Ola Laniyan-Amoako is the owner of Urbantopia Books, a new publishing company based in London, and she’s a lady on a mission. For a long time she has been disturbed about how difficult it is for Blacks and Ethnic Minorities (BEM) in the UK to find books that authentically reflect their life experiences and cultures, and cater to their demands for varied genres.
Her frustration is shared by many of the country’s aspiring Afro-Caribbean, Black British, African and Asian writers who continue to struggle to get their work published, especially by the major trade publishers.
A seminar organized by The Bookseller and The Reading Agency (TRA) in 2007 to explore new partnerships between publishers, libraries and retailers and expand the UK BEM market, concluded that publishers were placing so much emphasis on promoting literary fiction that they risked neglecting Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) readers’ demands for other genres. The Bookseller is a British magazine that covers news on the publishing industry. The Reading Agency is a UK-based independent charity which seeks to inspire people to read more.
Commenting on the seminar findings, Bookseller.com said, “The most popular genre was crime, mystery and thrillers, with 52% of BME panelists choosing titles from this category. There was also room for growth in the saga, romance, health and spirituality areas, which BME panelists were often ordering from America. Literary fiction was cited by only 26% of respondents.” It was also discovered that there’s a demand for children’s books, said the Bookseller.
Faced with these findings, Ola decided enough is enough and took the bold step of launching her own publishing house. Her aim is to produce books that are true to the realities of everyday life for Blacks and Ethnic Minorities, and tell stories they could relate to.
Her first title, Leon – Spit on the Mic kicks off the Lisson Green Chronicles, a series for teenagers set on an inner London council estate. Her decision to invest in children’s books is buttressed by research done by TRA and HarperCollins which reportedly revealed a growing demand for children’s books among BME readers. The researchers estimated the value of the UK BME book market at £120m and rising.
The second novel in the Lisson Green Chronicles, Rianna—The Tearful Dancer, is about a young dancer living with an abusive father and is scheduled to be published in October. An adult title, Metamorphosis, is also scheduled for release later this year. It’s about a 20-something woman who discovers her ex-boyfriend has HIV.
Like the characters in her books, Ola grew up on a council estate in Lisson Green and knows first hand what it’s like for kids growing up and having to struggle to identify with the literature available, or with the images and messages beamed constantly at them by the media. She was born in Britain and spent part of her childhood in Nigeria. She has a Masters degree and has worked for many years as a teacher. She is currently in line to become a deputy head teacher at a primary school in Basildon, Essex where she now works.
Notwithstanding the tough economic times, Ola is pressing ahead undaunted, convinced that there is a need for the books she intends to publish. The views of former HarperCollins managing director Amanda Ridout certainly give her hope. Commenting on the TRA/HarperCollins research, Ridout said the findings were a “major cry out to the publishing industry” to address the lack of diversity and representation. “We need to source and encourage new voices,” she added.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ola via email during which she spoke about her goals as a publisher and why she believes she believes she’s doing the right thing in trying to address the needs of Black and Asian readers.
Congratulations on launching Urbantopia Books! No doubt it required a lot of courage to start a publishing venture in a market that is facing tough times and which has been extremely challenging for small indie presses, especially publishers of Black and ethnic titles. What motivated you to do it and did you have difficulties getting it off the ground?
Ola: My motivation has been a sort of spiralling process. It initially began with my love for writing and strong desire to get published, but after researching the market I became motivated by:
– The thought that there were many other writers like myself who were unable to find publishers that published their style of writing.
– The fact that I know there is a gap in the market and demand is high.
– The fact that Black and other ethnic minority teens don’t have many books that resonate their experiences.
The main difficulties I have faced have been direction. I’m new to publishing and I have to research what to do next. There has been no mentor, or model to guide me through to the right path and this was the most frustrating thing.
What prompted you to start off with a series for teenagers?
Ola: There are many picture books with Black and ethnic minority children, there are quite a number of adult novels but the teen novels are practically nonexistent. I knew people would take notice if it was a teen series because there is nothing else on the market like it. I also wanted to start Urbantopia with a message to parents of teenagers about buying their teenagers books. Many BEM parents stop investing in books when their kids leave primary school. They hand the responsibility to schools and libraries and this is wrong. Parents need to encourage their teens to read by purchasing books for them. Starting Urbantopia with a teen series means I can trumpet this message out straight away.
Have you had any book launches? What has been the public response?
Ola: The first book [Leon – Spit on the Mic] doesn’t launch till March 10th. No big event has been organised simply because of my timetable. I’m still a full time mother, full time teacher, and soon to become deputy head.
Any feedback yet from readers?
Ola: I have had one 14 year old read it and he loved it. He was addicted to it and he wrote me a lovely review about it. I’ll attach it to the bottom of this.
From your experience as a teacher, do you think African and Afro-Caribbean children in the UK do enough reading and how difficult is it for them to obtain books that reflect their culture, and that they can relate to?
Ola: I don’t think a lot of African and African-Caribbean children do enough reading at all. I think there is a high proportion of picture books that children can relate to in comparison to teenage books. If you go into a library and look in the teen section, you‘ll find very few books for Black teens that are culturally and socially relevant. There are many books, as there are television programmes, where there is one token black character, so I don’t believe there are enough books that teenagers can relate to.
How does this affect their performance in school and their relationship with their teachers?
Ola: Reading is fundamental for the development of writing. If children are not interested in what they are being made to read, they won’t learn from it. In turn, their writing won’t improve. Their vocabulary bank will be limited. Being forced to read a book which they find boring can result in the kids resenting their teacher.
Growing up in the UK, did you feel left out in terms of the books that were available to children and teens?
Ola: Very much so. I didn’t read British books by Black British authors about teenagers set on estates like the place where I was growing up. I read books where all the characters were white and if I ever read books with black characters they were always American.
Why did you choose the name Urbantopia and what is it meant to convey?
Ola: Utopia for Urban readers – Paradise for urban writers, paradise for urban readers, home to urban books.
Would readers from the Caribbean be able to relate to your books?
Ola: Yes, definitely. Teenagers around the world usually go through similar experiences as do adults.
Do you find the Internet helpful in promoting your books and do you plan to go into e-books?
Ola: The Internet is great as it spreads the word quickly. Right now I don’t have any intentions of going down the e-book route.
Are you open to submissions from new writers, and what sort of books are you looking for?
Ola: Yes I am. Particularly teen books from authors of Black and Asian backgrounds.
You also launched rubens-world.com, an interactive kids website which, among other things, allows parents to personalise children’s books, and even insert the photographs and names of their kids. Why do you think it’s necessary to involve parents in this way?
Ola: Parents build the foundations for children. If they make reading seem like a fun thing to do, a really positive thing to do, then this will stay with their children. Schools cannot do all the work; parents must play their part for a child to get the complete package.
It’s been reported that you also plan to launch a talent website where teens can showcase their singing and dancing skills. Can you tell us some more about that?
Ola: Talentville is created to motivate teens to read the teen series. The teen series surround different teens striving to achieve in their talent. Talentville is a website that encourages teens to recognise and develop their talents. Competitions will be set up on Talentvile linking to the books so teens will need to read the books to enter some of the big competitions. Viewers to the site will vote for winners.
See http://www.urbantopia.co.uk/ for more details.
14-year old Ibrahim Ayo read Leon – Spit on the Mic and loved it. He wrote the following review.
Before I read this book, I stared at the title for a long time, in this period of time lots of thoughts went through my head for example; this is just a book about a young teenager hustling at a young age or this book is going to be a waste of my time But as I read the first page it was as if I was trapped in a spell because this book was very addicting and enticing, especially for a teenager like me.
As I read on, it was as if I was watching a film because the story was very descriptive and easy to stick with, so easy, you could picture it in your head, and this is what drew me into the story even more. The story was not just for teenagers as it was a comedy book mixed with poetry in the form of ‘rap’ which could be ideal for anyone.
The storyline of this book was about a young teenager (aged 14) growing up in a poor estate, with most of the flats being on income support, but Leon shines out from the rest because he has an ambition, to be a highly rated ‘mc’. He chases that ambition but during the process, he has to go through hell for example, coping with an over-powering Jamaican mother, patronising sister, dealing with peer pressure and learning how to build up his self esteem.
As Leon struggles to make it through life, he meets the girl of his dreams (Nadine) who he attempts, several times, to impress. He attends ‘mc-ing’ lessons regularly during the week where he meets different personalities, influencing him and reflecting on his behaviour. Finally he fulfils his dreams, as he performs on stage for the first time, impressing the crowd.
To conclude, I would just like to say this book is excellent, the perfect teenage book!