Why Literary Agencies, Not Publishers, Are Mostly to Blame for Lack of Diverse Authors

Literary agents, not editors and publishers, are the true gatekeepers.

The past two weeks have exposed massive problems with the lack of diversity in US books, much in the same way Pee-Wee Herman once exposed his wee Peewee in an adult movie theater - which is to say we've all said "...ew, ick?" about the news, yet remained fascinated by the tugging persistence of certain patriarcho-colonial anachronisms.

Allow me now to offer a quick roundup of the most recent offenses committed by the publishing industry.

  1. Flatiron Books (owned by McMillan, which is owned by Holtzbrinck, which is owned by Springer Verlag, which is owned by Mannheim) released American Dirt, a(n astoundingly non-satirical) "novel" that perpetuates stereotypes about Mexicans. The book was overwritten by an American white lady who knew next to nothing about Mexico or Mexicans yet said in interviews that she felt it her duty to speak for this "voiceless brown mass" (I had a tumor with that name once) that presumably cannot tell its own story (a story much better told in many prior books, most of them plagiarized by same said white savior) and hailed as "the new Grapes of Wrath" on its (barbed wire) cover by some dude who has clearly been snorting some good white shit. Oh, it was also anointed by Oprah (who - and this is total coincidence, okay? - just sold her memoir [a book we all need, because she's been so reclusive, I guess] to Flatiron) for her eponymous book club, wholly owned subsidiary of her eponymous every other fucking thing, amen. Read more about it here.

  2. Penguin Random House thought it was a great idea to create "diversity" by reprinting "classic" books like Great Expectations with cartoon drawings of black and brown people on their covers, because, you know, putting a black man on the cover of a novel called Moby Dick couldn't possibly go wrong. They did this, one imagines, because they, like the writer mentioned above, do not realize people with skin darker than a cup of Pinkberry plain are actually legally allowed to learn the alphabet and think out loud now.

  3. The powerful Romance Writers of America organization had to cancel its RITA Awards contest and ceremony this year amid backlash for revoking the membership of writer Courtney Milan after Milan tweeting that the work of a different romance writer, Kathryn Lynn Davis, was racist for its stereotyped depictions of Chinese women. (Also worth nothing, the Davis book was a weak ripoff of Outlander, but that's another crime for another day.) This came on the heels of ongoing turmoil in the RWA for supporting the publishing industry's practice of segregating books by perceived ethnicity (aka "black" romance, etc) and, until last year, never having awarded a RITA to any writer of color. The RWA sanctioned Milan by revoking her membership and banning her from ever holding a position of leadership in the organization. This lead to eight leaders of the RWA resigning in disgust.

These latest disappointments have inspired fed-up writers and their allies to confront the publishing industry through social media, traditional media and even in person. The impressive grassroots action #DignidadLiteraria, assembled by community organizer and writer Roberto Lovato in partnership with writer Myriam Gurba, met last week with Flatiron Books and got the company to promise, in writing, to increase Latinx representation in its staff.

It's good to see writers fighting back. But it's weird that none of the commentary I've seen about the lack of diversity in book publishing has addressed the role the big literary agencies have to play in the problem.

As the primary gatekeepers in the publishing industry, literary agencies and agents arguably have more power even than publishers and editors to decide who gets published and why.

In my life as writer, I've found that the general public has no idea what the differences are among literary agencies/agents, editors, publishers, and booksellers, so I'm going to take a second to explain this.

  • Booksellers are companies that sell already-published books to readers. Barnes & Nobel is a bookseller. So is Amazon. Sadly, so is Wal-Mart.

  • Publishers (also known as publishing houses) are the companies that buy manuscripts from writers, and magically turn them into books. There are only five big publishing houses left in the United States, all of them based in New York City and most of them owned by some other (and much more massive) multinational conglomerate. Publishers' sales representatives sell their books to booksellers. Often, they pay booksellers to put certain books in the front window or on the front tables in their stores, because the publishing house has decided long in advance of a book's release which books will become "organic" bestsellers. The mafia calls this technique payola. Publishers just call it marketing.

  • Editors work in publishing houses. They read through submitted manuscripts and decide which ones they'd like to buy. Editors used to have the power to make purchasing decisions on their own, but that is no longer the case. Now, editors must take the manuscripts they like to acquisitions meetings, to lobby for the book before a panel of sales and marketing leaders. Last year, I had all five editors in the children's book division at Harper wanting to buy a young adult fantasy book I wrote. In the acquisitions meeting, the book was rejecting by the marketing department, which seemed to think it might be confusing to sell a book about a magical girl who was Cuba, but also black, and not black as in black American, but as in Afro-Cuban. The book did not get purchased by Harper. Once a book is purchased by a publisher, the editor will finesse the manuscript with the writer.

  • Literary Agencies are independent companies that do not work for publishing houses. They employ literary agents, who are the go-betweens for writers and editors/publishers.

  • Literary Agents work for writers, by representing them. Editors at the five big publishing houses almost never consider an un-agented manuscript. If you want to get published, you must have an agent. It is not easy to get an agent. When I was starting out, I sent my first novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club, to 65 agents. I only heard back from 3, and 2 were rejections. The book became a bestseller, but only 1.5 percent of the agents I sent it to saw any worth in it at all. Had I not sent the book to that one agent who believed in me, Leslie Daniels, it might never have been published at all.

There are eight distinct steps a writer must go through before any publisher or editor has any say in whether their book will be bought. Most writers are annihilated during those first six steps, which is why it's important that any movement or conversation about increasing diverse voices in books must include the first seven steps, too.

  • Step 1: Write a manuscript.

  • Step 2: Find a literary agent to represent you. This will require persistence and luck, and most writers will give up at this stage because literary agents still don't value diverse voices beyond stereotype and will reject most writers of color for this reason.

  • Step 3: Convince your new literary agent that your manuscript is worth submitting to editors/publishers - meaning not that you have an audience, but, far more importantly, that editors/publishers will BELIEVE you have an audience. This stage is horrible. Truly. I cannot tell you how many times I've had to explain Latinx people to an agent (and I've had a few) without them budging from their blind prejudice and telling me the book I just spent two years of my life writing for zero pay is "not sellable." Many excellent books will die here, at this stage, murdered by clueless white agents.

  • Step 4: Your literary agent queries editors about your book, pitching it in their own words. Try not to let them do this. Write the script for them, if you are a writer of color. Otherwise, they are very likely to talk about how the book reminds them of Taco Bell. Trust me here. Very often, agents will totally screw up here when pitching writers of color, and the book, which likely is excellent and has a wide audience, will die here because your agent made it sound unreadable, overly niche, and irrelevant.

  • Step 5: Editors say yes or no to reading your manuscript, and usually it is no. Whatever manuscripts have made it this far will likely die right here.

  • Step 6: Editor reads your book, and decides whether or not to lobby the publisher, for whom they work, to buy it. Pretty much every editor reading the book will reject it at this point. They're reading lots of books. They're looking for reasons to say no. The only way your book will survive here is if you happen to stumble across an editor who understands diversity. Good luck. Your book will probably die here.

  • Step 7: Your editor wants your book. This sounds wonderful, but it's really just a place where you get your hopes up in order to have them smashed in ways that hurt worse than any prior steps. Keep going anyway. Have champagne, but not the expensive one. You're not there yet.

  • Step 8: Editor takes your manuscript to the acquisitions meeting, and pitches it in their own words, which will be even less accurate versions of the crap your agent said to convince them to read it. The acquisitions panel will think you're the love child of Ricardo Montalban and Charro, and that you've written a Spanish-language cookbook for starving Mexican children. Most books by people of color will die here.

The current visible campaign to increase diversity in publishing starts here, at step 8 in the process. This is a mistake. This is why, no matter how well-intentioned the efforts are among organizers and the editors they sit down with, it isn't going to make much of a difference. It would be like - well, let's imagine you're a chubby middle aged woman. Okay, fine. I don't have to imagine that part. I am a chubby middle aged woman. Let's say I want to go dance at this chic new nightclub downtown. I get dressed up in something your grandma might wear to church, and grab my other chubby middle aged woman friend, and, after we have MaiTais at Chilis, we go wait in line. We get to the door. The bouncer decides there's not room for us, but waves the hot, skinny 20-somethings behind us right on in. The hot young women go to the bar, and get cocktails from a well-meaning bartender who otherwise hates his life. We wait till the club closes, and call a meeting with the bartender to complain about him never selling us a drink. He promises to sell us a drink next time we're at the bar.

But we will never get to the bar until we convince the bouncer that chubby middle aged women have value and that we probably spend more on things like alcohol and entertainment because our lives such so much more terrible than other people's.

That's what this is like.

You can't have this conversation about increasing diversity in publishing without looking at the literary agencies. Not in a meaningful way, you can't. The literary agents are the selective bouncers of the literary club, and if they don't let you in, you are shit out of luck.

So, here's what I want to know. Who are the top 10 literary agencies? Who are the agents working in them? How diverse are these agencies and the people working in them? How in tune are these agencies and their agents with diverse populations? When a book by a person of color comes in, what kinds of conversations are these agencies and agents having with each other about the work? Because no one has compiled this information yet, I had to set aside the time I would have otherwise been using to write the new book my agent won't think has any merit, to play reporter.

The 10 most powerful literary agencies in the United States, based upon how many book deals they're able to broker that are six-figures and more, are as follows, according to the Directory of Literary Agents:

  1. Trident Media Group

  2. Writer's House

  3. Folio Literary Management

  4. Sterling Lord Literistic

  5. ICM/Gelfman Schneider

  6. The Bent Agency

  7. Foundry Literary + Media

  8. Marly Rusoff & Associates

  9. Inkwell Mangement

  10. The Knight Agency

There are many other agencies, but for purposes of analysis, let's stick to the top 10.

Now let's look at the number of literary agents employed at each of these agencies, total, and see how many of those agents are people of color.

  • Trident Media Group - 100 percent white

  • Writer's House - 93.2 percent white (1 Latina agent; 1 Latina foreign rights agent; no other race or ethnicity employed as an agent)

  • Folio Literary Management - 92 percent white (1 East Indian American woman; 1 African American woman; no other race of ethnicity employed as an agent)

  • Sterling Lord Literistic - 85 percent white (1 East Indian American woman; 1 English man of Asian heritage; no other race or ethnicity employed as an agent)

  • ICM/Gelfman Schneider - 100 percent white

  • The Bent Agency - 100 percent white

  • Foundry Literary + Media - 83.4 percent white (1 East Indian American woman; 1 Korean American woman; no other race or ethnicity employed as an agent)

  • Marly Rusoff & Associates - 100 percent white

  • Inkwell Management - 92.9 percent white (2 Asian-American women; no other race or ethnicity employed as agent)

  • The Knight Agency - 100 percent white

Alrighty, then.

Of the top 10 literary agencies in the United States, half have agenting staffs that are 100 percent white. The other five aren't much better, with three having agenting staffs that are more than 90 percent, and two at more than 83 percent white.

This means 95 percent of all literary agents at the top 10 literary agencies in the United States are white. Diversity here consists of exactly four Asian American women, two Latinas, one African American woman, and one Asian-English man. And that's it, folks.

Race and ethnicity are not the only measures of diversity that are not reflected among these agents, either. Equally important to note is the absence of agents from a working class background, agents who went to anything other than an exclusive (expensive) college or university, and a near complete lack of male agents of color.

In other words, the gatekeepers for US publishing are almost entirely wealthy white women from New York - you know, the same people who love American Dirt, because someone just like them wrote it and it makes them all feel like saviors. These agents learned everything they know about diversity from the elite universities they attended, which is to say, everything they know about Mexicans they learned from Sandra Cisneros.

The lack of diversity in US publishing is a massive problem. It shuts most writers of color out and pushes forward a damaging narrative of Otherness that ends in concentration camps for brown children. They who control the narrative control everything, and right now, America's literary club is being controlled, from the front door, by a squad of rich, sheltered, skinny white New York women bouncer-agents.

Until that changes, nothing else will.

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