Diversity in Publishing & Literary Agents

The lack of diversity in the publishing industry is not a new topic of conversation. Thankfully, the conversation has gotten a lot louder in recent months, and it’s uncommon for a day to pass by when you don’t encounter someone talking or writing or tweeting about what more we can do, what changes need to be made, and what, exactly, “diverse” actually means. Last week on Twitter, I voiced my concern about how I wasn’t sure of the best ways literary agents could insert ourselves into the diversity and equality problem. I know of many ways I can get involved as a reader and a buyer, or even as a reviewer or a blogger, but the lines sometimes blur when thinking about how literary agents can make a bigger impact. This blog post is a little strange because it’s sort of directed at my fellow agents, but I think writers and readers will find it just as interesting.

I asked my Twitter followers to let me know if they have any ideas, if there is anything that literary agents can do better, or more of, in regards to promoting a more diverse and more feminist publishing industry. And then this past weekend, I asked my newsletter subscribers the same question. So now I want to share some of the feedback I received, so that other literary agents, other readers, other people who simply care enough about books and publishing to want to see some changes, can think about how they can incorporate these ideas and maybe even come up with ideas of their own.

How can literary agents be a bigger and better part of diversity conversations and initiatives?

Be vocal about representing marginalized authors.

I discovered after hearing from many writers that this is possibly the most important thing that literary agents can do. Even though we think we’re being upfront about what we will and will not represent, it never hurts to talk about something too much, especially when it comes to looking for diverse clients and diverse content. Evidently, there are writers being rejected by agents because their manuscripts contain diverse characters or content. There is no other word for this than ridiculous. So letting writers know that we welcome diverse stories and creators is the only way to make writers feel like they can approach us with their work. 

Establish, or participate in, a mentorship program.

This particular suggestion referred to an online program, something free that would allow for the most access. Having established writers and agents give advice, host Q&A sessions, etc. would provide excellent resources and support for many new writers. I know groups like this do exist, but many are quite small and writer-focused. I’m not sure how often publishing professionals get involved with programs, provide resources, or host Q&As for free. That said, there are certainly professionals with blogs and social media accounts who do share free information, and agents who participate in #askagent sessions on Twitter. I think there is a lot to think about with this suggestion. I keep this blog running for similar reasons, and I’d certainly love to hear from mentorship programs like this who are looking for guest literary agents to speak with a group of writers. 

Offer free resources to writers.

This suggestion is very similar to the one above. A big barrier in the publishing industry is that it feels very exclusive; most jobs require an unpaid internship or two before anyone sees any money. This obviously restricts who can afford to take those beginning opportunities. Literary agents obviously can’t change the way the publishing industry is structured, but we can try to break down the economic barriers for writers. Thinking beyond the online sphere, agents can partner with local organizations to provide free resources to those who truly don’t know where to go to learn about the industry. Occasional library and school visits, for example, could make a big difference to writers. I’ve personally been brainstorming what I can do to provide even more free resources to writers who otherwise would not have access to this information. 

Share what books are being read.

Not many agents share what books they’re reading, at least not as frequently as other readers. Literary agents obviously read a lot, but it’s not always published books. Sometimes we get weighed down by the pressure of needing to read everything, and it’s easier to just not share the books that we’re loving. But sharing our book lists and, by doing so, promoting diverse creators and content, is a great way to show writers that we’re looking for diversity for our own client lists. 

These are only a few suggestions, but they are at least a place to start. I know I’m not the only literary agent who wants to get more involved, but struggles to figure out what to do in our role. Agents are sometimes met with resistance when it comes to diverse submissions—just like what writers face during the querying process. I hope diverse writers and those writing diverse content know that there are agents out there who are on your side, and that there is a big piece of the publishing world that is passionate about the same issues that keep you up at night. From agents, to editors, to publicity directors, we’re all trying to do what we can to create an industry that embraces feminism and diversity. 

If you have any other thoughts or ideas on this topic, please contact me to let me know. You can leave a comment on this blog post if you want to start a conversation (either with me or other readers), or you can send me an email.