on Twitter @runwithskizzers or learn more at PreetiChhibber.com.


Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

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Booknet Canada’s Tech Forum: Data, diversity, and collaboration

Each year, Booknet Canada hosts Tech Forum, the largest tech-focused professional development event in the Canadian publishing industry. Like the other conferences and industry events we’ve been attending, panelists were thinking about diversity, inclusion, data, and collaboration. Here are some of our takeaways from Tech Forum 2019’s speakers discussing top-of-mind challenges and trends.

Moving from Diversity to Inclusion

The Canadian publishing industry is no stranger to the conversation around diversity and inclusion in the book world. Tech Forum’s keynote speaker Ritu Bhasin of bhasin consulting inc., addressed this in her presentation, “Disrupting Bias: Overcoming our Discomfort with Differences.”

Diversity, she said, is only one step toward inclusion. Despite best intentions, diversity is a numbers game – counting how many different “kinds” of people are in an institution. Diversity doesn’t ensure that individuals who have been marginalized in the publishing industry and elsewhere are encouraged to be their authentic selves or given the same opportunities as others. For example, diversity means advertising that a certain percentage of a publisher’s list is written by women or POC authors. Inclusion means ensuring that a publisher spends equal resources (or greater resources) to market its diverse list to give those books a better shot in the market.

Bhasin also mentioned that in 15 years Canada’s population is projected to be 35-40% POC and 6% indigenous. So, not only is it an ethical and social imperative to make a more inclusive industry, it is also best business practices.

We also saw questions of inclusion and diversity addressed at London Book Fair. Read our recap here.

Tools for Data-Driven Decisions

Jordyn Martinez, sales representative at Simon & Schuster Canada, explained how to use data to encourage more book sales in her talk, “Finding the Kernel: Data Driven Sales Tactics to Really Sell Your Book.”

She suggested that publishers use Google Trends, which analyzes the top search queries across customizable topics or categories. This useful tool can be used to discover data that can have a major impact on the marketing of your book, especially when it comes to advertising.

Take, for example, regional trends. If you’re hoping to sell your summer beach read, you can use Google Trends to discover which state or province is most likely to be searching for this term. This can help you hone in on how to spend your advertising dollars and get the most bang for your buck. With Google Trends, you can learn that Floridians are much more likely to be searching for beach reads than people living in Alaska, making it a far more sensible decision to start a beach-focused ad campaign in Florida.

Google Trends can also help you pick the optimal publication date for a title, as well. If you’re wondering when you should publish a steamy romance, Google Trends can tell you that the week after Valentine’s Day is the most popular for these types of searches.

Building Bridges Between Publishers and Booksellers

While publishers and booksellers are aligned in goal, we learned during “Building Bridges, Not Walls: Successful Publishing & Retailing Collaborations,” that they do run into issues executing their shared goal of helping books find their audiences.

Laura Ash from Another Story Bookshop told us that as a bookseller, she sometimes has a hard time restocking bestsellers, causing a critical gap between when the book is at its most popular and when they actually have it in stock. If books are out of stock, today’s readers aren’t willing to wait until the bookstore has it again. Instead, they’ll turn to Amazon or a convenient big box store.

Chris Hall of McNally Robinson said that he’s finding it more and more difficult to spot best sellers. But, he noted that for him, a bookseller’s job to generate their own bestsellers. He suggested using engaging displays, interesting newsletters, and targeting the local demographic to set a book up for success. For example, at his own branch in The Forks in Winnipeg, which has a rich history as an early Aboriginal settlement, they’ve worked extra hard to devote shelf space and hand-sell titles by local indigenous authors.


For more of our conference season coverage, check out our recap of London Book Fair and Livre Paris, as well as recent events from BIGNY and the Future of Media. And, keep up with NetGalley Insights conference coverage by signing up for our weekly newsletter!

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London Book Fair: Making a more inclusive book industry

The London Book Fair is one of the largest annual gatherings for the book industry, particularly for agents and publishers looking to trade in international rights. Between March 12 – March 14, attendees who were not sitting in the Rights Hall or dashing to meetings sat in on seminars, strolled the booths, and met colleagues from around the globe who also made the trip to Olympia London.

Where the Book World Comes to Meet

Each year, the London Book Fair focuses on a particular market from around the world. This year the spotlight was on Indonesia. Made up of thousands of islands and religiously diverse, Indonesia was able to showcase their books and culture to a global audience. The Indonesian book market is as diverse as its many thousands of islands, titles are produced in many different languages, and few are translated into English. Theirs is a growing market, with an increasing international presence. Fiction – short stories, in particular – are popular in Indonesia. Indonesian readers read across a broad number of topics, but myths, spirituality and beliefs seem to be at the forefront of Indonesian publishing.

Throughout the Fair, we found that the most prevalent theme was inclusivity. Genres and formats that are growing in the industry are the ones best able to connect with a diverse audience. By making the publishing industry more diverse, it takes steps to become more inclusive.

Diversity refers to the different kinds of people who are involved in an industry, or the different kinds of stories that are told. Inclusion refers to an overall atmosphere that is welcoming to different kinds of people, including those who have been traditionally marginalized within the industry.

Diversity

One of the biggest aims of the publishing industry over the last few years has been that of creating books with more diverse characters, written by more diverse authors. Whilst the industry is heading towards having greater diversity, there is more that needs to be done. Actor, author, and TV presenter Cerrie Burnell highlighted, during the Diversity: Where’s the Issue panel, that diversity within books, children’s books in particular, needs to be more normalized. She said it should be as “normal as observing it when living and walking around London.” Author and illustrator Rose Robins took a similar stance, suggesting that neurodiverse characters should be included more in literature, rather than treated as plot devices. (That’s one of the reasons we loved The Kiss Quotient – check out our recent case study here!)

To connect with audiences from different backgrounds, the publishing industry needs to become more diverse as a profession, in addition to publishing more books with more diverse characters. Speakers from HarperCollins, SAGE Publishing, and EW Group touched on this in their panel on building a more diverse and inclusive industry. Efforts to make publishing houses more diverse need to start from the recruitment stage to keep the industry vibrant.

Poetry

At LBF19, we saw that poetry is on the rise. Poetry sales in January 2019 were at an all-time high, growing by 12% according to Nielsen Bookscan. The recent success of poetry has been attributed to its being more inclusive and diverse than other book genres, with more young people than ever buying and engaging with poetry. The success of Rupi Kaur, writing about her experience as a woman and as a daughter of immigrants, as well as Charly Cox, indicates that there is a huge audience eager to see themselves reflected in the books that they read. And with platforms like Instagram, poets have new ways of reaching younger, digitally engaged audiences. More traditional forms have also found a new audience, with Robin Robertson’s The Long Take the first work of poetry to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Sales of poetry have been building for the past few years, and it looks like 2019 will continue to see an upsurge of interest  in the popularity of poetry.

Audiobooks

Unsurprisingly, of all the formats discussed at the London Book Fair audiobooks continues  to be on everyone’s radar. According to Nielsen figures the sales of audiobooks have increased by 87% in the UK since 2014. The popularity of audiobooks has been linked to the trend of podcasts and engaging young men in particular with a different format of reading. But audiobooks have seen a rise overall and the boom seems set to continue for 2019 and onwards. (Check out some of our podcast coverage here.)

Nonfiction

Nonfiction is also a hot topic, as both adult and children’s nonfiction sales have increased in the last year. For adult nonfiction, a large proportion of the success comes down to feminist titles and inspiring books such as Slay in Your Lane by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebenene, Bloody Brilliant Women by Cathy Newman and Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love. As nonfiction has become more diverse in its scope, it has drawn in new audiences.

We were encouraged to see the book industry slowly moving towards being more inclusive, with publishers and authors having great successes on more diverse books. Different formats and genres are reaching new audiences and encouraging a whole new generation of readers.Keep up with the rest of our conference season coverage by subscribing to NetGalley Insights!

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