IBPA Member Spotlight: The Ella Riley Group
Thursday, July 12, 2018
Posted by: Caitlin Walker
Davina Hamilton of The Ella Riley Group Brings the Riley Series to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
|Davina Hamilton reads Riley Can Be Anything to a group of young kids.
On Saturday, July 28, Davina Hamilton, co-founder of IBPA member press The Ella Riley Group, will bring to life Riley Can Be Anything and Riley Knows He Can through storytelling, participation, and play during the annual Shakespeare's Telling Tales Literary Festival at the famous Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Since the theatre's 1997 reconstruction, Shakespeare's Globe has welcomed visitors from all over the world to take part in workshops, lectures, and staged readings.
Davina's presentation will allow children to join in the books' narratives by suggesting, "Riley is starring in his first ever school play. Would you be able to help him practice his lines and maybe even act out some of the other parts?" With a theatre capacity of 3,000, it will be Davina's biggest reading event to date.
Diverse Books DO Sell
The Ella Riley Group, founded by husband and wife team Leon and Davina Hamilton, is the mother company to The Ella Riley Group Publishing, 1000 Words By Monday, and Davina Hamilton. Until recently, the company's primary business has been rights procurement within the entertainment space.The company, which also looks after Davina Hamilton's global rights, started its journey as a publisher less than two years ago.
Becoming a publisher was never Leon and Davina's intention, but like many indie publishers they realized pitching their book ideas to a large publishing house wasn't the best option.
"Long before [our first] book came to life with illustrations, I knew my story would feature a little black boy named Riley as the main character," Davina explains. "As such, I fell prey to the concern that my book might not do well. Would a major publisher want to get behind a children's book from an unknown, first time author - particularly when said book featured a black boy as its main character?"
After the book was rejected by a number of literary agents and publishers, the Hamilton's decided that they would start their publishing journey on their own. "With our solid marketing background and willingness to learn the business, that's exactly what we did," said Leon. "Our mission is not to rival the major publishers, or any publisher, but to offer authors with a good product a chance to gain a level of awareness and more importantly, support for their titles."
Their first title, Riley Can Be Anything was written by Davina and released in May of 2017. While they knew that the road ahead might be difficult, they pushed forward. "We had a great book that not only had a wonderfully inspiring message, but also addressed the issue of diversity in children's literature," said Leon. Since its publication, Riley Can Be Anything has achieved great success. The book has been featured in radio and TV interviews, presented at elementary schools, and received celebrity endorsements (including one from international music superstar Jason Derulo).
When Leon and Davina shifted focus from online sales to in-store retail, they becgan concentrating on bookstores in North America, the UK, Africa, and the Caribbean. Most recently, they attended BookExpo in New York City, where Brooke Warner, IBPA Board Chair and publisher at She Writes Press, moderated an insightful panel titled "Why Diversity is Financially Critical for the Industry."
"[The panel] was extremely insightful and led to us to look at Brooke's blog piece about distributors being the new gatekeepers, a reality that we ourselves discovered when launching our press," said Leon.
The Ella Riley Group is now on the lookout for new authors to publish and has recently created a self-publishing platform called 1000 Words By Monday. "I hope that, among the writers we're able to help, there'll be a host of budding black authors with diverse stories to tell," said Davina. "Because black stories matter - and they do sell."
Five Questions for Leon Hamilton of The Ella Riley Group
IBPA: Davina was formerly a journalist before making the move to literature. How did her past professional experience help when switching over to publishing/writing children's books?
LH: Davina's journalism experience has proved extremely beneficial to her journey as an author. Aside from having a lot of useful media contacts, who aided the promotion of the Riley series, Davina has also been able write a number of articles to support her books, which has been great. Having also worked closely with PR agents throughout her journalism career, Davina developed an understanding of how best to promote her books, which has, of course, been extremely helpful.
IBPA: What was a challenging lesson you learned early on, and how did you push past it?
LH: We learned early on that some literary organizations don't promote or support titles that aren't represented by a major publisher or a literary agent. This meant it was a challenge to get the Riley books through certain doors, but we pushed on anyway. Using our experience, we were able to acquire international media coverage and celebrity endorsements for the books, as well as a number of reading engagements for Davina. A strong social media campaign has also been integral to the success of the Riley series. Through these methods, we essentially created a campaign that proved the Riley books to be 'worthy' of coverage and support, which in turn, allowed us to get through some of those doors to be taken on by major stockers and distributors.
IBPA: Tell us a little more about the Riley series. What do you hope young readers can learn from the story?
LH: Both titles in the Riley series aim to inspire young readers and instill in them a sense of self-confidence and self-belief. With our main character, Riley, being a young black schoolboy, the books also seek to address the importance of diversity in children's literature, which is extremely important to us. In recent years, 'diversity' has become somewhat of a buzzword in the media. But the issue of representation is more than a media trend; it's an issue that affects the day-to-day lives of many people, particularly people of colour. We know that there is a severe under representation of books that feature black characters within children's publishing, so we're proud that the Riley series has been able to play its part in addressing this issue.
IBPA: Can you share three key elements to starting a press for our new-to-publishing members?
LH: 1. Dare to be different. The major publishers with larger budgets and resources win because of the sheer manpower and influence they have within the industry. But their methods can often be same-old-same-old, because they have certain boxes to tick and quotas to meet. Yes, there is some value in the expression 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' But there is also value in going against the grain of traditional publishing methods to bring to life a story that you believe in.
2. Believe in the project but watch your budget. It's easy to get carried away with your advertising, production, and distribution costs, but you really need to consider before you spend: where your return is going to come from?
3. Never give up and keep on learning. As long as you're constantly growing and evolving on your journey, that is the main thing. When our journey first started, we had one online distributor. Through relentless research, we've gone on to be stocked by a number of retailers (both in-store and online), libraries and schools.
IBPA: What was one of the most moving/inspiring/positive things you've heard from a parent after they read one of your books?
LH: We've received many emails and messages from parents and teachers, who have expressed the positive impact the Riley series has had on their children. The books have resonated in particular with black parents and teachers, who have been thrilled to see titles that offer positive representations of black identity; something that is hugely beneficial to children of colour, who often don't see themselves reflected in the books they read. One mother, a black woman, sent us a picture of her son, who chose to dress up as Riley for his school's celebration of World Book Day. Her accompanying message to Davina read: "Thank you for giving us the opportunity to represent our race and culture. It means everything!" That really meant a lot to us.
IBPA: Thank you for sharing with us!
Find out more about The Ella Riley Group.