Leah Hernandez is the Founder and CEO of Young Authors Publishing, a children's and young adult book publisher that exists to share the stories of Black & Brown young people. She graduated from Clark Atlanta University where she obtained her degree in Business Administration with a Marketing concentration. While a student at Clark Atlanta University, Hernandez published her first book which was recognized in Rolling Out magazine and Essence Festival of Culture. In 2021, Leah was named one of Publisher's Weekly "Star Watch Nominees." Leah sits on the board of PubWest, an association of small to mid-sized publishers, as well as Portland State University's Masters Publishing Program to create more opportunities for people of color to work in publishing. In her free time, she loves reading historical fiction and bingeing T.V shows. Leah aspires to continue to impact the lives of others by helping them share their stories.
Can you tell us about your journey into publishing and what led you to establish Young Authors Publishing?
In my sophomore year of undergrad, I was studying at Clark Atlanta University and I had this wild idea to write and publish my own book! I do not come from a publishing background and I was still in college and so my access to a publisher was somewhat limited.
I ended up self-publishing that book and was consequently approached by a lot of peers and friends who wanted to do the same thing. Six months after publishing my own book, I published another young lady's book based in Belize.
At this time, the city’s housing authority was looking for a new youth development program with a grant to help kids in our community. Writing and publishing were probably the areas I knew best, so I figured I could help kids write a book and they could keep the royalties.
The first book I worked on was with four young girls who wrote a beautiful story called Roxie's Day in Vine City. Our community was being rapidly gentrified and were seeing it through their own lens. They wrote about that through the eyes of a Chihuahua named Roxie who is new to Vine City, a rural community in Atlanta, Georgia.
This was a really pivotal moment for me. That book went really well: schools loved it and the community loved it. It also felt like a really transformative experience for young people to be able to share their own story, write their own experiences, but then also get access to capital.
From there, I decided I wanted to keep doing this as my job. The following year, we published thirteen books by thirteen young boys. The company has evolved from then and this allowed me to enter the industry with no access or prior knowledge of it.
What inspired you to continue to focus specifically on young authors?
Having worked with kids first-hand, I could see how life-changing this experience was for them. I wanted to be able to give that same opportunity to other young people.
In children's books, there is also a severe lack of diversity: children of colour are reading more about animals than they ever will their own experiences.
I felt that this was unique for children to be at the forefront of writing their own stories and owning their narratives.
Now we do work with adult authors and have an adult imprint, but having the focus of the company on young people really helps us shape our future.
What do you think are the key positive effects that reading and sharing stories can have on children?
I think for authors it's empowering to be able to share your own story, to own your narrative and not have your story be told through the lens of someone else who doesn't have that same lived experience. For readers, we need to be able to see ourselves reflected in all media: books, TV, television and film.
In the book space, there can be such a lack of diversity and it's directly connected to issues with literacy rates in children. It's because they're not reflected in the books that they read and their stories aren't in there, so they're not interested in reading.
We want to bring children into the conversation and to be part of the process so that way we can help them reach their own goals.
We’ve spoken about some of the challenges with diversity and literacy, what other challenges have you encountered whilst running the Young Authors Publishing and how have you overcome them?
So many! I think that the biggest one was just the very steep learning curve that is publishing. I didn't have the privilege of working for a Big Five before starting my own company or even interning at anything remotely publishing.
It was a lot of work on my end just learning how the industry works, learning about distribution, sales, returns and so on.
When Young Authors Publishing (YAP) first started, we were just publishing the books on different self-publishing platforms. Two years in, we have a contract with Ingram Content Group, which is the largest book distributor here in the States. Since then, we have seen amazing growth for the company.
As CEO what is your exact role in supporting the authors of YAP?
It's a great question and it's changed over the years. In the early days (we just turned five last month) I worked directly with the authors. I helped them to come up with their own story concepts and ideas. I was very hands-on throughout the entire production process.
Now, the majority of my time spent as a CEO is supporting the editorial, marketing and sales teams to make sure that they have everything they need to do their job well.
My relationship with the authors is now more of the holistic life cycle of the book project, so not just looking at production and editorial, but going all the way down to marketing and sales and trying to figure out what channels, platforms, and marketing campaigns would best support the author and the success of their book.
Can you share a success story of one of your young authors?
There's so many, but one that sticks out is a young author named Lance Hammett who wrote a book called Sea-Rod: A New Wave. A young boy goes to the beach and gains superpowers; he decides to use his powers to keep our ocean clean from litter and pollution.
We promoted this heavily around Earth Day and put on events with museums to bring awareness about keeping our oceans clean.
And are your authors mainly based in the US or are they global?
About 95% of our authors are based in the US but we have some frontlist titles from authors in different countries coming out next year, which is very exciting!
Do you have any other exciting projects on the horizon?
We're actually going through a bit of a pivot and expanding the company under a new name called Muse. Young Authors Publishing will remain as an imprint under that company.
Muse is a company that still has the same mission: to expand narratives of people of colour and giving them the platform to share their stories. But we also want to diversify publishing, not only through the books that we publish but also the services and events that we provide.
In addition to launching our new adult imprint, we are creating sales and distribution for smaller to midsize publishers. I talk a lot with other small to mid-sized publishers who have a great catalogue but ran into the same issue I did — lack of distribution.
So we're opening up distribution services to give these smaller publishers access to distribution so that way they can reach a larger audience.
Are you attending any upcoming book events?
Yes! When I ran into you at the London book fair, that was actually my first international trade show. We've been building our rights division to increase our international rights which should spark more fair attendances abroad.
I’ll be at Bologna Book Fair next year and a few months ago, I was in California at the Independent Book Publishers Association event.
There are some local trade shows that I'll go to here in the states, especially for the holiday season, to ensure that we're building stronger partnerships with our local bookstores and indie bookstores.
We're also hosting an event right after the London Book Fair 2024 for people of colour who are in the traditional book space, so would love to meet anyone there as well.
Congratulations on being nominated for Publishers Weekly Star Watch award in 2021! Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Thank you! It was a very transitional period shortly after COVID when I think the entire book industry had no idea what to expect so I was very honoured to be a part of that group and really excited to be honoured by Publishers Weekly.
Can you tell us about your involvement with PubWest?
Yes, I have been on the board at PubWest — an association for small to midsize publishers — for two and a half years now and part of that role is creating opportunities for more people of colour to enter into the industry.
One of the projects that we launched last year was an internship program for diverse students. We had five interns who were placed with five different independent publishers. One of those internships led to a full time position, which is really exciting.
You’re also on the board of the Portland State University Publishing program, what's your role there?
I've had the opportunity of sitting on the board of the Masters of Publishing Program at Portland State University for about two and a half years now.
My role wherever I go is more or less the same and that is to bring more people of colour into the industry and retain them by shifting and adjusting culture and norms that are set. I want to pull back the curtain on publishing and make it less secretive.
YAP actually partnered with Portland State University's research department for a research project on children’s literature. We wanted to know what percentage of books have diverse themes, characters, character traits and family dynamics, allowing children of colour to see themselves represented.
The majority of representation at the moment is under the guise of oppression and history, but it’s important that children of colour see themselves in various forms like as astronauts and doctors.
During your career in publishing, have you received any advice that has stayed with you throughout?
The advice that has stayed with me most is to become really good and really comfortable with spreadsheets!
It was something that a mentor of mine from PubWest shared with me when was at the early stages of starting this company.
Back then I was managing royalty reports and sales manually and it was overwhelming so having tips and tricks on Excel was really useful.
It also helped me as a CEO and as an operator to make data-driven decisions and be comfortable with data.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers and/or publishers?
My biggest advice would be to not be afraid to shake things up. I think this industry can be very intimidating, as it’s an old and sometimes outdated industry.
There are certain ways of doing things that may be outdated and you might feel that you have to fit in this box. If you're a person of colour, nine times out of ten, you’re not gonna fit in that box! And that's ok! Embracing whatever unique characteristics and bringing that to the table, is how we can see change.
Finally, I imagine you're a big reader, what sort of books do you like reading?
When I'm not reading business books for work, I usually like to read historical fiction. Recently, however, I’m into nonfiction and am reading a book called Monsters in Love by Resmaa Menakem, which I’m really enjoying. The book is about the reality of committed intimate relationships and how they’re designed to inspire both people to grow up. He has two other books that I’m really excited to read as well!
Thank you Leah!
Check out the Young Authors Publishing website and sign up for their newsletter there!
(New website museinc.net will be live October 1st)