Multi-hyphenate and self proclaimed Bookish Babe, Hena Bryan occupies an interesting space in the book world. With a publishing house that specializes in children’s books and a Booktube dedicated to raving about literature, Henna has such rich insight to offer. I catch up with her to talk about books, youtube, the mechanics of publishing its many intersections.
Thank you so much for having this chat with me, I’m very excited about this.
Of course, thank you.
Let’s start with your YouTube channel. What's it like being on booktube so far?
Oh, it's interesting. It's really different because I'm not used to attaching my face to anything, so I've had to overcome a lot of anxiety. However, everyone's been quite welcoming. I think I'm still trying to find my place within the booktube community because it's so vast and a lot of people read so many different books, so I guess I'm just trying to find where I fit in.
One of your videos was published around the beginning of the current wave of Black Lives Matter protests, and it was a reading list. In the video you talked about how you felt like you had to drop everything and make this video just to kind of offer something from your platform, and I want to talk about that a little bit. Have you always felt that responsibility?
Well, yeah, I made my YouTube channel to encourage people to read, it's specifically aimed at people who look like me and sound like me and who come from similar backgrounds to me. And so when that was happening, I was just like, ok, I'm going to have to make a video in order to educate my white subscribers because I do have quite a lot of white subscribers- booktube is literally saturated with white readers booktubers. But yeah, I feel like it is my responsibility to not only promote books by black authors or any other ethnic minority writer, but to also push those narratives to people who wouldn't necessarily go into a bookstore and pick that up. So, for me, I feel like it's quite an exciting thing because I've gotten so many white subscribers and readers to actually pick up books by black authors and read them and then come back to me and let me know what they think. It’s all about getting to step out of their comfort zone.
That’s interesting because I remember looking at all the reading lists and feeling a bit like, if they didn't want to read a book on race before, why would they want to now. But you mentioned how people have come back to you and told you that they’ve read a book you recommended.
Yeah, quite a few people have come back to me and basically relayed that they've read a book from the reading list. I mean I do think that this will die down; the excitement about the books centering race and inequality and injustice, like that will die down. And so I feel like it's just important to push other narratives by black authors, because those are not the only topics that we write about. But yeah, I feel like it's very important to get especially white readers, to educate themselves and have an understanding as to what's going on around the world, as opposed to what's going on in their world.
I want to get a little more context about YouTube and how monetization works in BookTube.
It's a difficult space. When I first joined BookTube, I spoke to one of my friends who works in marketing for a publishing company, and she usually handles contacting influencers about promoting their books for a fee. However, they don't usually contact booktubers to do that, which I think is the weirdest thing. They usually send them free books and say, if you can post this up, that would be great. And in Youtube you obviously have monetization through ads. However, when it comes to promotion, I guess you have to set a standard. I was in a booktubers chat for a while, and I asked them how they set their prices for when people approach them, and a lot of them are quite clueless. It sounds like a lot of them read for fun and then they come on YouTube and make a bit of money from ads, as opposed to making money from publishing companies or people approaching them about books. And I feel like a lot of booktubers need to set a higher standard.
I’ve been lucky to have had two publishing companies contact me about books so far but you want me to review a book on my channel, you're gonna have to pay me for that review. I will always give an honest review but yeah, you're gonna have to pay me for that review because a lot of booktubers have influence; they're just a different sort of influencer. But it makes more sense to pay someone who is a book influencer than to pay someone who's just a normal influencer and hope that if they post the book someone's gonna buy it.
Yeah because the audience for a lifestyle influencer might not be interested in books at all.
Yeah, exactly. I mean I think it depends because I understand that a lot of influencers have a massive audience, but I just always wonder how much influence they have on selling a book as opposed to other things that the people who are following them are interested in? I had a conversation with my career coach who wrote a book himself, and he was the one that asked me to make sure that I don’t do free work. He said that for his book they paid an influencer 3000 pounds to just post on their story. But they are not paying booktubers or book influencers that amount. But I think it's a matter of setting standards and saying, I will not review this book, I might read it under the quiet, but you wont get a review of this book, on my platform, especially if you've approached me, unless you pay me.
Yeah that is such an untapped resource; booktubers have sold me on many, many books.
Exactly, but I guess like publishing houses, they're quite caught up on ‘platform’. So with a lifestyle influencer, they can have 100,000 subscribers or followers and they think that 5% of whoever's following them will go into the site and then 2% will buy the book and they'll make money that way. I just feel like they would have a further reach if they did focus on paying for book influencers. But then again you have to give an honest review, and I feel like it's odd to pay for a review of your book and not expect them to like it if that makes sense. It's strange, but once I figure it out, I'm going to tell the world. These guys are not going to make me go broke. And I also want my booktube to be fun and not always ‘okay, here's a book guys please read it’ but yeah, I've got quite a lot of things planned and I'm excited.
You founded a publishing company!
Tell me a little more about that.
When I was at university I decided that I wanted to go into publishing but I had no idea what area of publishing I wanted to go into. After doing some research and obviously attending a lot of publishing events and panels, I saw that there was a lack of certain books in the industry. So I guess I just used that as well as my love for books, and thought about what I would have wanted to read as a younger person. I used all of those things and said, ok, I'm going to start my own publishing company (Bryan House Publishing) and publish the books, as cliche as it sounds, that I would like to read. Or more specifically that I'd want my children to read because we specialize in children's books.
We recently witnessed the publishing paid me hashtag on Twitter, which I thought was astounding. I'm curious to know what you thought about it.
So, we see a lot of figures when it comes to advances and how much people get paid. But because we don't sell a lot of international rights for authors of color, I didn't know that there was a massive difference between how much a white author was being paid compared to a black one. It's ridiculous, some of the advances that people receive on debut novels, simply because they're white for like a really cliche love story, it's just shocking. But if I’m honest, publishing doesn't cease to shock me. It was sad to see that some of my favorite authors, especially, weren't being paid as much as I thought they were being paid, considering when you know their sales figures and their international value. And then you have a new author who's been paid quarter million for a book; it's just such blind faith.
It's obviously a matter of not having racist publishers, but what else can publishing do in the near future to help with that?
Yeah, I think it is a matter of publishers not being racist. But I think it's also probably forming healthy relationships with agents simply because unless it's an IP project, a lot of the work that comes through to publishing houses come from agents, and a lot of agents are white. I think I know maybe two black agents now and it's quite telling because the sort of books that agents take on are books that they know will make them money. So it's usually black struggle narratives that they know that white people will buy and that people will end up picking up as well, as opposed to stories where black writers are just writing about whatever they want to write about instead of their political and racial strife. So, yeah, I feel like publishing houses and agencies need to come together a bit more and have an understanding as to what they both want.
So, you're obviously an avid reader. What makes a good book for you?
I'm a literary babe, I like good writing. I feel like you can have a very simple story but if it is well written, you will have me hooked. I think that's why I love Normal People (by Sally Rooney) so much because the story is quite basic, but the writing is phenomenal. And it's the same with Richard Wright, his writing is phenomenal; the story is average, but the writing is just so gripping. So for me, it's fantastic writing, likeable characters and a good pace.
It’s funny you said likeable characters, but you mentioned you like Normal People. That might be the first time I’ve heard someone say that about the book.
You don't like the characters in Normal People?
I mean, I don't know if that's something I would mention about it.
I mean yeah they are annoying but, you know, if I was white and still young and stupid, I could see myself in that situation. [laughs] Yeah, I can see myself in that situation. So yeah they were annoying, but the writing though!
Yeah Rooney’s writing certainly deserves credit. Let’s go back to your publishing house quickly. Do you think you would publish non-children's books or adult fiction eventually?
We are publishing a non-children’s book but it's under a nonfiction imprint as it's a finance book aimed at people between 16 and 25. But to publish fiction, maybe one day. I think it's going to have to be a really good book to sort of take me there. We'll see what comes through in the next couple of months, but it would have to be a good book.
What do you envision as success for you and your publishing house in the next few years?
I guess to promote reading in more black households especially amongst children. I also want to publish a seasonal book, like a very big seasonal, hopefully Christmas book that's a reoccurring bestseller annually. Obviously, we're indie but I want to take our small company into a wider space, like big retail chains as opposed to independent book shops. The idea is to cross the pond with it and enter the commercial side of everything
What are you currently reading?
Well, I'm reading a middle grade book called ‘Llama out loud’, the one that I'm reviewing. Also making my way through ‘Love in Color.’ Those are the two that I'm focusing on. I'm trying not to get too carried away but I will be picking up another book this weekend. I just need to decide what I'm picking up.
I'm very excited to read Love In Color.
Yes, yes. Yes. I'm really excited. It's good and Bolu is gonna go really far. Trust me. There's been a lot of talk about her, and yeah she’s gonna go really far. I'm really excited to review that book.