With more than six years of experience Publisher and book shop owner Aimée Felone is well along her way to making her mark in the publishing industry. Grounded in community, Aimée's (and her co-founder David) two brainchildren: Knights Of and Round Table Books intentionally impact not only the children they cater to, but also the communities they are a part of. I had the pleasure of catching up with her as she generously shared the behind the scenes of getting both the publishing house and the bookshop off the ground, as well as her thoughts on the conversation around the industry's failure with representation.
How did Knights Of (KO) come about?
So I have been in publishing now for six years and I noticed that pretty much all across the industry, there was just like a lack of creators, illustrators and books that showed any kind of diversity. Oftentimes, the stories that did have black kids or disabled kids were trauma based or historical. They weren't happy narratives or they didn’t just have a character that just so happened to be from a different background. And I don’t think those are the books that kids should be reading. I mean, there's obviously a time and a place for those kinds of stories, but generally, you want to be reading something that's fun and adventurous. I met my co-founder at the same place that I was working about two years ago and we had gotten to a place where we were really frustrated trying to bring these ideas to the table but being met with obstacles or “there's no budget for this.” And so I left my full time job and spent maybe six months working in secret and trying to put the skeleton together; what KO was about, who it was for and why it was needed. And put simply KO is just an inclusive publisher at highest diversity, like we don't really think we're doing anything out of the ordinary. But because the industry has such a massive problem with representation what we are doing is unfortunately-fortunately seen as extraordinary. Our whole ethos is publishing that is inclusive of race, sex, gender, ability, and socio economic background, and it's just making sure that our stories are full of characters from as many diverse backgrounds as possible and that they're having fun.
And a few years later you open up a physical space?
Yeah so that was a mistake [laughs]. So we ran a pop up shop two years ago I think, which was to celebrate our first birthday at KO. It also kind of coincided with a report that came out that showed that only 1% of children's books published in 2017 featured a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic character.
That is appaling.
Yeah it is. So we started a hashtag on Twitter to amplify this figure, which did really, really well. It got picked up by a lot of schools, libraries, parents, teachers, like a lot of people were sharing the books that qualified for the 1%. And then we were like, well, why don't we fill up a physical space with these books because unfortunately, they are not widely stocked in general retailers. So we ran a pop up for five days and we sold over 500 books and had the community of Brixton knocking on our door being like, ‘you need to be here all the time, we need this.’ You know, Brixton has been going through gentrification and a lot of the shops and restaurants are not really meant for the community. They are there to draw people to the area rather than serve the ones that are there. So two months later, we did it again for two weeks and started a crowdfund campaign at the same time, raised 2000 pounds, and then opened the bookshop in May of last year.
How has that been so far? Having a physical space.
Amazing. It's been amazing. I mean we are closed at the moment just because of the pandemic. But it's been incredible. We have regulars that come in all the time after school, and it's just nice to be within a community that really appreciates what you're doing. It's been fantastic.
So the Black Lives Matter movement protests inspired #publishingpaidme, which was very revealing. And I wonder what the difference in conversation is for you now that you have moved from a publishing house that might have not cared as much, to KO that is focused on highlighting people who look like you?
Yeah, I don't have to sit through conversations that I'd have to at bigger companies anymore. I don't have to explain certain things or draw attention to the importance of certain things anymore, like it's just a given. So the culture that we have created within KO is one which is really open, and we try to be as flat as possible so that every member of our team- our creative director even brought a project to us. The culture of KO is one that is so firmly fixed on making sure that we're as representative of every position and that we don't have to have stupid, nonsense conversations with people. I get asked so many times in interviews ‘why do you think representation is important?’ which is a dumb question that comes from a position of privilege because they've probably seen themselves all the time. And now I just don't have to exhaust myself with those conversations. Obviously, there are other exhausting elements of running a business, but explaining the validity and the reason for why we exist is not one of them.
Do you think instead of putting up with these conversations and trying to change publishing ‘from the inside’ for lack of a better term, should Black people and People of Color aim to start their own establishments?
No, I don't think everyone should start a business. I think it takes a lot of energy, commitment, and openness to failure, that not all of us can handle. And I think that as much as it is important to be independent and to champion our fellow Indies, we still very much maintain a within the industry kind of voice so that we're holding the rest of the industry accountable. I think we have to start from the inside and hold those people’s feet to the fire and be like, what's good? Like what’s really happening?
Which is currently happening; honest conversations are happening. How optimistic are you about these efforts continuing through the years?
I don't know. So I remember speaking to Malorie Blackman when KO had just launched and she told me about how these things tend to happen in cycles. Having been in the industry for time, she has seen the awakening of publishers to the fact that representation matters in like the 70s, and then it fell off in like the 80s, then it came back in the 90s. And she drew my attention to the fact that this is not a new conversation, and that their generation have been working on this for time. But I just hope that with the current climate, people are realizing that this isn't a conversation which ever really goes away for our community. It's just that when they decide to pick it up and put it back down, we’re called upon to be even more vocal. And I really hope that this time the weight of this conversation is carried by everybody else in the industry as well, so it isn't just on us to keep bringing it up.
Okay, let's talk about books. How do you pick the books you want to commission for KO?
So commissioning is now done by our editorial director. Myself and David (co-founder of KO) have taken a backseat just because it was way too many plates. I'm still waiting for my teenage romance story. I remember reading The Sun is Also a Star and being like, where is the UK version of that? But we all have individual tastes, some of us really love fantasy, some of us love comedy, but I think the basis is just like carefree kids, going on an adventure. Humor is also very appealing. As long as it's not trauma driven. And I'm not saying the stories should propel kids into this false reality, you can still have elements of real life struggle. I would just hate for that to be the main narrative. You know?
Is there a book that was particularly pivotal for you?
I think Purple Hibiscus was. I read Purple Hibiscus way before I should have been reading it, but yeah. Chimamanda was at South Bank maybe a couple of years ago, and she did her speech and then there was a signing afterwards. I think we waited in the queue for maybe two hours and she was committed to meeting absolutely everybody. And I just remember saying to her that this is one of the first times I've seen myself in a book, and she was like I wish it hadn't been this one, you know. But I think that was one of my first times. I mean, I had a few picture books growing up as a kid like this really small Martin Luther King book. But Purple Hibiscus was the first book that I had chosen myself.
That’s definitely common for many black women-the book most pivotal to us if often the book that first made us feel seen.
Let's quickly go back to KO and the bookshop. What do you envision for their future?
Well, for the bookshop, one of the original crowdfunding plans was to pop up in different cities across the UK. And obviously, corona has been like you’re not going anywhere. But our goal is to pop up in another city, hopefully next year now. And I would love to see the bookshop, where we're at physically grow as well. And of course to increase the reach and connections we have with the community. We get asked to do a lot of partnerships and festivals, and all of that stuff is great, but our first priority is always how we can better serve the people where we are at. We started storytimes just before the pandemic happened, so I’m really looking forward to starting those things up again because the whole place was filled with tiny little kids who came along and it was great.