News: Thoughts, Musings and Storytelling with Jasmine Richards

Jasmine Richards is an author, former children’s publisher, screenwriter and founder of Storymix, an inclusive fiction studio with a social purpose. Storymix creates children’s stories with diverse casts of characters in an organic, joyful and authentic way. The studio also works with emerging and established writers and illustrators from BME backgrounds to offer pathways into publishing.

Getting into Publishing:

I always loved books and I was a complete bookworm as a child. My mum would pat me down before family gatherings to make sure I didn’t have a book on me so that I would play with the other kids! I ended up studying English at Oxford University. I didn’t know it then, but this was perhaps the best preparation for working in the publishing industry. Publishing, in many ways, is a microcosm of Oxbridge and my time at university gave me the confidence to operate in this space. I knew I had a place within publishing because so many of my colleges went to Oxford as well. This is not right, and it should not have been the case, but that is how it felt fifteen years ago. I think things are changing now.

A lot of my Black peers from Oxford became lawyers and management consultants. Many thought, and rightly so, ‘I didn’t do all that work to come out and earn £18,000 at an entry-level role in publishing.’ It was only because I was so obsessed with books that I followed this path, and because my mother was very chilled and there was no pressure to get a ‘professional job’ like there can be in other families. I was lucky enough to come into publishing on a graduate trainee programme with Penguin, which made quite a difference to me. Back then the average starting salary in publishing was between £14,000–£16,000, but the graduate programme was £21,000, so it didn’t feel like a low paying job at entry-level. 

Publishing is unique in that it’s a perfect storm of middle-class whiteness (that is predominantly made up of Oxbridge graduates and students from Russell Group universities) and lowly paid roles with high workloads.
There is something about those two forces that makes it pretty homogenous – white, middle-class and southern. Publishing structures also mean you can stay in the same role for several years without moving up the ladder. And a lot of roles are London based, so unless you have family there it’s almost impossible to make it work in those early years.

Despite all the things that are maddening about publishing, I know I’m in the industry I’m supposed to be in. I love finding new ways to tell stories and developing new talent.

I left my role as a senior commissioning editor at a children’s publishing house after the birth of my second child and went freelance mainly because of the need for more flexibility. Very quickly I realised that I missed the cut and thrust of making deals and negotiating that I had had as a commissioning editor and decided to launch my own IP development company called Storymix in 2018.  Not having a proper salary felt very scary, but I knew it was the right decision for me. I love running my own business, and I don’t regret exiting mainstream publishing. In fact, I wish I had done it a bit sooner.

Packaging and Storymix:

I often liken packaging to production companies who make TV shows. Shondaland and the making of Bridgerton is a good example (you can tell what I was watching over Christmas). A production company chooses what writer to use, what story editor they need for the story beats, what research is needed. They bring together all the needed people and then the production company sells it to a network. When it comes to books and packaging, the network is the publisher. I’m the production company and I’m also the story editor and the researcher! As a start-up, I have to wear a lot of hats. I look at the industry and see what the market is crying out for, with a specific focus on putting kids of colour at the centre of the action.

At the start, I tried to focus on all underrepresented areas, but as it’s just me, I realised I needed to start from my own perspective and lived experience. I started from my background from growing up as a child of colour in inner-city London. I hope in the future, Storymix can expand and tell the stories that incorporate more children from different backgrounds and lived experiences.

I’ve worked in publishing for fifteen years and I knew we had a diversity problem because I saw it every day. But then I had my son and we started reading together. I was looking at books for five- to seven-year-olds while he was learning to read independently, and he was not represented in any of them. It felt personal. I also realised I had been part of the problem, because, for a lot of my career, I was afraid of being typecast as the Black editor who only worked on Black books. Until that point in my career, I think that less than ten submissions crossed my desk from Black authors through agents. I can still count which ones they were. I didn’t do enough to actively seek out this talent but I’m trying to fix that now.

It occurred to me as I plotted and planned my business that series fiction like Rainbow Magic, which has over a hundred titles, could be a way of changing the dial really quickly. I knew the format from my time as a story-liner and editor at Working Partners, who publish Rainbow Magic and Beast Quest.

Also, because I had written some of the Beast Quest books – I’m one of the Adam Blades – I knew it could work. It blows kids’ minds though when my son proudly announces that I’ve written a few Beast Quests. ‘You’re not Adam Blade!’ they say. Then I explain to them that lots of people work collaboratively to create those stories. Kids get it – kids get teamwork. 

Series fiction gives writers of colour an opportunity to sink their teeth into something and to have a chance to fail – new authors can work on a series with me and get better with every book, as they learn on the job with my support. There is a pressure for Black writers to be perfect from the very beginning and I wanted to do something about that.

Those formed the two main focuses of Storymix – increasing the number of protagonists of colour within children’s books and increasing the number of authors and illustrators of colour within the industry. I’m fed up of walking into publishing events and it’s just the same handful of writers, illustrators and editors of colour in the room. Again, I think this is changing.

I also aim for Storymix to tell joyful and fantastical stories, not stories that focus on ethnicity or pain and adversity – although those stories are important it’s not where my creative energy lies. Don’t get me wrong, your lived experience might affect how you react to finding a clutch of dragons’ eggs in the park and I would want to reflect that. For me, it’s about all children being able to see themselves and others as heroes. It’s about the teachers and classrooms full of children, from all backgrounds, seeing  British characters of colour on a great adventure.

This also translates to authors being able to tell all stories. I recently taught a class of twelve Black women writers and told them to give themselves permission to be funny and trivial and play and have fun with writing. We looked at the Bookscan figures for the week, where about six titles were written by David Walliams. We thought about why they’ve been such a hit with kids and I then told them to take a David Walliams idea and make it their own. Smash it up. Invert it. Flip it. The stories they came up with were so interesting and fresh and it gave them the space to have fun. I often find that when I meet Black writers with great ideas, they feel they either need to tell stories of pain to get in the door, or they need to get everything into one book. I tell everyone, ‘write the story you want to write’ but make it easy to pitch. I’ve been in those meetings when a sales director is pitching to Waterstones or WHSmith and I know how hard it is. Often you need ideas that are commercial and high concept, ideas that can be pitched easily and quickly. That’s what I try and do to give books their best chance.

Launching Storymix and selling my first project is the highlight of my career so far. I love nurturing new talent. I love teaching. I love writing and coming up with ideas. I love editing. I love pitching. I love talking to people. I wanted my role to incorporate all these things and I wanted my company to have a social purpose too. Storymix is all of those things brought together with intention.

Words of Wisdom:

For those getting started: A lot of people in publishing are not as social media savvy as the young people coming up. If you’re trying to break into publishing I would recommend using Instagram or Twitter, reviewing books and using it as your shop window. Find creative ways to show what you can do and how you can talk about books. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it will help you stand out.

For those wanting to get ahead: Don’t stay in one job for too long if you want to progress. You can stay at the same publishing house and at the same level for many years, but if you want to get up the ladder you have to move about. If you’re going to survive, it gets to a point where you can’t stay on the low salary, especially in London. By that point, so many talented people have left before they have gotten into positions of influence and power. It’s unfair to put the responsibility to make these changes on our shoulders, but if we don’t, how do things change? 

For the authors: Read children’s books. It sounds like such basic advice, but I cannot tell you the number of people who don’t read children’s books who want to write for children. Let the authors make mistakes so you can learn from them. Look at what is selling and develop an awareness of the market. Work out what is working and what isn’t when you read something – reading is practice for great writing.

Storymix is always looking for talented writers of colour who are up for working collaboratively to create exciting and joyful stories for children. If that sounds like you do get in touch via email or via the website.