Jasmine Richards: “BookTrust Represents has been game-changing”

Author Jasmine Richards walks us through her publishing journey and tells us how BookTrust Represents has helped and impacted on her career.

Please tell us about your publishing journey so far.

I was a complete bookworm as a child; my mum would pat me down before family BBQs or birthday parties to make sure I didn’t have a book on me! I ended up studying English Language and Literature at Oxford University and in some ways it felt like a very natural step from there and into publishing and in other ways I stuck out like a sore thumb as a Black woman who grew up in social housing.  

I was lucky enough to come into publishing on a graduate trainee programme with Penguin, which was significant because the salary was higher than most entry level jobs in publishing at the time and that helped me make a start in an industry that can be lower-paid compared to some others for graduates. I went on to become an editor at Working Partners, a packager, who developed series like Beast Quest and Rainbow Magic and this is where I learnt a lot of my editorial and story-lining skills. In this role, I got hundreds of hours experience in editing and writing under my belt. Over the next few years, I ran a writers retreat business called Book Bound with three other very dear friends and I went on to run the Creative Kitchen at OUP, where I worked with writers, illustrators, editors and designers to create series that would capture the imagination of children. After my second child, I freelanced for a bit and edited and developed Ade Adepitan’s first novel for children Cyborg Cat and Rochelle Humes’ first picture book The Mega Magic Hair Swap.

In 2018 I made the decision to start a fiction development company that would produce high quality, high concept books for publishers. It would solve a problem that I saw all around me; the lack of meaningful representation of children of colour.

I knew I wanted to create stories that were guaranteed to thrill and entertain as well as reflect the diversity of the world around us.

I knew I would also work to launch the careers of writers and illustrators of colour and offer pathways into publishing for all that talent that was not getting through the door. I was going to create paid publishing opportunities and give a platform to talent.

You’re the founder of fiction studio STORYMIX. What exactly is a fiction studio and how does it work?

STORYMIX is a fiction studio. This means we work like a movie producer but for books! We find the right talent and pair them up with an idea we have developed in-house.  We are experts in creating children's stories that put kids of colour in the centre of narratives filled with joy and adventure. Representation matters to us.
Every concept is conceived by me and is further developed with the help of a skilled team of storyliners and editors. We craft outstanding children's series with an inclusive cast of characters, fantastic worldbuilding and thrilling plots. We help publishers meaningfully increase the number of inclusive titles they publish each year. 

We give writers a very detailed plot. The storyline is split into chapters and so the writer knows exactly what goes into each chapter. It’s more like the TV model where a storyliner and writer work together collaboratively on a project. We will then edit those words, give suggestions and do a polish before submitting to the publisher. When I was at Working Partners, writers would really often say that they were getting paid to be on a writing course because it was great training for plotting and snappy dialogue. That is something that always stayed with me and part of the reason why I thought the model Storymix uses could be a great apprenticeship for up-and-coming writers. 

Based on reading sample material, I will ask a writer for the first three chapters on a specific project and pay for that sample. It’s very important to me that writers are paid for their time. I also offer a profit share of the advance and the royalties if I sell a project to a publisher. I don’t think any author should be working on a flat fee because we want writers to be able to make a living long term. This year, we have had several series published, including Future Hero, and The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries, alongside the first novel with my name on the spine, The Unmorrow Curse.

You’ve been a BookTrust Represents member for three years, what made you join our community?

I am a writer of over 15 books for children and I am also the founder of Storymix. I am both of those things all of the time! Therefore, I joined BookTrust Represents for both my personal development as a writer and also so I could connect with writers who might be interested in writing for Storymix and share my knowledge of the publishing industry. 

Why do you think it’s important that authors and illustrators to have community spaces like BookTrust Represents?

I think it’s so important and helpful for authors and illustrators, particularly those who are just starting out, to have a space where they can network and have access to a supportive and encouraging community. Having a strong support network that understands what you do as a creative and where you are in your career is such a boost, as there’s always someone to give information or answer questions.

Keeping connected with a wider community means that you’re aware of the key issues in the children’s book industry, and get to hear multiple perspectives on those issues.

How has BookTrust Represents helped to support you and your career?

Whilst I’ve been a member of the community I have learnt how to put on a virtual school visit with the amazing Candy Gourlay, where we had a 1-2-1 PR surgery and some excellent media training also.

The training has really been game changing for making decisions about the books that I had published in the States but had not been published in the UK. It really got me thinking about how I wanted to bring these books to market in the UK. I’m delighted that my novel The Unmorrow Curse, which was first published in the States as The Secrets of Valhalla, has been published this year with an extraordinary indie called UCLAN. I’m so excited that this fantasy adventure series is now in the UK. It has a dragon, a talking squirrel, a time loop and lots of secrets waiting to be revealed. 

Tell us about your most recent partnership with fellow BookTrust Represents member Tọlá Okogwu.

I connected with Tọlá through BookTrust Represents. The programme was still fairly new at that point and Storymix was also in its early days. Tọlá got in touch and I really enjoyed her sample and shared some detail on the character of Aziza and the overall premise.

We met up and got on immediately. She seemed to understand exactly the energy I wanted for this series and we talked endlessly about why a hero like Aziza needed to exist and especially in this age range [6+] where readers of the future are built. We both wanted to tell a story featuring Black characters in a positive and inspirational light, but where race was not the story.

Book 4, Aziza Secret Fairy Door and the Mermaid’s Treasure, came out in June. Macmillan have commissioned five books in the Aziza series which is a massive statement of intent and belief from them. I feel very proud of the series I am building with Tọlá and the response to Aziza so far has been really lovely.

What are your top 3 dos and don’ts for aspiring children’s book authors?

  1.  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 but want to write one. Notice the mistakes that other authors make and see if you can learn from them. Work out what is working and what isn’t when you read something - reading is practice for great writing.
  2. Develop an awareness of the market and the industry. Read publications like the Bookseller and be curious about what people are feeling excited about when it comes to kids’ books.  I’m not saying chase trends though. The market moves so quickly, particularly in children’s publishing, that your idea that was on trend before might not be by the time it comes to submit. Linked to this, write an idea that is going to sustain you creatively. You might be with this idea for a very long time indeed. Make sure you love it!  
  3. Don’t be inflexible. When you’re establishing your career, part of surviving as a writer is adapting and evolving. That might mean taking on a variety of projects, trying different types of writing or writing to a brief. Writing with a company like Storymix is one way to get real practice in developing your craft, plus you are building up industry knowledge and also getting paid for your words!  Also have a go at educational publishing. Writing a phonically decodable book is a unique skill and really enjoyable. I had a go with a reader for Collins called Lucas Dives Deep and will publish another this year called Jumbled.

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