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.