Julie Merberg of Downtown Bookworks: “Don’t fall in love with your ideas”

Don’t fall in love with your ideas. Not every great idea needs to be a book. It’s OK to say, “I thought that was going to be really cool, but it didn’t turn out that way and I’m not going to publish it.” Better than having thousands of unsold books taking up space in a […]

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Don’t fall in love with your ideas. Not every great idea needs to be a book. It’s OK to say, “I thought that was going to be really cool, but it didn’t turn out that way and I’m not going to publish it.” Better than having thousands of unsold books taking up space in a warehouse.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Merberg.

Julie Merberg is a children’s book author and publisher. Her books include No! My First Book of Protest, My First Book of Feminism (for Boys), My First Book of Girl Power, Diversity is a Superpower, The Power of Kindness, My First Jewish Baby Book, and It’s a Mitzvah. Her company, Downtown Bookworks, has a mission to keep kids engaged in reading, and in the world around them. The list reflects her passions for science and nature, art and design, social justice, and superheroes.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was always a voracious reader. My mom was an English teacher and we were limited to 1 TV show a night (back when there were 3 channels to choose from). But I could read all I wanted — and I did. Like everyone else, I devoured Judy Blume and the Little House books before that. I started writing books when I was 6. They all rhymed, not very well. I always wanted to write, but it wasn’t until I became a mother and knew exactly what I wanted to read to my kids that I really figured out what I needed to be writing.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

I can’t honestly say I was inspired to a life of activism through reading, but reading did give me empathy, and I definitely went through a phase of reading a lot of Holocaust memoirs (including of course, The Diary of Anne Frank).

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I had been in publishing for 25 years first as an editor and then as a book packager before I decided to become a publisher. And at that point, it was pretty humbling to learn that there’s more to publishing a successful book than having a great idea or a wonderful story or a gorgeous cover. It’s all of those things, plus serendipity and having an audience and knowing how to find them. Publishing is very much a business, and it’s a tough one. So my biggest mistake was hubris — thinking that just because I would want to buy a book, other people would too. What’s funny about it is that pretty regularly I’ll get calls from a friend of my uncle’s or someone I want to high school with — you’d be surprised at how many people think they can write children’s books just because they’re not very long. And the ideas are usually horrible. And I will not so patiently explain that just because you think an idea is amazing doesn’t necessarily mean that other people will share that opinion…the most basic lesson that it took me a few failures to really absorb.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

For a while now, we’ve been publishing what I think of as our “big ideas for little people” books. When I wrote My First Book of Feminism (for Boys), I was really thinking about my own 4 sons, and how the concept that boys and girls are equal was so basic that a baby could understand it. So I came up with the simplest possible language and illustrations and created an early (and fun) lesson in feminism. We have a license with DC Comics and had created a series of concept books (board books for babies) using superheroes. We went from letters and numbers and opposites to the idea of girl power when I realized that superheroes — people who use their powers to make the world better — are great role models. Superheroes are also all about diversity — they come from other planets, they have different powers, they’re different colors — and those differences are what make them stronger. Superheroes could be used as a vehicle for teaching kindness and tolerance too.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

When we approached DC about elevating more peripheral, diverse characters we hadn’t realized we would discover such a treasure trove of really relevant characters. Black Lightning is a high school principal by day and superhero with electromagnetic powers fighting crime by night. Nubia is Wonder Woman’s Black sister — the origin story is that Hyppolita molded both girls from sand and they were given powers from the gods. They were then separated at birth and when they re-encountered each other, even though they were set up to face off in battle, Nubia decided that as women, they should work together. We actually have a book of all of the DC superheroes’ origin stories coming out in the Fall.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

In our non-licensed publishing, we were very focused on issues of equality, diversity, and social justice and made sure that all of the images and content of our books was diverse. At a certain point in time, our DC titles which featured the most popular and recognizable DC characters — Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — just felt really disconnected to our messaging. It felt wrong to have book covers that didn’t feature characters of color — but we couldn’t invent characters. We approached DC with this dilemma, and they enthusiastically agreed to work with us to spotlight some lesser-known characters and to collaborate in creating original art in the classic style that we use for all of our books. It just felt really important to be able to show characters who were not just powerful and popular and cool, but also relatable for all of our readers.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Publishers are an extremely progressive group of people who are all working hard to amplify marginalized voices both internally (diversifying staff) and by publishing stories and points of view which haven’t been represented before.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Always have a WHY when you’re publishing a book. Publishing a book about unicorns because unicorns are popular is a terrible idea. Publishing a book called NO! about activists who stood up for what they believed in and changed the world — because you want to inspire kids to question their world and make a change — that’s an excellent idea.
  2. Share your stories. Not just the stories inside the books, but the stories behind the books. Booksellers, readers, sales reps connect to the material when they know where it came from. As a small publisher with a highly curated list, it’s important for us to explain why we made a particular choice to publish each one.
  3. Don’t fall in love with your ideas. Not every great idea needs to be a book. It’s OK to say, “I thought that was going to be really cool, but it didn’t turn out that way and I’m not going to publish it.” Better than having thousands of unsold books taking up space in a warehouse.
  4. Love what you do, and be proud of your books. Some of them will make money. Very few will make a lot of money. Gratification is its own currency.
  5. Stick with your passion. It shows, and you will find your audience — the people who share those passions. I wrote a book called My First Jewish Baby Book. This obviously has a very targeted audience. But the people who get it can see how excited I am about Jewish culture, food, and holidays, and they love that book. They’ll buy it for every Jewish baby they know.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’m not really a quote person.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Stacey Abrams is my shero.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Downtownbookworks.com

Facebook: @DowntownBookworks

Insta:downtown_bookworks

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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