A drawing of two people with flowers in their hair and text next to them that reads "Take care of yourself so you have space to care for others."

How To Stay Sane in the Publishing Industry

Okay, so we all know COVID-19 is happening right now, right? We’re all caught up, we all get the gist? Keep your mask on, stay six feet apart, wash your hands for twenty seconds, try to isolate—do I have to keep going? I think we should all have caught on to this massive world event by now.
Yes? Great.
The first few months of isolation weren’t terrible. I’m pretty sure we all had the same mind set: I’m going to get fit, make some banana bread, and get my life together. That didn’t happen.
Then we hit four months. Reality really set in, and I realized I actually hate banana bread.
Suddenly we were at nine months: “Holy crap, this winter was awful, there is so much upset in the world and I have no hope. What are we going to do? Should I try to make banana bread again?”
Now we’re at twelve months: “I don’t even remember what real life is anymore. GIVE ME THE VACCINE.”
Staying sane in these tumultuous times and just living through the fact that we are in a massive disaster has been . . . less than easy. Every industry is being hit hard, and the publishing industry isn’t doing any better than the rest of them—especially independent presses who were struggling to get by in the first place. On top of it, no one can even cry with their friends over the struggles unless they schedule a Zoom meeting.
So what’s someone in this book publishing program to do? The people here are in grad school, working full time at Ooligan Press, living through a pandemic and social uprising, and some of them are even writing a thesis. Where’s the time for self-care?
In truth, self-care can be found in boundaries. It’s easy to let work and education overwhelm you, especially in this time of isolation we find ourselves in. There are so many things to do in the press, in classes, and in our own lives that we can lose the time we need to, well, take time. It can feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, or minutes in the hours we get, to just take time for ourselves—but there are when you add boundaries.
When I first came to Ooligan, I would lose my day to editing assignments or overthinking mini-essays for classes. I suddenly didn’t have time to grab a beer with friends or hike that one trail, and it was all because I refused to establish the boundaries that are needed in everyday life.
Now I only work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the weekdays unless there’s an emergency and I make sure to go on walks during my lunch. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have time to work on my next art project or even stretch my legs. In the end, the change in comma placement can wait and the concern about proper ISBNs isn’t an absolute emergency.
If boundaries aren’t established with work, school, and social life, then you don’t have time to focus on what really needs your attention. You.

A woodcut illustration of a boy and girl reading.

Editing Children’s Books on Mature Topics: What to Consider

While books can be a wonderful way for readers to escape reality for a few hundred pages, they can also help foster learning and provide readers with safe ways to cope with challenges they might be facing.

Authors and publishing houses have been tackling books on topics such as gender identity, depression, anxiety, divorce, and death for centuries. However, we have seen a more recent trend in books meant for children and middle grade readers that address these more “mature” topics for the younger audience.

An article from Publishers Weekly discussed a wave of middle grade books addressing topics ranging from gender transitioning to war and how these books have faced both ridicule and praise.

David Levithan, vice president, publisher, and editorial director at Scholastic, told Publishers Weekly he does not believe there are any true “taboo” topics anymore. He explained that the test he likes to follow is to determine if a topic is able to be contextualized for a child to understand.

“Some issues are very hard to contextualize for an elementary school level, but it can be done,” Levithan told Publishers Weekly. “Rita Williams-Garcia managed to explain female genital mutilation in No Laughter Here [Amistad, 2003] so nine- and ten-year-olds could understand.” Editors working with books for children should keep Levithan’s advice in mind when addressing the language of children’s books.

Rebecca Westcott, with The Guardian, explains how, despite an editor or author’s best wishes, not every book was written to be read by every person. Some books just simply do not stick with some readers. Westcott gave the example of We Need To Talk About Kevin, a book she described as powerful, well-written, and featuring a great storyline—and she also said she strongly wishes she had never read it.

One of the last things we want to do as publishers is leave a reader wishing they could erase a book from their memory. However, we never wish to go in the opposite direction, either, and aid in censorship. So how do we find a balance in what is appropriate for our readers? And how do those guidelines apply to children who are, according to Publishers Weekly, in the “storm-and-stress” period of their life, where so much is in flux.

There does not appear to be one right answer to determine what is appropriate for children to read when it comes to taboo topics. However, there is one important piece of advice to consider when thinking about what children can or can’t handle.

“I don’t believe the subject matter or the themes are too tough for a younger audience: kids deal with these issues,” former chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee Pat Scales told Publishers Weekly. And thus it is important to show children they are not alone by having their experiences reflected in the literature they read.

In addition to showing children they are not alone in their struggles by seeing characters tackling the same experiences, these books can teach children empathy and educate them in a safe, calming way about a challenge they may be having, such as how dyslexia sets them apart from their peers.

While we wait for more books taking on these tough topics for children, here is a list of published works that could provide parents and teachers with a way to help children cope with common struggles including depression, death, immigration, politics, learning disabilities, dementia, and more.

“You’re crazy” is Lazy: How Editors Can Most Authentically Portray Mental Illness in Fiction

The topic of mental health is one that has been more openly discussed in the media in recent years. While open dialogue around crucial issues is important to encourage, this increased exposure brings about new considerations and challenges, mainly about how we discuss mental health. Words have power, and the way fictional stories about mental health are told can have just as crucial of an impact on readers as facts presented in news outlets. Editors have the responsibility to put forth stories that promote a respectful and authentic perspective on mental health, and below are four practices they can implement to achieve this goal.

1. Create a house style guide about mental health language.

Editors and writers are given the opportunity to use language in such a way that encourages productive conversations about mental health. The Guardian’s style guide, which has a section specifically for mental health, lists words not to use, such as loony, maniac, nutter, etc. because they “stereotype and stigmatize.” The guide also advises moving away from language that paints the person as a victim, such as “suffering from” or “afflicted by.” Another example is the Buzzfeed style guide. They emphasize using “people-first” language (“a person with schizophrenia” vs. “a schizophrenic person”); understanding the difference between an emotion and a mental disorder (using “sad” vs. “depressed”); and they offer specific guidelines for articles that report on suicide, such as avoiding specification of the methods used and avoiding usage of the word “commit,” which can carry a criminal or negative moral connotation. If publishing houses employ a similar style guide, it encourages everyone to be on the same page about how to respectfully discuss issues and properly characterize a protagonist with a mental illness.

2. Hire Own Voices authors.

The term “Own Voices” was coined by YA author Corinne Duyvis, who hashtagged “#ownvoices” on Twitter in 2015. Own Voices authors are writers who share the same identity—race, ethnicity, gender, disability, etc.—as their protagonist. Lee & Low Books, an independent, minority-owned children’s book publisher, surveyed over thirteen thousand employees within thirty-five publishing companies and eight review journals in its first Diversity Baseline Survey in 2015. The data showed the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white, straight, and non-disabled, making it difficult for stories that aren’t mainstream by these standards to reach the collective consciousness of publishing companies. Adrianna Herrera, an Own Voices romance novelist, says, “That in and of itself is a problem, because it’s kind of the unwritten rule that queer stories don’t have a place in the general mainstream market or [sit] on the bookshelves next to the historicals.” As a queer person of color, she set out to write stories that reflected her own experience, and people who find themselves at a similar intersection of identity can relate to them. For an example of a publishing house that prioritizes Own Voices authors, check out Blue Crow Publishing.

3. Where Own Voices authors aren’t accessible, hire sensitivity readers.

Sensitivity readers serve as part fact-checker, part “cultural ambassador,” according to Slate journalist Katy Walman. Minority group members are hired by an author or a publishing house and are specifically tasked with identifying hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group. According to Marketwatch, 50.2 percent of Americans five years old or less are part of a minority ethnic group; they make up the first majority-minority generation in U.S. history. These statistics and the ever-growing presence of social media contribute to growing concerns for writers: an audience’s desire for more diverse representation that might be out of a given writer’s comfort zone or personal experience, and, if done incorrectly, can result in major bad press from the young, socially conscious online readers. Ooligan sought out sensitivity readers for a recent title, and the experience proved invaluable as a learning opportunity for those involved and for the editorial process overall.

4. Include helpline information at the end of relevant books.

Mind-wise Innovation, powered by a team of behavioral health professionals from Massachusetts who equip organizations to discuss mental health, detail the appropriate ways for media to tell the story of suicide, as well as offer tips. The first tip they share is to emphasize that suicide is preventable, and to include information on warning signs and how to talk to someone who may be at risk. They say, “Perhaps most importantly, include resources. This would include a number for a suicide hotline and maybe even local resources where someone could go to get help.” While these guidelines are suggested for traditional media outlets, they can also be effective in relevant books.

The meaning we attribute to words, the ways we view people unlike us, and the cultural norms we slip into as a collective society shape the way we perceive people and their circumstances. These are a few examples of many decisions editors and publishers can make that can help contribute to a healthier societal perception of mental illness.

What’s All the Hullabaloo?: A Perspective on Trigger Warnings

We at Ooligan press are incredibly excited about the recent release of The Gifts We Keep by Katie Grindeland. This is the book my project team has worked to publish. It’s set in the Lake Oswego, Oregon, area and follows various members of a family struggling to deal with their grief over past tragedy. The book struggles with topics of mental health, sexuality, family dynamics, and suicide. As our team has worked to bring this beautifully and deliberately conceived piece of fiction into the world, we have wondered what readers will take away from the novel; what they’ll enjoy; and how they’ll feel about what happens. Every person bringing a story to life wonders how the audience will react, but do they all think of the possibility of a bad reaction to their work? I don’t mean a bad reaction like, “Gross, I hated it.” I mean a reaction like, “This brought back traumatic memories or thoughts in a way that affected my mental and emotional health.” Do we, the storytellers, have a responsibility to warn our audience about subject matter that could cause that kind of distress?
That’s right. I’m talking about trigger warnings.
What is a trigger warning? What does it do? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a trigger warning is “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).”
Trigger warnings have been surrounded by a lot of controversy as they’ve been adopted by various institutions and media. Much of this controversy has approached trigger warnings as an example of political correctness run rampant, such as the widely read Atlantic cover story “The Coddling of the American Mind” or the Vox story “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.” These responses see trigger warnings as a tool for people to use to avoid ideas and values that they don’t agree with and demonize them as a form of censorship.
According to the article “A Short History of Trigger Warnings” by Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne, the concept of a trigger warning has evolved from its original intention, which was to protect vulnerable people who have experienced trauma, such as violence or sexual abuse, from material that might trigger intrusive thoughts and flashbacks that they quite literally have no control over. He claims the concept of a trigger warning has expanded to anything that might cause offense, disgust, or feelings of discomfort, such as “vomit, spiders and insects, slimy things, food, eye contact, pregnancy.” Whether material like that requires a trigger warning is a debate for someone else another time. However, it’s important to remember what and who trigger warnings existed for in the first place—people who have experienced trauma or mental illness for whom being unexpectedly confronted with certain materials may put them in danger of a harmful psychological response that they are not in control of. The issue is one of accessibility. To someone who has not experienced trauma or mental illness, a quick note before a movie or in the front matter of a book stating that viewers should be aware of sensitive material may be an annoyance, but to someone who has, that warning could, figuratively or literally, be a lifesaver. It allows someone who might be affected by the material to either prepare themselves or remove themselves from the situation. Is the minor inconvenience to one group more important than the well-being of the other?
I hope that readers of The Gifts We Keep by Katie Grindeland appreciate the elegance of the writing, the nuance of the characters, and the effective use of atmosphere. I also hope that our readers have the opportunity to enjoy this and other works we produce in a safe and informed way. And I, personally, don’t mind a little inconvenience if I can help make that happen.

Science Fiction is Fighting the Fight

With the end of the summer came Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 2–9) hosted by the National Alliance of Mental Illness. I knew that May was Mental Health Awareness Month, but I was pleased to hear another week was nationally devoted to breaking the stigma against mental illnesses. One in four people are affected by mental health disorders, and only two-thirds of that statistic ever seeks professional help. As the World Health Report states,”Where there is neglect, there is little or no understanding. Where there is no understanding, there is neglect.”
Acknowledging the possibility that something just isn’t feeling right is difficult enough for an individual who is already struggling with the effects of depression, or any mental illness altering one’s perception of themselves in relation to the world around them. And the issue of lamenting this invisible lethargy of sadness to a professional, a stranger, is by no means an easy feat. But it’s the cultural and social aspects of recognizing and talking about mental health issues that complicate the decision to seek treatment. That’s why I was incredibly impressed when I learned that a group of science fiction authors were hosting a social media campaign called
#HoldOnToTheLight. Created by Gail Z. Martin, the campaign encompasses “blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention, and other mental health–related issues.” The campaign serves as a welcoming, inclusive space where authors and readers alike can share stories of mental illness without shame or embarrassment.
As a reader who leans more toward the land of general literary fiction, I knew little about the science fiction community, and I honestly didn’t care to know. But since learning about this campaign, I’ve realized this genre has been talking about mental health–related issues and anxieties since its conception. The New York Times writes, “Science fiction does not detail the realities of specific problems so that we might avoid them, but rather represent our most pressing cultural fears.” For example, in his dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell encompasses issues related to the nature of his home nation in the turmoil of WWII and how democracy was being betrayed by totalitarianism (excuse my incredibly poor summary) by exploring an alternate reality for his characters. J. P. Telotte explains that “while science fiction … novels often, and quite naturally, raise awareness of—or stimulate discussion about—scientific and technological issues including climate change, they seldom function as primers for the solutions we need for these very knotty problems. More often, they make us feel better about our ability to survive them.”
While #HoldOnToTheLight wasn’t created to discuss mental illness in metaphors or analogies, it gives science fiction authors a place to honestly collect and disperse their personal accounts relating to depression, anxiety, or any ailment that has affected them mentally. Whether science fiction is portraying a realistic rendition of mental illness or exploring the issues through a greater metaphorical lens, I’m content in knowing that this community of writers is working to create a safe space for those suffering.
As Lord Byron once said of writers (and humans in general), “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.”