The blank page and blinking cursor: is there a more daunting sight if you’re a writer? From where to begin to how to finish, we, as writers, wrangle not just words and ideas but our very souls, and we try to write it down right. But the blank page is a walk on the beach compared with navigating the dynamics of publishing. Publishing is hard no matter where you are, but especially so if you’re trying to find your way in from outside. If my beach analogy wasn’t hint enough, my outside is the Caribbean.
I recently talked with three women who are also Caribbean writers who have faced the hurdles of publishing abroad—and succeeded, achieving publishing deals in the U.S. Jamaican author Diana McCaulay’s Gone to Drift was published by HarperCollins in 2016, Trinbagonian author Lisa Allen-Agostini’s Home Home was published by Delacorte in 2020, and Barbadian author Shakirah Bourne’s Josephine Against the Sea is coming from Scholastic in 2021. They have all been finalists for the Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature, a program from the Canadian NGO CODE that has highlighted 15 books over five years (including my own Musical Youth, published by Caribbean Reads, which won second place in 2014). Previously, each of these authors published with independent Caribbean or Caribbean-focused presses and self-published.
Bourne, who calls herself a teller of “authentic Barbadian stories,” landed a top U.S. literary agent through querying right around the time she snagged the Caribbean publishing deal that comes with the Burt Award. Her experience is a lesson in retaining as many rights as possible and focusing on expanding rather than narrowing opportunities.
McCaulay, whose book became an official pick of the Junior Library Guild, says, “The sale of rights is a great opportunity to sell books in different places, where different publishers have stronger networks.”
Allen-Agostini says reviews in publications such as Publishers Weekly were among the pluses of her U.S. deal, as well as better sales and opportunities to publish and present internationally.
In some ways, the lessons are the same whether the hopeful writer is in small town U.S., in farther-flung parts of the globe, or the Caribbean—all of which have the distinction of being off the publishing map. “My advice: submit your work,” Allen-Agostini says. “Be honest with your editor and realistic about deadlines. Persist. Network. Follow through.”
Agents help. “I do think it helps a writer to get a better deal,” McCaulay says. “But in the current literary market, it’s harder to get an agent than a publisher.” Meanwhile, it is almost impossible to get a reputable publisher without an agent: chicken, egg. And, in addition to hard work, talent, and perseverance, there’s luck.
Bourne says writers—especially writers whose opportunities have been limited and who are now intimidated by the publishing process—need to be able to identify their needs and speak up. Everything is negotiable. “Though my agent readily answers all my questions, I still worry about bothering her or being seen as demanding,” she says. “I have to constantly remind myself that it is an equal partnership and it’s her job to give insight and guidance along the publishing journey.”
The same applies to the writer’s relationships within the publishing house—from the editor to the publicist. “Ask for what you want,” Bourne says. ”If you have an agent, you can voice these requests and let the agent communicate with the publisher. If there’s no agent, then engage with the publisher directly and do not be afraid of the word no.”
Writers deal with rejection regularly, so they are familiar with the word no; it’s yes that can trip them up. “I tend to be very giddy about publishing—‘Oh, publication! Yay!’—and I don’t really interrogate the contracts at all,” Allen-Agostini says.
Bourne has a lot more advice—find communities, virtual or real; work on improving craft; etc.—but the key lesson, she says, is to “trust in your story”: seeking an international platform should not mean watering down what’s particular about a writer’s work. “Stop worrying about international editors not understanding the dialect or getting the subtext or voice. The story will appeal to its intended audience. Continue to read, experiment, challenge yourself, and go where the pen or keyboard guides you.”
I will add only that if you’re a writer, you should celebrate your successes, give your body that natural boost that comes with reveling in your joy—at least as much as you revel in the rejections, disappointing sales, and bad reviews. Celebrate you. Do like Allen-Agostini does and “post everything” to your social media! Because, guess what, you did this.
Joanne C. Hillhouse is a writer from Ottos, Antigua. She has published six books of fiction with regional and international publishers.