3 Ways Literary Agents Can Increase Diversity in Publishing

I’m not an agent. My internship at a literary agency does not make me an agenting expert. But I am a publishing “gatekeeper” of sorts and I hold literary agents in high-esteem because of their role as the writer’s champion.

This week, Lee and Low asked several literary agents to share their thoughts on the diversity gap in publishing. Many of their points were very good and interesting. But a few made my stomach sink. I am going to avoid calling folks out by name in my response, but I encourage you all to read the full article so you can side-eye the appropriate people.

I am not surprised that agents could not give an estimate of how many submissions they received from people of color. Many agents don’t keep stats about such things, and most people don’t think critically about race and culture. Hell, I didn’t start keeping track of the number of books by people of color I read until two years ago.

However the idea that the race of the author is only a factor if the story is explicitly about race makes me pause. If an agent only considers or seeks a writer of color when the book is specifically about race, all the published books by people of color would be the “issue books” that readers are sick of. I’d wager they wouldn’t sell as well either. Agents, editors, publishers, and booksellers all compound this idea that, for example, a black writer should only write about slavery. Diversity in publishing should also include diverse narratives.

1. Do not pigeon-hole your writers of color.

Do not suggest that they write about “Africa.” Do not tell them their character needs a more “Asian” name. In short, don’t try to shape the author’s book based on what you think those people should be writing or what you think those people should be reading. Furthermore, if you choose to represent an author of color, don’t restrict which editors you pitch the book to. Is the book really only suitable for the Small Diverse Imprint Editor, or could you rework your pitch to appeal to the Large Fantasy Imprint Editor, and the Mid-Size Children’s Editor?

2.  Add your commitment to diversity to your submission guidelines.

The next question that caught my attention was about why so few queries are from writers of color. There are definitely socio-economic barriers within the arts and I’m glad that was mentioned. But that doesn’t explain the low rates of submission. Many writers of color who are trying to overcome those barriers (or who didn’t have those barriers to begin with—not all people of color are poor). Why have they not submitted their work to you?

The simplest and one of the most effective things an agent can do is say they want diverse work. In fact, you can do it right now. I’ll even get the sentence ready for you: “Writers from marginalized groups are encouraged to query.”

I always bring this up during twitter chats such as #DiversityinSFF and #MSWL. The nature of the publishing industry is such that if an agent or editor does not express interest in diverse books, writers may assume they are not. And they are not wrong to think that way! Mainstream publishing is dominated by white, upper-middle class people. Why would anyone think you want to go against the status quo if you don’t say so?

If you can’t copy and paste that sentence onto your site and have it be a true statement, then please just admit you don’t give a damn about diversity in publishing and exit the convo, stage left.

When reading this article I was most excited to read what solutions the literary agents presented.  I have done enough venting about the issue; I’m ready to start fixing it. I was disappointed to see an agent offer no solution at all.

The idea that the best projects will simply come is similar to the “we’ll find the best actor for the role” argument, and identical to the “I’ll just read the books that catch my eye” argument. All are based on the idea that every project, actor, and book has any equal opportunity. That is categorically false. In this same article, the agents said they received fewer submissions from people of color. In this same article they discussed how socio-economic factors can act as a barrier for writers of color. With this in mind, which projects, pray tell, do you think are simply going to come to you? The right projects? Or the white projects? (See what I did there? So punny. We laugh to keep from crying.)

There are plenty of people of color already “climbing the mountain of publication.” Many are mastering their craft even if they have neither the time nor money. I mean for fuck’s sake, no one writes books looking for a high ROI. I have yet to encounter a writer who says writing is a luxury. For many it is a passion, and a calling. It is a way for them to tell the stories that no one else is telling. The idea that people of color are less able or willing to face “the mountain” is condescending and dismissive. But the more important to the point is, if you know it is difficult why are you not doing anything to help?

Maybe ‘cause you don’t care?

To acknowledge a problem, and then declare you’re not going to do anything to fix it is not just incredibly callous; it makes you part of the problem. Literary agents are absolutely part of the solution and some of the agents in the article gave example of how they are making a difference.

Here’s the last tip:

3. Listen to and learn from marginalized writers.

Think of it as being a good ally. Writers of color build communities just like white writers. If the conferences or associations you frequent do not have many people of color, look for a conference or association that has diversity as part of its mandate. Ask if you can attend. (Don’t get mad if they say no.) When you attend, respect your position as a guest in their space and do all that you can to listen and learn.  Ask them about their needs, their concerns, and their questions. Ask them why they have never submitted to you. Ask them if you can help, and how.

TL;DR version: To increase diversity in publishing, literary agents need to represent the interests of diverse writers.

13 comments for “3 Ways Literary Agents Can Increase Diversity in Publishing

  1. tjgholar
    March 18, 2014 at 11:30 pm

    Léonicka, thank you so much for posting this. It’s funny, I was giving the article the side-eye just before I saw your blog post about it. I know what jackiewellington21 means about agencies requesting multicultural stories, then turning them down because they “couldn’t connect” with the characters, because that has happened to me several times. Three of the four main characters in my YA novel are Black, and I’m not changing their race. I’m writing the novel I wanted to read when I was a teenager and would have read, only it didn’t exist.

    As a Black writer with Black characters, I know that getting published will be an uphill battle, so I have decided to query twice as many agencies as most books and bloggers would suggest since I know I have to work twice as hard for half as much. So far, I have queried 120 agencies. So many places say they want to see more stories about people of color, but do they really mean it?

  2. SineNomine
    November 20, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    As a white aspiring author, would it be better to seek out and query agents with strong diversity statements in support of those agents and their efforts to level the playing field, or to not query those agents to avoid butting in and potentially taking away some of what few fair opportunities exist for PoC aspiring authors?

    • Léonicka
      November 23, 2013 at 10:33 am

      Great question! There’s no “right” answer and I’m sure an argument can be made for both sides. It’s always best to query agents whose vision best matches your own so if diversity is important to you, you should probably query that agent. That said, ways a white aspiring author can have impact include referring POC writers to that agent and asking all agents about their stance on diversity and their representation of POC writers (or lack thereof).

  3. November 18, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    Yes, yes, and more yes. I am so tired of editors claiming to be allies and doing nothing to change the status quo. If you don’t put yourself at risk to change things, nothing is going to change. Publishers should be using the money they have from sure bets like celebrity memoirs and John Green to take a chance on authors of color and to be able to afford to put in the time and effort and promotion efforts they do as a matter of course with their white (even unknown) authors.

  4. November 12, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    I liked this. I’ve said (on twitter, on the blog, etc) that I’m extremely interested in promoting diversity in our industry, in characters and settings that we DON’T read about every two seconds, and having writers from every walk of life query me. But I’m happy to add this language to my submission guidelines as well. Thanks for the suggestions!

    • Léonicka
      November 13, 2013 at 2:16 pm

      Yay! I’m familiar with your client list and your work so I already knew you champion diversity but I’m SO glad you’ve added it to your guidelines as well!

      • November 13, 2013 at 4:04 pm

        I follow literaticat on Twitter. They are a few lit agents that advertises for multicutural pieces. However, when you give it to them, they state, “this is not a voice of any nine year old I know.” Then I respond, “If you live in the hood, this would be the voice of a 6-yr-old I know.” I am saying that what agents think of diversity is physical appearance in a book. To diverse writers we know that it is more than the name of Manuel, Keisha, Ling, and Sonya. It is the food, the passing the buildings that once occupied by 40 families, and the sitting on the stoop watching time pass by. I don’t think agents want to expose that side to America.

  5. November 11, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    I’m not surprised that most agents wouldn’t know what percentage of submissions they get from different ethnic and social classes. Most query letters are going to begin with “Jared thinks he’s an ordinary boy until the day he learns he’s going to fulfill the ancient prophecy.” They’re not going to begin with, “I am a Chinese Jew.”

    I like the steps you suggest to foster diversity in an agency’s client roster, but I also can see where the process of submitting in near-anonymity (is Sophie Murray white or black? How about Michelle Jones?) would create the sense of a truly color-blind selection process.

    I especially like your suggestion to find associations and conferences that have diversity as part of their mandate. How about going even further, though, and going to colleges or high schools or public libraries with a predominantly black or latino population and running workshops there specifically geared toward helping the struggling writer hone his or her craft? I’m thinking of something like a literary mentoring program. It’s one thing to widen the net to catch those minority writers who are on the verge of making it, but it’s another to actually get out there and boost up deserving individuals who just need a little more instruction and encouragement than they can otherwise find.

    • Léonicka
      November 11, 2013 at 12:11 pm

      Thanks for your insightful comment. Just to clarify: “color-blind” is rarely a good thing.

  6. November 11, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Awesome writing on changing the status quo in publishing.

  7. November 8, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    Nice piece. i will go read the full article now.Lol, the right books or the white books

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