A Conversation with Literary Agents on Diversity and Inclusion

At the beginning of 2020, Lee & Low Books released the second iteration of its Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS 2.0), four years after the first survey was released in 2015. Before the DBS was conducted, people suspected that publishing had a diversity problem, but without hard numbers the extent of that problem was anyone’s guess. Although DBS 2.0 newly includes two more areas of the publishing industry — university presses and literary agents — the addition did not significantly change the results. The industry reports as 76% white, 74% cis-woman, 81% straight, and 89% nondisabled.  

Why does diversity in publishing matter? The book industry has the power to shape culture in big and small ways. The people behind the books serve as gatekeepers, who can make a huge difference in determining which stories are amplified and which are shut out. If the people who work in publishing are not a diverse group, how can diverse voices truly be represented in its books? The Q&A below, conducted remotely, makes evident the important role literary agents play in the children’s and adult publishing world and how a lack of inclusivity can influence which authors are published and which are not.  

The Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS 2.0) was created by Lee & Low Books with co-authors Laura M. Jiménez, PhD, Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, and Betsy Beckert, graduate student in the Language and Literacy Department of Wheelock College of Education & Human Development.


Jason Low: How do the numbers provided by the Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS 2.0) help you in your work? 

Thao Le, agent, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency: The data reveals the reality of what publishers buy and the stark holes in diversity. 

Quressa Robinson, agent, Nelson Literary Agency: Extreme frustration! It can be quite disheartening to see the numbers remain stagnant, especially when I have a client list full of talented Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) writers who have to be nothing less than perfect to even get past the editorial board stage. Yet I have heard editors say they are willing to put in the work if something comes from the right (undoubtedly white) agent. 

Beth Phelan, agent, Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency: I’m appreciative of all the agencies that participated, especially those that knew their numbers weren’t going to be great. Their being willing to admit it is an important step toward change — being able to see the reality. 

Stefanie Sanchez Von Borstel, co-founder of Full Circle Literary and Adriana Domínguez, agent, Full Circle Literary: We use the DBS and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) annual report on Books By and/or About People of Color (POC) in our discussions, presentations, and when talking with editors about the importance of investing in BIPOC authors and illustrators.    

Jason: In your opinion, how were the numbers generally received by agencies at large?  

Thao: The reports were shared amongst our entire team via email. We talked about them in our group meetings and compared the statistics to our own lists to uncover our own shortcomings. 

Beth: I saw a mix of reactions, ranging from unsurprised to discouraged. I think most agents coming from marginalized communities have been aware of the issue just from their own experiences. Meanwhile, people outside those communities who needed to see the stats might have been a little surprised. Having concrete numbers makes it harder for people to look away or make excuses. Even so, I’m not confident agencies will be emboldened to change what they’ve been doing so far.  

Quressa: I don’t know if I’ve heard anything specific happening at agencies — just some “diversity chats,” which put the burden of leading the conversation on the one or two BIPOC agents they might have on staff. 

Stefanie and Adriana: At Full Circle we are actively seeking submissions from BIPOC creators; we’re all in agreement that we need to immediately at least triple the numbers from the latest CCBC study. Agencies can also look inward to invest in BIPOC literary agents. We’d love to see more agencies have 50%+ BIPOC agents. Hiring one editor/agent of color isn’t enough, as we’ve all seen burnout and talented BIPOC publishing professionals leave book publishing for other industries. It is important that we all support #POCinPublishing and #LatinxinPublishing initiatives to lift the important work of BIPOC publishing professionals. 

Jason: Are diversity and inclusion efforts being enacted by agencies in general? if so, who are the leaders? What efforts have you seen that have been helpful and hopeful? 

Thao: POC in Publishing and We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) continue to be at the forefront. WNDB’s Walter Grants are amazing, by actually putting money behind diverse creators. I also think POC in Publishing’s mentorship program can be promising, so long as mentors focus not just on mentorship but also sponsorship of mentees and connecting them with job opportunities. 

Quressa: You may have a peer or friend at another agency that you talk to regularly, but it’s not easy to ascertain what is happening at other agencies. As a BIPOC agent I know which ones to avoid (some bigger, more corporate agencies are known for being toxic workplaces — both sexist and racist) and which are safe — and that has not changed. 

Stefanie and Adriana: Organizations that provide an umbrella for a cross-section of people in publishing (editors, agents, publicists, booksellers, authors) working together, such as POC in Publishing, Latinx in Publishing, and We Need Diverse Books, are doing amazing work! Their mentorships, grants, events, and programs have helped welcome many talented publishing professionals and creators. These young people themselves are doing the work to network with others and build a community to succeed in publishing. None of these organizations existed when we both started working in publishing twenty-five years ago. It is hopeful to see the BIPOC professionals (still a small percentage of the industry as we see from the DBS 2.0) making a lasting impact. 

Jason: Having sixty-three agencies participate in the survey is a good start, but what would spark more participation from agencies in the next survey, which will take place four years from now? 

Thao: Advertising on more social media and on industry newsletters like Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly might help raise awareness. Conducting the survey more frequently might make people more attuned to it. That said, perhaps some agencies have already realized their shortcomings and are afraid of participating because they know their numbers are bad…and if so, we need to normalize uncomfortable conversations. 

Quressa: The diversity conversation doesn’t include agencies enough. The lack of agents of color is overlooked as focus is turned toward authors and trade publishing professionals. Several of my clients who are Authors of Color (AOC) only received an offer of rep from me. My taste isn’t wildly different from my white peers, but it is informed by my experience as a POC who has interacted with other POC outside my primary cultural community. Make agencies as accountable as publishing houses. Make them feel that they have no choice but to participate if they want to stay relevant.  

Beth: Maybe add a direct question about what they have been doing to enact change since the last survey. Whether they would be willing to consider remote agents to widen their pool of applicants, and how they are ensuring safe spaces for marginalized agents within the company. 

Stefanie and Adriana: In 2015, as we recall, two of the big publishing houses did not participate in the voluntary survey, yet in the 2019 survey these two houses decided to participate. As more agencies learn about DBS 2.0 and read the important findings, more agencies will participate in DBS 3.0 four years from now. 

Jason: Discuss your own outreach efforts with marginalized voices. How are you personally trying to move the needle in promoting a more inclusive publishing industry? 

Thao: Our agency has used POC in Pub’s directory to reach out to potential candidates whenever hiring, but we should expand our contacts to reach even more diverse candidates. Several of us have done informational interviews and I’ve participated in various events where I’ve spoken to diverse youth about publishing careers. I personally have an open policy for submissions from BIPOC that never expires even when I close to general unsolicited queries. We need to work harder to create formal structures around uplifting marginalized voices, and it is something my team has started talking about more at meetings. 

Quressa: I am BIPOC so existing in this industry is one of the ways I’m trying to move the needle. My list is 98% BIPOC and my goal is to sell as many BIPOC-authored books as possible and make sure that my clients have long-lasting careers. 

Beth: My #DVpit [a Twitter event for creators from historically marginalized groups to pitch their work] stuff is more focused on writers and illustrators rather than agents, but whenever and wherever the opportunity arises, I do try to give those projects to marginalized agents and try to provide resources that point #DVpit participants to diverse agents. I represent mostly middle grade and YA fiction, and represent adult only under special circumstances. In particular I’m looking for voice-y ensemble MG fantasy, serious topics portrayed sensitively but truthfully in MG, and all sorts of YA. Interested in more monsters right now too.  

Stefanie: Fifteen years ago, I co-founded Full Circle Literary to build community around BIPOC agents, authors, and illustrators, where we can all do our best creative work and advocate together. Full Circle has a long commitment to discovering, developing, and successfully building underrepresented authors and artists. More than half of our agents, authors, and illustrators identify as diverse and/or POC. We have grown to five agents; three of us are women of color. The agency’s commitment to creators of color shines through in the books we represent, and editors/art directors trust our thoughtful representation. We are pushing the needle forward by consistently representing award winners and bestsellers by creators of color year after year. Books that we pushed to sell more than a decade ago, such as Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match Marisol McDonald no combina (Lee & Low, 2011) by Monica Brown and Confetti Girl (Little, Brown, 2009) by Diana López helped pave the way for new debut authors and author-illustrators in the last five years such as Aisha Saeed, Celia C. Pérez, and Juana Martinez-Neal. At the same time, all of our agents continue to nurture the work of exciting new talent such as 2020 debuts Adrianna Cuevas and Fahmida Azim. I hear time and again that our books are used as successful comp titles in acquisition meetings – hopefully boosting more opportunities for others. 

Adriana: Full Circle Literary and its agents are widely recognized for strongly supporting the work of creators of color. We hear this from editors, authors, and illustrators all the time when they approach us, whether directly or from referrals. I have personally spoken about the subject of diversity and inclusion at regional and national conferences over the years and am often approached to do so. Our agency represents award winners and bestsellers such as Rafael López, Aisha Saeed, Celia Pérez, David Bowles, Anna-Marie McLemore, Monica Brown, Susie Ghahremani, John Parra, Angela Cervantes, Katheryn Russell-Brown, and many others, as well as exciting newcomers such as Jacqueline Alcántara, Tania de Regil, Juliet Menéndez, Anoosha Syed, Christine Almeda, Emma Otheguy, Alexander Vidal, Marcelo Verdad, and many more. Our agency motto, found right on our website, is: “Books that break barriers and stand the test of time.” 

Jason: Literary agents were added to the survey because your segment of the business represents gatekeepers who play a major role in deciding who gets published and who does not. What advice would you offer other agents who are interested in doing their part in attracting more marginalized voices to publishing? 

Thao: I think the most important thing is supporting your existing BIPOC employees, making sure they are heard and feel safe to speak up and not fear retaliation or penalty. Particularly, non-BIPOC colleagues should back BIPOC up when they have the courage to speak up so they don’t feel alone or belittled. Those in leadership positions need to get comfortable with getting uncomfortable and directly confronting their biases by accepting criticism and not becoming defensive. Making sure that BIPOC have the resources and income they need to succeed. And if you have no diversity in your team, ask yourself why not, and educate yourself before reaching out to BIPOC (don’t make BIPOC bear the emotional labor and burden of educating your white employees). And make it a goal to hire more BIPOC. 

Quressa: Check your unconscious bias. Do you protect your clients when microaggressions occur? Are you getting your BIPOC clients the same kinds of opportunities and advance levels as your non-BIPOC clients? Are you only going after “issue” books because you see them as easy money? Do you listen to the BIPOC voices in the room? If there are none, what are you doing to change that? 

Adriana: I can personally attest to the importance of showing a commitment to creators of color. Expressing an interest in diversity at a conference or during an interview is a great start that I always encourage. It then needs to be followed by concrete actions. When I moved over from editorial to agenting over a decade ago, I decided to join Full Circle because their commitment was clear. This is in part because I had worked with Stefanie in my previous role as editor, and together, we had secured strong deals at a major house for Monica Brown and Rafael López, among others who were just starting out. The success naturally followed the commitment, and not the other way around. It is incredibly important for agents of color to feel supported as they work to amplify the work of creators of color, and that their work is as central to the agency’s mission as anything else. The confidence that editors and creators feel when approaching our agency comes precisely from their awareness of our time-tested, deep commitment to diversity. We’ve always known that we are in it for the long haul, and that matters a lot. 


Bios:  

Thao Le (she/her) is a literary agent at Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She represents picture books and graphic novels by author-illustrators, middle-grade fiction, and YA across genres, as well as science fiction/fantasy and select romance for adults. She has been a literary agent for nearly nine years. 

Beth Phelan (she/her) is a literary agent at Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency where she represents authors of Middle Grade and Young Adult books. She is also the creator of #DVpit, a Twitter pitch event for self-identifying marginalized book creators. She has been a literary agent for nearly ten years. (@beth_phelan

Quressa Robinson (she/her) joined the Nelson Literary Agency in 2017 after working as an editor for five years. She is originally from San Francisco but has been living in New York City for over a decade. As a New York-based agent, she is eager to build her middle grade, young adult, and adult lists. 

Prior to founding Full Circle LiteraryStefanie Sanchez Von Borstel (she/her) worked in marketing and editorial for ten years at Penguin and Harcourt. She is based in San Diego. She has worked as a literary agent for fifteen years. Full Circle has four agents on the West Coast (Stefanie, Lilly Ghahremani, Taylor Martindale Kean, and Nicole Geiger) and one East Coast agent, Adriana Domínguez. 

Adriana Domínguez (she/her) has over twenty years of experience in publishing. Prior to becoming an agent at Full Circle Literary, she was Executive Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, where she managed the children’s division of the Rayo imprint. Before that, she was Children’s Reviews Editor at Críticas magazine, published by Library Journal. Adriana has worked as an editor and translator for a variety of houses both in-house and on a freelance basis. She is based in New York.  

Jason Low

Jason Low

Jason Low (he/him) is the publisher and a co-owner of Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States. Lee & Low is proud to publish books about everyone and for everyone. leeandlow.com 

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Curtis Sarad

I think it would be an interesting data-point for the next DBS (or DBS-like survey) to gather diversity data on booksellers and library staff. We're only seeing half the picture here. Librarians and booksellers are also gatekeepers; it matters less if the publishing side accurately reflects diversity when the books are being bottle-necked by the keepers of public access to the books.

Posted : Jan 12, 2021 02:35


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