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a number-one best-selling author, success and book coach, and speaker on a mission to help leaders use the power of writing to uncover their unique stories so they can scale their impact.

I'm Stacy Ennis,

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Episode 138 | Publishing as activism, with Rebekah Borucki, founder of Row House

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I'm a number-one best-selling author, success and book coach, and speaker on a mission to help leaders use the power of writing to uncover their unique stories so they can scale their impact.

Hi, I'm Stacy

It’s no secret that the publishing industry is riddled with inequity. Basically every stage is white: authors to staff at publishing houses to marketing campaigns targeting white readers, the system is not designed to amplify marginalized voices.

That’s why I’m grateful for this week’s conversation with Rebekah Borucki, founder and president of Row House. Along with sharing her personal story, we discuss:

  • The inequities in publishing
  • How Row House is aiming to change the publishing landscape at scale
  • Their innovative 40/40 model
  • Some behind-the-scenes of their submissions process

Along with being the founder and president of Row House, Rebekah is a mother to five, grandmother to one, self-help and children’s author, and founder and president of Wheat Penny Press and the WPP Little Readers Big Change Initiative. She is driven by a commitment to make wellness, self-learning, and literacy tools available to all and to help others recover the freedoms stolen from them by white supremacy through activism centering on Black liberation and trans rights.

Learn more about Rebekah:

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Transcripts for Episode 138

These transcripts were generated by robots, not writers.

Rebekah: Why do we accept that is because of white supremacy? Why we accept that is anything that is adjacent to whiteness. And like, I know you know, and I want to name it because I think that people are also afraid to say that it’s at the standard for everything. Everything is a white standard worldwide, not just here in the United States. Anti blackness, anti dark skin is prevalent everywhere, even inside black and brown communities because of colonialism, because of white supremacy. So if you’re not acting close to or as a white man, the further you’re from that, the less legitimate you are, the more dismissed you are. So if a language doesn’t sound like, you know, Mister Jones in the boardroom, CEO, like it’s not going to be real, then it doesn’t make sense and then it’s not professional.

Rebekah: So I want to show up in professional spaces in my hoodie, with my chucks on, with talking. However, I want to talk and be respected because I am someone of great intelligence, of great experience, of great accomplishment. I show up to work every day. I do a good job. What is more professional than that? Does my hoodie make it not professional? Does a black woman’s curls make it not professional? But this is the narrative that’s been happening for too long. Like the way we dress, the way wear our hair, how dark our skin is policed. The way we talk is policed, all under the guise of professionalism or appropriateness or whatever. And it’s just because we’re not white men.

Stacy: Welcome. I am so excited about the topic of this week and the guests that I get to introduce you to. I have done a number of episodes in the past about equity and publishing, and it’s something that I feel very passionately about and also something that we don’t talk about enough.

Stacy: And today I get to bring in a guest who has such knowledge and wisdom to bring to us, but also that she’s actually doing something about it, which is what I’m most excited about. So let me introduce you to Rebecca Baruch. She is a mother to five, grandmother to one, self help, and children’s author, and the founder and president of Row House, Wheat, Penny Press, and the WPP Little readers Big Change Initiative. She is driven by a commitment to make wellness, self learning, and literacy tools available to all and to help others recover the freedoms stolen from them by white supremacy through activism centering black liberation and trans rights. So, Rebecca, I’m so excited to get to have this conversation with you.

Rebekah: Thank you. I’m excited, too. I love talking about row house and all things publishing, so it’s going. Gonna be a good one.

Stacy: I started following you a while back on Instagram. It’s. I don’t know how long it’s been. It’s been a little while. And so I’ve been really. I’m very familiar with your messaging. I’m very familiar with your story. And as I mentioned before we hit record, we have a mutual friend, Rachelle Fredson, who said, oh, you have to have Rebecca on. And I was like, yeah, I know. I would love to have Rebecca on. Cause she is amazing. And what I find so amazing about you and your story is that we all know that there’s this big problem in publishing. Like, the data is very clear. There is no, like, mincing words. There’s no. No equity in publishing, in my view right now. But what I love about your story is you actually decided to do something about it.

Stacy: You took those steps to found row house, and I would love to hear from you what that friction point was that, like, led to founding Row house. And what your mission is at row house.

Rebekah: I’ll start with the mission. It’s to raise the volume on voices that matter. We say it all the time. It’s our tagline. And what that means is taking the voices that can actually shift the narrative, that can create impactful change, that can start new discussions. We want to amplify and platform those voices because we can see what’s happening on social media right now, they’re often suppressed or they’re ignored or they’re pushed into the margins. Hence the. The name marginalized identity. Row house, I believe or not row house. Hay House was my former publisher, and I named them because it’s important, because I want to always educate other people. Just warn them and also just tell them where to go. I was with Hay House for my first two books.

Rebekah: I was invited to a conference in May 2018, and it was a conference of 40 Hay house authors and then just different people from the Hay house community, about 75 of us in the room. And at the. I felt uncomfortable during the whole conference just because it was really focused about or focused on economic goals, financial goals, and not the writing. And the story is why I write the story is why I became a publisher. At the end of the conference, I asked the CEO, Reed Tracy. He was on stage giving a talk, and I asked him why. I was the brownest person in the room, and I’m not that brown, so I’m very ambiguous. I’m half black, half white, but I navigate this world as a light skinned, ambiguous person.

Rebekah: And his response was, you have to understand, Rebecca, that we cater to an affluent audience. And I would say for most of the people in that room, it didn’t raise an eyebrow, but for some, it did. And, you know, went on in the conversation, and what he was telling me is that, you know, they’re just not getting the submissions from black and brown people, from black women. And I countered that with, you know, maybe you don’t, because they know. They vibe off of what you just said. They’re feeling what I feel like, not welcome in this space. And then it was a rough couple years after that, I had another book in contract. So I finished that book. I didn’t promote it. I was not excited about it. I wasn’t excited about working with them.

Rebekah: They invited me to be part of what they call the diverse wisdom initiative, where we recruited black and brown authors and mentored them. I was the only mentor of color, which is problematic. And there was a lot of, I think, harm, real harm done during that process. And finally, you know, 2020 rolled around, and the world started to wake up to some things. And I noticed that the Hay house authors and hay house itself weren’t saying much. And with COVID disproportionately impacting black and brown communities, which is my community, I really. I found some of the dialogue that was happening among the Hay house authors, even together, was really dangerous, like anti vaxxing, all that stuff. And then I discovered there’s this group called the disinformation dozen, which were responsible for the majority of. Of COVID misinformation, disinformation on the Internet.

Rebekah: And five of those twelve people were Hay house authors. And when I approached leadership about it was basically like, we can’t do anything. And I. And I felt that while I don’t control my author’s voices, if they were saying something that was so out of alignment with our message and our mission, then I would definitely speak to it. And their unwillingness to do anything about it is why in that meeting, I left. I said, I can’t stay here anymore. And it was a really hard process. I shared it online because I’m transparent that way. And it started a little kind of viral thing within our community, within the health and wellness spiritual community. And my girlfriend Kristen approached me and she said or texted me late at night and said, hey, why don’t you just start your own hay house?

Rebekah: And I was like, sure. And I had no experience and no knowledge and no idea how I was going to do it, but the invitation was there. And that’s the beginning. That’s the beginning.

Stacy: I love that story. I did not know that layer of the story. That’s amazing. I’m going to get back into the publishing side of it, but I have a personal question that just came up for me as I was listening to you tell this story, because I heard these different points where you were willing to stand up and speak the truth and call out and use your voice. And I think that. That. I mean, I think obviously, all of us should aspire to have that level of just, like, I think that spark to go out and speak in the way that you do, but more people don’t, right? Like, it’s scary. It’s whether you are, like, within the group that you’re speaking out for or you’re in another group that’s noticing and wanting to say something. Where do you feel that comes from?

Stacy: Within you? And is there something about how you orient in this world of activism that maybe our listeners could take and use in other spaces? Sure.

Rebekah: So, first of all, I’ll say nothing happens alone, right? So I don’t get the courage. I don’t get anything from or even my ideas in isolation. And it was Kyle Gray, who is angel card reader from the UK, who is amazing, this amazing, beautiful, soul white man. He was nudging me during the whole talk. Like, he was nudging me. And, like, Rebecca, like, you’re the one to say something here, like, you’re the one that has the identity that actually has the right to say something. So it was his nudging, and I have to give him credit, that made me stand up. I’ll say that this is a frustrating question for me, and I was just talking to my therapist about this morning, about this having courage or whatever. I get it all the time.

Rebekah: Like, what gave you the courage or what gave you the strength? And there’s a couple truths. First of all, I’m always afraid. Always, always. I do have a very strong faith practice, which allows me to be like, if this whatever has my back, then I’m not worried about you. And, like, your foolishness, like, it just doesn’t matter to me. Opinions of people who I don’t respect in the first place don’t matter to me. I care about the thoughts and feelings of people that I care about. And so that’s one part of it. The other part, who’s behind me?

Rebekah: My ancestors, my parents who have become ancestors, my community, especially my black sisters who have darker skin than I do and therefore have less access to these spaces or these opportunities to speak up or the safety in speaking up, I am always hyper aware of my safety. And for those, and I’m only going to speak to the people with privilege, you know, white privilege, thin privilege, pretty privilege, financial privilege. I have to ask you truly, like, what are you afraid of? Because I find that the fear is not rooted in something that is actually that scary, especially compared to black men and women being killed on the streets, on tv, and no one coming to their aid. So it’s like, what are you really afraid of? And if you care, how does that show up?

Rebekah: And further, what are you willing to give up in order to show that you care? Because I do believe that advocacy and activism does take a certain amount of sacrifice. And then the other part of that, I said there were two, but there’s actually one more. It’s that when you are living with a marginalized identity, so this is speaking to people without all of that privilege or without white adjacency privilege. For me, in that community where I have so much more privilege than my brothers and sisters, my siblings, it’s that it is imperative. Like, the people that I love are suffering. So what? I mean, like, if your child is suffering, you’re going to do whatever it takes. So it’s like, you know, by any means necessary.

Rebekah: It’s of all the ancestors, the Martin Luther Kings, the Malcolm X’s, the Eldridge Cleavers you know, all of those people, it’s like they died for this. I can stand up and talk to.

Stacy: A CEO, you know, I love that reframing, and it’s real. Like, I like that kind of callback with that question. I’d love to know a bit about when you founded Row House, what were you met with in the market, and what has that been like navigating this industry in such a radically different way? And maybe you can talk a little bit about that radically different way as you share a bit about this.

Rebekah: So when I left row house, I had $0 in my bank account and $0 in savings or retirement or whatever I had, or left hay house, I’m sorry. I had five kids that I was helping to support, one in college. So it was a scary prospect for me in terms of what am I going to do next? But I also know I’m a hustler. And what I also didn’t have was the type of access, connections, reputations, to be able to go into a bank and get a loan, to be able to be backed by like, rich parents or rich friends. So I just went to my people, like I always do in these situations, and I did talk to a couple VC’s, venture capitalists, that those conversations left me demoralized.

Rebekah: Like, why do I have to justify why black and brown, queer and disabled people need to be paid for their work, for their intellectual property? So went online. We partnered up with a company called seat at the table, which is a black and brown funded and founded crowd equity funding company. And were their first client. And we raised it like $300 at a time. And sometimes the donations came in for a dollar, sometimes the investments came in for $500. But over eleven months, with about 1300 people contributing, we raised $1.2 million. So that averages out a little bit more than $1,000 or a little bit less than $1,000 a person. So that’s how we did it, and that’s how we’ve always been doing it.

Stacy: Right?

Like, I’m descended from enslaved Africans. Like, if not for the community, them keeping each other up in really hard times, like, I wouldn’t be here speaking to you today. So I only have to look back to what’s already happened, to what’s appropriate and really accessible for me to do. So went to the people, they showed up.

Stacy: I love it.

Rebekah: I’ll say further. Another obstacle was everyone thought were crazy. You know, were offering this really radical contract where people got paid well. They got paid equitably. And I had a really prominent, beautiful person. A woman who’s a veteran publisher, has her own publishing company, and I consider a friend now say, like, look, I don’t think what you’re doing is ambitious. I think that ambition is not the problem. What I think is it’s impossible. And my co founder, Kristen McGinnis, this wonderful white woman from North California or southern California. I think everything north of LA is North California, but she’s a little bit north of LA. She left the call, and she’s like, oh, my gosh, what are we gonna do? And I was like, girl, you think that’s the first time anyone told me I couldn’t do something? It’s like, just watch me.

Rebekah: That just gets me more motivated. So a lot of obstacles, but in community, everything is possible. I love that.

Stacy: That was like. You’re like, okay, well, now, you said that I am going to do it. So later. One of the things that’s really unique about your model is it’s. Is it 40? Is that right? Okay. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Rebekah: So I mentioned my ancestors came from Scotland and also as enslaved Africans. And one of the promises that was given to black Americans after the Civil War was the 40 acres and a mule land allotment, and that was swiftly taken back. And so this promise was rescinded. That is a beginning of a pattern of promises rescinded over and over from our politicians on both sides, from everybody in society. Right from 2020, we got so many promises, and where are those people now? So we wanted to create a model that was. That spoke to that. So it’s in tribute to 40 acres and a mule. Thank goodness it worked out financially. So it’s a $40,000 advance for the Row house authors and a 40% profit share for royalties. And that is much higher, in a lot of cases, four times higher than industry average.

Rebekah: And what that does is, while equal, does not mean equitable. It allows us to even the playing field a bit. So the authors who are coming in with a lot of success that really don’t necessarily need that advance or can get ten times more somewhere else, they’re so attracted to the back end and the authors who don’t have the money to market themselves, to hire an editor, like, all that good stuff, it’s life changing money. Like, it’s doubled the salaries and triple the salaries of many of our authors. So it’s exciting for us to be able to offer it. It’s exciting for the authors to be able to receive it, and it’s attracted a lot of people that I didn’t think it was going to attract, like, multi New York Times bestsellers.

Rebekah: Like Fred Joseph, who came up to us and he’s like, I’ll do this for free. Like, I just want to be part of what you’re doing. So that’s our model. People still bulk at it. They still say it’s not going to work. And the reason why is because there’s a bunch of overpaid, mostly white men at the top taking big salaries and bonuses, and that is something that I’m never going to do. My salary is capped at five times the lowest paid employee at the company, and it’s nowhere near that now. So I take a little bit less for everyone to be able to work and do well.

Stacy: What has the response to, like, within the publishing industry been? Have you, do you feel like your company has gotten the. At this point now, the, like, not credibility? I don’t know the word I’m trying to find. But, like, you have a name that’s been built now, or are you still feeling like you’re kind of fighting your way through all the junk that exists?

Rebekah: We’ve been so well received, well loved, well respected. We are an infant publishing house. Like, when we’re talking about the big ones, they’ve been around. Simon Schuster, our distribution partner, just had their hundredth birthday. Like, that’s publishing. So we’ve been around for three and a half years at this point. We’ve only published books since April of 2022. Sorry. February of 2022 was our first release. We got our first paycheck in May of 2022. So we are infants, and we have had lots of national press, lots of opportunities to be at conferences. I have been speaking at conferences. We’re very well received. Book people are good people. They really are.

Stacy: I agree with that.

Rebekah: Yeah, but the best of them are at the top, or the most highly paid of them have gone to the top and then got caught up in that machine. Like, I need the reminder to not focus on profits. I need the reminder to stay integrity and focus on the mission, because it’s hard. So book people are such good people, they just haven’t figured out a way to do it because it’s never been done. They’re following an old model. So what we get most is, how are you doing this? And that’s exciting to me because that’s the whole goal. The goal is to shift the way other publishers do business. We’re never going to be. I don’t want to be publishing 5000 books a year, and right now, I can’t publish all the books that I want to publish.

Rebekah: I want people to go other places and get this good deal or a better deal that forces us to better.

Stacy: You’re disrupting. Right. And creating a model that hopefully other, bigger entities will, you know, take. Take inspiration from and maybe make some changes within. Hopefully, yeah.

Rebekah: I mean, this is what happens. My mother, if she were here, she would say that I’ve been disrupting since birth. I was a difficult baby, she says. So I’m, and I’m autistic. I have that diagnosis. I’ve been working with it pretty. It’s been a challenge since I’ve been eight years old. And I actually dropped out of high school because of it. I do not have a high school diploma. And it was always me questioning the why. Like, why do I have to follow this rule? Who does this rule benefit? It doesn’t make sense to me. So things, I think part of my autism is I’m so based in logic. If it doesn’t make sense, racism doesn’t make sense. Let me deconstruct it and see why this is happening.

Rebekah: And I think that’s a lot of the reason I’ve been able to disrupt in an easeful way because it doesn’t feel like I’m taking on anything. I’m just taking the next logical step. Like pay people, treat them well. Let good books get published. Like, na, duh.

Stacy: It’s like basic, you know? But I mean, it kind of goes back to the question that I asked earlier about that. Like, how do you get that spark to speak up? And your response was very logical. It’s like, well, obviously it just makes sense, right? Like, you should. And, you know, it’s interesting because, like everything in life and publishing, when you start to pull back the layers of the problem, the layers go very deep, right? Like, you think you’ve kind of uncovered the problem, and then there’s like an underneath layer to that. One of the pieces that I don’t think we talk enough about when we talk about equity and publishing, you know, we talk about the authors, we talk about the executives. We talk about the submission rates, and I should say acceptance rates.

Stacy: But we don’t often talk about the fact also that the entire industry, including editors, designers, that is also not equitable, which then has such a big impact on the content that actually makes it out into the world as well. How have you thought about that in your entire production process, you know, from submission to, you know, all the production that happens with a book to get it out to market.

Rebekah: So it is very intentional. This is something that, when we sat down, Kristen and I sat down, and I’ll say that she’s the most wonderful friend because she came in as a co founder, and I’m saying that with bunny ear quotation marks because she just wanted to help me out. She put aside her dreams for an entire year to come in and help build row house. And then quickly was like, this is not my dream, so I’m gonna go. Like, she was so reluctant to even do it with me. But from the very beginning, it was, what does the perfect house look like? What does a house that truly serves the author that we, as authors, would want to be at, would want to work with? And that’s how it started. So from the beginning, our authors do not have to be agented.

Rebekah: That’s the first gate that’s very tightly held shut. So because to get an agent, it’s like, who do you know? And like, how long have you been doing this? And what’s your platform size and all that good stuff? So our authors do not have to be agented. We, I would say most of our authors are unagented and we take open submissions. So you can just go to our website right now, click on submissions, and follow the guidelines, which are also supported by. If this is something you don’t understand, if you need some, if you have access needs that we can help you with, like, all of that’s there, we give example proposals, like, we want you to succeed. And so there’s that. It’s a very equitable process. Like, you go into a queue and it’s like, first come, first served.

Rebekah: We’ve had many agents come in and say, so what is the agent email? And we’re like, no, you get in line. Like, you get in line. And further, if you do have an agent, the agents have to submit on exclusive because we need to know that you want to be at Rohouse. We don’t have that restriction on open submissions for unagented authors. Agents have a tendency to just like, kind of spam and send to everybody. We need to know that you want to be with us. So it’s on exclusive. When they start going through the process, everyone that they meet is going to be someone who has had some sort of conversation with, interaction with, work, relationship with many people of many marginalized identities and intersecting marginalized identities. So they might be black, queer and disabled.

Rebekah: They might, you know, it’s like multiple marginalized identities. And we did look at the fact that in 2020, and I don’t think this was malicious intent. I think it was a combination of riding a trend, but also really wanted to do better. A lot of publishers did what I feel was just putting blackface on their publishing house by just hiring black authors. But is that black author supported by a black editor who. That they don’t have to translate black English to them? That’s not going to be edited out of their book, because it’s even happened to me where my. Whenever I said black, it was changed to african american. I said, I have never uttered those words in my life. I do not talk about my people as african american. They’re black.

Rebekah: So the black editor, the person in charge of acquisitions, the copy editors, the sensitivity readers, the designers, the COVID designers, these are people who have identities that either match the other people in the little publishing village or have an understanding of living under a certain level of oppression. And that is so important. And I think that we miss. It’s not even like, you know, will they get the book or will it make the person feel comfortable? It’s like there are so many nuanced discussions with being a woman, with being queer, with being trans, with being black, that if you don’t get it, the book isn’t going to turn out well, and that the author is going to have this frustration that’s going to make them not as good of a writer.

Rebekah: So it’s super, super important for us, for the entire staff, for all the personnel. And we do have some white guys in there. We do have some white straight guys, but they are the minority. And this is probably the first time they’re going to be in spaces where they are that, and I’ll tell you that they fall in line. They’re pretty good about it. And it also feels so good to all the people that are coming to work. We have all community meetings once a month where everybody is welcome. Like designers, copy editors, people that work with us before and, like, are no longer with us. We all come in as a community, and to see these faces, it’s like, I haven’t been in a majority white space in so long that I don’t even know how to act in one.

Rebekah: And because everyone’s just so free to be them. So it’s so critically important. I think that it’s what publishing doesn’t get yet, and I think it’s because the leadership is really not rooted in this mission. I think that leadership has to change for this change, too, happen everywhere.

Stacy: One of the points that you made about the editor has been an interesting, actually, like, I had to go through my own awareness in this area and, like, pay attention to how having an editor that matches your, and your reader’s identity really matters. I was. I spent the first eight years, probably, of my career as a book editor, and I always approached that job with the mindset of, even if I’m not the intended reader, coming with a fresh mindset allows me to see things that the author can’t see because I’m not steeped in the language. And I think that’s fine when we’re talking about a business book or a book on real estate or, you know, something that’s like a subject matter book.

Stacy: But I had a client, and she’s spoken about this openly, who had an experience where she is writing for a marginalized group. She is in that group. Her editor was a white female, and her white female editor was super triggered by the book and pushed back on a bunch of things, but under the guise of expertise, and thankfully, this woman is super strong and was like, hell, no, and requested a new editor. But you got me thinking about how voice and safety have to. There has to be, like, safety in the creation process, because we already, as authors, go through all this internal spiraling, right? While you’re writing something that you’re going to share with the world, and then to then not have that safety in the creation and production processes of the publishing journey.

Stacy: That’s this whole layer to this that is so critical, and particularly when you’re creating books that are serving these communities that aren’t necessarily getting these books anywhere else.

Rebekah: I’ll say, I’m going to give you a couple examples of this is how, like, we messed up at row House. You know, my identity is my identity, and my perspective is limited to my experiences. Of course, I can empathize with other folks, but it’s just not my experience. And we’ve had black women at our house come to us about editing issues or just things that most people would be like, all right, no big deal. You figured it out. The person got it. But they’re coming with, first of all, a lifetime of experiences of being silenced. A lifetime of experiences of being dismissed or not taken seriously or be made to be characterized as difficult when they speak up. So there’s this fear, too, that they can’t even fight back when it happens.

Rebekah: I’m happy that we do have this openness and the system that allows us to have mediations, have people come in, share their feelings freely, but there’s still an element of fear, because I do hold a position of power. I do have a lot of privileges that they don’t have. I sign their checks, right? So there has to be these different levels of support, and this understanding that people are coming, especially our people, are coming in with some stuff, and stuff is going to trigger them, and rightly so. They have to be on alert. Like, to be triggered is to be like, okay, I’m waking up to something that feels dangerous, and I need to protect myself. Now, for white women, it’s a different kind of trigger, because the danger is different for black women. It can be death or unemployment.

Rebekah: So I have an example, though. I just. I’m sitting next to this book cover for Fred Joseph. It’s his first book of poetry, and it’s called we alive, beloved. Now saying, we alive. We hear, we good. That is proper English, because it’s black English, which is an actual language with rules. Like, black English has grammatical rules, which people don’t understand. You say something wrong, they’ll be like, what? So, we alive, beloved. There is a quote on the back by mahogany Brown, who is an incredible writer poet. It says, we alive, beloved, be a tourniquet for America’s oldest wound. This collection is a cauldron of becoming come prepared to be sustained.

Rebekah: The be a tourniquet was corrected so many times by our production team that I was like, you either do not have an understanding of black English, and you need to get it, but you need to stop correcting this. You need to ask a question first. If the book is called we alive, beloved, then be a tourniquet is also real. Right? And we have this debate, and it’s frustrating for me that also, I have to have patience, that I am part of a bigger machine that is not used to this language. But these are the kind of problems that show up, and they are disheartening, and they are demoralizing. And I don’t want to have to fight for the words of this woman, who is far more talented in terms of writing, far more accomplished in terms of what she’s done in her life.

Rebekah: Like, I don’t want to be her defender. Right? Like, she should stand on her own words. So it’s a problem. It’s a big problem. And hopefully. And just that just legitimizing language. Legitimizing. Like, when people say, like, oh, it’s a dialect. No, it’s not. It’s a whole language. It’s a variation on a language standard. American English is a variation on a language we don’t speak, the king’s English.

Stacy: So I love all of this because I took a. As part of my undergrad, I studied linguistics, right? And one of my favorite takeaways from that class was that our teacher told us there is no such thing as proper English because language is always fluid and it’s contextual. And I love that piece of it. And this just awareness around not. I mean, that’s even just bringing me to a whole other layer of what I was thinking about in the editorial process. I was thinking about being seen and understanding. We’re now even taking it to another layer of, like, understanding language as it exists within a community. And, you know, and that. That’s different for this group or that group. And, yeah, it’s really interesting. I think about.

Stacy: I think about English as a fluid language a lot because I live in Portugal, so we’re in the UK system, and, you know, I’m constantly kind of moving between UK English and American English. And it’s interesting. Why do we accept that? Right, right. But we don’t accept this other.

Rebekah: Why do we accept that is because of white supremacy? Why we accept that is anything that is adjacent to whiteness. And, like, I know, you know, and I want to name it because I think that people are also afraid to say that it’s at the standard for everything. Everything is a white standard worldwide, not just here in the United States. Anti blackness, anti dark skin is prevalent everywhere, even inside black and brown communities, because of colonialism, because of white supremacy. So if you’re not acting close to or as a white man, the further you’re from that, the less legitimate you are, the more dismissed you are. So if a language doesn’t sound like, you know, Mister Jones in the boardroom, CEO, like, it’s not going to be real, then it doesn’t make sense, and then it’s not professional.

Rebekah: So I want to show up in professional spaces in my hoodie, with my chucks on, with talking. However, I want to talk and be respected, because I am someone of great intelligence, of great experience, of great accomplishment. I show up to work every day. I do a good job. What is more professional than that? Does my hoodie make it not professional? Does a black woman’s curls make it not professional? But this is the narrative that’s been happening for too long. Like, the way we dress, the way wear our hair, how dark our skin is policed. The way we talk is policed all under the guise of professionalism or appropriateness. Or whatever, and it’s just because we’re not white men.

Stacy: Yes. One of the things that, you know, when I first learned about your publishing house that I was really excited about is your readers. I was excited for your readers because I was thinking about my own experience. You know, like many authors or many people in publishing, I fell in love with books at age seven. And there are those books that you read growing up even, you know, in the recent past that you feel so seen, like you’re like, you have. You feel like you have language for your experience or you feel like it’s validating your experience, even though you don’t need to be validated, but it feels good. Can you talk a little bit about what you have seen on the reader side and the impact that your books are making out in the world?

Rebekah: What is interesting and not interesting in terms of our readers is that they are predominantly white women. So I don’t find that very interesting because there is a movement and a desire for a lot of white women to educate themselves. What is different and exciting about the books and the relationship they have with the readers is that our books aren’t written for white people. We had, I’ll say one book, heal your way forward, by Maisha T. Hill. And she specifically teaches white women around anti racism and community. So she wrote that book, but that was the last one. Our books are for us, by us, and our intended reader is always the reader that’s going to feel seen, that’s going to feel affirmed, feel less lonely.

Rebekah: But however, people from outside of those communities are really excited about those books because what they’re seeing is authentic dialogue from people with experience, and they’re really learning. Like, you have to read about people different than you to gain that understanding, that compassion. I have to do it, too, all the time. If I’m reading about, you know, children’s book adventurous Adeline, that’s coming out in September, I’ve never been in a wheelchair. So we have a queer brown woman who has cerebral palsy. She uses a wheelchair. She wrote this book, and it is a celebration of this little girl. And it’s, you know, her wheelchair is part of it because it’s part of her body. It’s an extension of her body, just like her hair would be. And it’s not sad, right?

Rebekah: It’s like, look at this girl doing all these things, not even an inspirational way. Just look at her being a regular kid. So I need to learn that, too. When our readers get to read a book like our white women readers read a book like, all the black girls are activists. Let me tell you how hard it was to get that book on shelves. Like, we don’t want them getting excited. So all the black women are activists. There’s so many layers, that whole book and the design and everything. But Ebony Janisse, the author, was so specific and so careful to say, this book is for black women and femmes. This book is for black women and femmes. It is not for anybody else. However, you can read it. And white women are learning so much about themselves because there’s true connection.

Rebekah: It’s a real story. So I love our readers. Our readers are amazing. Our readers are very diverse. They’re dynamic, they’re supportive. They evangelize for the business. They’re just so excited. Many of them are donors or investors because we had so many of those. So they’re really invested, literally. But I’m so glad that we get to write books for us by us, that everyone enjoys. It’s awesome.

Stacy: I imagine from that moment in that room speaking to the CEO today and all that you’ve been through in between, to be able to, you know, look out at what you’re creating has to be so incredible. I think the, you know me as a way outsider looking in, you know, my hope is that this becomes just one of many. Right? Like, it’s like you’re starting something that hopefully some other places will pick up and run with. I imagine that part of the challenge in sparking this further is being able to prove out the business case, which is always what, you know, the publishers go to have you doing it. Yeah.

Stacy: So I would love to hear about that part of it because, I mean, we know that social, systemic change in business, like, at the end of the day, it all comes down to money. It comes down to those pieces of it. And I’m curious not curious to hear whether that’s happening, but I’m just curious to hear how do you have some data that can start to spark some conversations and change that might influence a broader shift?

Rebekah: So there’s a couple really exciting things about what’s happened at row house. And sometimes I just say it was really just divinely orchestrated by the ancestors because I don’t even know how we did it. But there’s only about 150 black women who have ever raised over a million dollars in capital. So I stand among them. That’s an incredible. It’s historic. We didn’t know what were doing when we did it our first year, and every year after is over a million dollars. And we’re doing this on a very small number of books. People are buying our books. They want our books. The media is focusing on us, celebrating us, uplifting us. The black media, which often gets ignored, has really been welcoming to us. So we’re proving ourselves time and time again.

Rebekah: We had two back to back New York Times bestsellers not even a year out from our first book. We have spent $0 on marketing or advertising. It’s all grassroots. We don’t have it right, so it’s all grassroots. We trust our readers to talk about our good books. So the model is proving itself. It will take time. I don’t feel a particular pressure, though. I’m really keeping my head down and minding my own business. I don’t look what other people are doing. I just saw someone sent to me, you know, Viola Davis just opened up her own publishing company, focusing on marginalized identities and media. And I’m like, yes. And the truth is we’re. We’re actually already one of many. There’s a lot of people out there doing that. This. We took different pieces of models that we love from other people.

Rebekah: Barrett and Kohler, like, specifically, they’re, you know, kind of like a business imprint. Love what they were doing with equity and transparency. What makes us different, and I find this a lot when I go into rooms with other independent publishers, is that we aim to be huge. We’re not like the book nerds sitting in the corner. We’re the book nerds saying, no, we’re going to be the popular kids. We’re going to be cool. I say often, like, I want to be the Jay Z of publishing. I want to grow so big that we can’t be ignored, that people have to take note, that they have to welcome us, that we have to be part of things. So a lot of indies and, like, look, much respect. Verso, North Atlantic, AK Press, which is anarchist press, doing beautiful work. I’m so inspired by them.

Rebekah: But they’re not trying to compete in the mass market. And we’re all about get the most, do the most, be seen the most, because that’s what it’s going to take for people to actually see that black people, queer people, disabled people are human beings. And if we don’t see right now what’s. What’s happening in the world, that people just don’t see other people as humans. Like, these problems are going to persist. So I say all the time, I don’t want to just put more black and brown, queer, disabled books on the shelves. I want to disproportionately stack the shelves with those books. I’d be okay with going into a bookstore. It was all black books on the shelves because it’s been the other way forever.

Stacy: So I love your mission. It got me thinking about. I listened to, I think the podcast was hidden brain episode with a father who had a child with down syndrome. And he was telling about his story of, like, welcoming his daughter, discovering that she had down syndrome, and his journey of loving her, really, and her life has kind of become part of his research study and what he does in his university work. And he made this comment that has just been, like, echoing through my brain. He said before her, when I would go to the grocery store and I would see somebody with an intellectual disability, I would go to a different checkout counter because I didn’t know how to, like, it was too uncomfortable for me.

Stacy: And he kind of tells his story of, like, his journey with this relationship with her and his relationship with difference in general in the world. That was very painful to listen to because it’s. But beautiful at the same way. Like, there’s. I think you can hold both. What I find, and I think what attracted me to row house and to your mission is that, yes, you come out with, like, the way that you speak about what you care about is strong and passionate and you’re not holding back. But I also, at the same time, I see this, like, empathy come through in offering these voices out to change the world in a way that, like, people can connect with and orient to and build a relationship with.

Stacy: Because I think that’s the power of books is like, that is deep connection and change within you.

Rebekah: The relationship part is so important. And what I love about this story that you just shared, I don’t think that you have to have adjacency to someone to care about them. Right. Like, I can care about Palestinians without being palestinian or even knowing one. Right.
Rebekah: Do feel, though, and this is why wheat Penny press is called wheat Penny Press, but my children’s imprint, it’s named for my father who grew up in abject poverty and used to pick up change off the ground all the time. And he ended up buying a brand new truck with all the change that he collected. And it was just proof that these little bits of something can make something bigger. And I saw it, though. I saw it demonstrated. And so all of us doing just a little bit in our homes, in our communities, with the people we love, with the people that are adjacent to us, will change the world. We can do it swiftly. It would take no time. It would take no time for people with more to give to people with a little less. No time at all.

Rebekah: Whether it’s time, talent, treasure, just sacrifice, it doesn’t even have to hurt. So the reason you read in my bio that my activism focuses on black liberation and trans rights is because I come from a black community and my son is trans. So those are the things that are closest to me. It’s something that I can relate to. I have a relationship with, and I can be impactful inside that movement. I’m not trying to jump into anyone else’s movement, but what I am doing with row House is I allow people within those movements to be able to have a platform so they can do it. Like, it doesn’t have to be you doing all the things. Just pick one thing that you really care about and work hard on it. That’s it. So relationship is important. And I do think that books do that.

Rebekah: I think books, you know, they saved my life. They radicalized me. They start revolutions. They heal. They entertain. It’s. They’re so important.

Stacy: They humanize, which is what I love about books. Right? Because there is, like, it’s. We can have one one conversations, but that’s hard to scale. So, Rebecca, thank you so much for this conversation. I love. I got so much from it. I learned, and our listeners did, too. Where can our listeners and viewers learn more about you, row house. And. And potentially submit their books if they’re interested? Sure.

Rebekah: So don’t worry about me. Go to Real easy. And on socials, we’re row house. Pub. Just pub at the end. So please come and interact with us, because we really, really love having these types of conversations. And it is all about scale, right? Because, you know, I say, I’m gonna leave you with this. The last thing I wanna say, one of the phrases that I live by, there’s two. My father did not teach me how to live. He lived and let me watch him do it. So I allow people don’t look at what I do, just see how I move. And I think that’s a beautiful way to move through the world. And also, you can count the seeds in an apple, but not the apples in a seed. We are truly limitless when we make that.

Rebekah: You know, we try to make an impact when we have that conversation, when we give that blessing. So those two things, like, drive me, and I’m glad to be able to demonstrate it in a small way.

Stacy: Those are beautiful things to close with. Rebecca, thank you so much for your time and energy today. Really appreciate it. Thank you.

Rebekah: I appreciate you.

Stacy: And thank you to you, our viewer, our listener, for joining us. I hope this was a really thought provoking conversation and inspires you to take action today right away and continue to do so. Thank you, as always to Rita Domingues for producing this fine podcast. I could not do it without her. She runs everything behind the scenes and I very much appreciate it. And if you enjoyed our content conversation, I would be so grateful if you would take a moment to rate and review the podcast. It really helps me reach more people with the message of living a life that is beyond better, and I will be back with you before you know it.


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