Community and the Power of YOU: Melody Simpson
A seat at the table. A familiar phrase to PoC. What does it mean? Having a voice? Being given the opportunity to lead? Or just being there? Disappointedly, the answer seems to be more of the latter. And what happens when you want to invite the rest of your peeps to the dinner party? Does your invite include a plus-one (or 2,3,4,5)? Or is this invite a conditional one, a checked box for tonight's theme is inclusivity?
These questions swirl around your head, making your dinner bland, souring dessert, and giving celebratory drinks a bitter aftertaste. In the middle of the host's long-winded toast, you excuse yourself from this table. As you stare in the mirror, collecting your thoughts and questioning your worthiness of being there, your reflection demands that you look up.
"Stand up straight and raise your head!" It commands.
You obey. The image you see is no longer one filled with doubt. Why?
You are worthy. You belong. You have a place.
But sometimes, creating that space means building your own damn table.
And that's exactly what the CEO of Melanin in YA did.
Read on for more about Melody's ongoing journey in creating a one-stop-shop for all things Black in the young adult reading space.
1. If you looked up OG in the Writing Community dictionary, you’d probably find your picture in the definition. You’ve been a member of this community for YEARS, have volunteered COUNTLESS amounts of time toward organizations like DVPit/DVCon, interned at various agencies, and FOUNDED Melanin in YA (https://melanininya.com). So tell us, how can one become involved within the writing community and/or publishing industry besides the “get on Twitter” avenue? And tell us about your personal journey, too!
When it comes to getting involved in the writing community, it’s really a matter of meeting people and putting yourself out there. For me, I met a lot of people through message boards and in the comments of blogs about writing and publishing, including my critique group, Writer’s Block Party. I met a lot of people through my own blog. I also grew up going to comic book conventions, conferences, etc... since my dad is an artist so I’m used to going to fandom and industry events. I’m used to sitting in lines and in panels with strangers all around me and striking up conversations with people. Outside of that, sometimes I’ll even send a cold email to a writer. By the time the writing community made its way to Twitter, I was already there for quite some time and felt comfortable reaching out and interacting with people. I met my critique group, Writer’s Block Party, through message boards and blogs.
I wouldn’t say that message boards and blogs are the answer today. But Slack groups don’t form themselves, so put yourself out there in various ways, be patient, and go along for the ride. The only way to create that community you long for is to speak up. Reach out to people, whether that is on social media, in person, via email, whatever suits you. I didn’t join the message boards or comment on the blogs with the intention to create lifelong writer friends, it was natural. If you’re going to an author signing, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with the people sitting around you. I’m an Aquarius and a middle child aka I’m an introvert. If I can do it, you most definitely can.
2. What do you think it takes to keep going long-term in this industry? What can agented authors --or even unagented authors--do stay amidst outside of writing a book?
Persistence and the ability to be a chameleon. The people who keep writing professionally are the ones who continue to write no matter what comes their way and they go with the flow of the way the industry changes throughout the years. Trust me, it will change. You will be thrown for a loop or fifteen throughout your career, so buckle up. Whether that means getting a pen name to restart your writing career, leaving your literary agent and starting again, trying a completely different age category or genre, etc… being flexible and never stopping the hustle certainly increases your odds of still being in this business 5 years from now let alone 10 or 20 or more.
3. Melanin in YA is basically the IMDB version of all things Black in the YA lit-sphere. What motivated you to create this? Why this specific category? What need did you want to fill?
The need was easy access to information, made readily available so that people have no excuse not to support us. Here we are. Now try and say you can’t find XYZ. I dare you. So the aim is for Melanin in YA to inform reader decisions as they find authors and titles new to them as well as aid querying writer decisions, buying decisions and marketing strategies for librarians and program organizers, and provide resourceful information for industry professionals such as agents looking to pitch Black Editors, Editors and publishing imprints looking for writers for IP work and/or anthologies, journalists researching Black young adult authors in the traditional publishing space, and more. The database, which is growing daily and I’m doing all of this on my own, acts as a cross-referencing tool across so many different audiences and I hope to continue to broaden serving the needs of all of those audiences every year.
As for the creation, Melanin in YA was founded in response to a culmination of events showcasing the lack of support for the Black community, specifically in the publishing industry, particularly in the age category that I mainly write for which is young adult. With an increase in statements from publishers supporting Black Lives and zero follow-through reflecting in these company practices of traditionally excluding and under serving the Black community, accountability was necessary. Enter, Melanin in YA.
4. Regarding the previous question, how have you seen the YA space evolve over the years? Trends, perception, inclusion, readership?
I could write a whole thesis on this but the basic answer would simply come down to, publishing pushes what they want and at the same time, trends are unpredictable and that hasn’t changed. Not a lot has changed when it comes to supporting marginalized authors and industry professionals. We’ve barely made a dent there. We Need Diverse Books has pushed people to think about the books that they read and support and without the movement, I’m scared thinking about where we’d be. Still, marginalized authors continue to face pushback at every turn so with the successes, there is still so much work to be done.
5. What advice would you give to members of other communities who might be interested in pursuing the creation of a database (or some other endeavor) in which the purpose is to uplift the publishing professional voices of that group?
It’s a lot of work. That might not sound like advice but it is if you know how to listen and be honest with yourself and what you are willing to do in your own free time, most likely for free, while putting your own money into your project whether you crowdfund or not. It is wildly rewarding when people tell you just how impactful your work has been to them but that doesn’t happen everyday. So you have to really be in it whether you get that pat on the back or not because that’s not why you’re doing it. You really are impacting so many lives, most of which you’ll never personally cross paths with.
People will also challenge you along the way. It’s easy to say, “Why isn’t there X for Y?” but when you remind perfectly capable people that they themselves are Z and can provide X for Y if they really wanted to, then it gets quiet. No one gets to dictate how other people choose to spend their free time so just be prepared to figure out how you will respond to nonsense now. People will ask you why you haven’t done this and that, completely ignoring all of the free time, effort, and money out of your own pocket you already put into doing what you are actively doing already. People will choose to be angry in your mentions when your goal is to spread joy and only joy and not entertain negativity in any way. Those days are hard. Figure out the tone of your creation and how you move online and offline and have a group of friends that you can vent to behind the scenes because you will definitely need them.
6. Do you know when you’re at risk of burnout? What’s your form of self-care?
Melanin in YA consumes me in the best way. It is a joy to wake up thinking about what good news in the Black YA space I will get to share that day. I seek out Black joy each and every day. That is incredible.
The hard part is adding stuff to the directory and making sure everything is as up-to-date as possible. That is work and is especially hard as I recover from COVID and still have long-term symptoms. So my form of self-care is my body literally forcing me to nap whether I want to or not because I just physically cannot do anything more without that interference of a nap. I never used to nap before I had COVID but I have a newfound appreciation for them. I also switch gears from Melanin in YA brain to Relax brain by turning on a television series that I know I have to pay attention to so that it consumes my every thought and leaves no room for my thoughts to wander.
Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!
7. You’re booked and busy and faced with the decision to choose only ONE cover reveal for a non-fiction YA entrepreneurial book. Who do you choose?
Amanda Gorman- How to Build a Poetry Empire
Rihanna- Becoming a Beauty Billionaire
Ava Duvernay- A Little Girl from Compton Had a Dream
Naomi Osaka- Ballin’ and Breaking Barriers
I love these fake titles! Anyway, I choose Rihanna. That website traffic. Wooo.
8. What author (s) do you consider the most versatile? Why?
That’s a great question but that’s so subjective and I would never want to miss a name here even if I thought to name names. I will say that it’s always fun to see authors in short story anthologies playing around in a genre that they don’t typically write in. That’s always a nice treat. There are also a number of YA authors that are expanding into writing adult and middle grade and that’s always exciting as well.
Melody L. Simpson is the Founder and CEO of Melanin in YA, a database for all things Black in young adult traditional publishing. She writes about pop culture and is also a young adult speculative fiction novelist. When not writing or reading, she can be found in the audience of a musical or play thanks to her musical mother, walking around the exhibit floor of conventions that she grew up on thanks to her comic book artist father, or at home enjoying Netflix. She was born and raised in New Jersey and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.