After a lively auction involving seven editors from the Big Five, Simon Pulse, the Simon & Schuster teen imprint, acquired North American and audio rights for Brittney Morris’s debut novel, Slay, in what Quressa Robinson of the Nelson Literary Agency disclosed was a six-figure deal for two books. Morris, 27 and a graduate of Boston University with a B.S. in economics, who recently quit her job in Seattle as a business analyst to write full-time, says that the Black Panther movie inspired her to make her first serious attempt at writing fiction.
“I left the theater a Wakandian queen,” she explained. “And then I went back to work the following Monday, back to the same routine. Nothing had changed after my religious experience that weekend. It felt like I was living a double life in a way, like I had a secret identity that stepped into a whole different world when I left the office.” The solution to this dichotomy for her was to sit down and whip out—in 11 days—Slay.
Slay is the tale of 17-year-old Kiera Johnson, a black teen game developer battling a real-life troll intent on ruining the Black Panther-inspired online role-playing card game she has created and that has become especially popular among black gamers worldwide. But when an African-American teen, Jamal Rice, is murdered during a dispute over the in-game currency (“Slay Coins”), Slay is widely disparaged in the mainstream media and elsewhere as a racist, exclusionist, and violent hub for thugs and criminals.
Faced with the threat of an anti-white discrimination lawsuit, Kiera suspects that a rich, white, male classmate at the private school that she attends, Wyatt, is behind it. Desperate to maintain her secret identity as Slay’s developer, Kiera proposes a virtual duel to resolve the dispute: if she wins, Wyatt drops the idea of litigation. If Wyatt wins, Kiera hands over to him complete control of the game.
“It was a perfect storm,” Simon & Pulse editor Jennifer Ung recalled of her initial response to the manuscript. “It’s a commercial concept with deep emotional themes and a voice that really pulls you from page one. The book beautifully explores what it means to be a person of color in a world without a lot of safe spaces; as an editor of color, that really resonated with me. It’s a well told story with nuanced characters you want to root for as they navigate difficult situations.”
Slay will be published simultaneously in hardcover, audio, and digital formats under the Simon Pulse imprint in fall 2019. The author and agent, who retain television/film rights, report that they have received queries to date from close to 20 TV and movie studios interested in adapting the book for the big or small screen. Nelson Literary Agency also disclosed that it is fielding “multiple offers” from U.K. publishers, and that Slay will be the agency’s featured title at Frankfurt in October.
After writing Slay in 11 days, Morris participated in the Twitter-based pitch extravaganza, #PitMad, on the 12th day, and received responses from 140 agents. Realizing that her tale resonated with the publishing industry’s gatekeepers, she then decided to query in the traditional way her “dream list” of a handful of agents, including Robinson, whom she selected out of the several agents who responded to her query with offers to represent her.
Disclosing that she was the first African-American female graduate of her high school in [Corvallis, Ore.]- and the only African-American woman at her previous place of employment, a large company, Morris says that her background has had a significant impact upon her interactions with the world that seeped into her fiction writing. “I got used to feeling out of place in a room full of people who don’t look like me, and shrinking myself down to something that’s ‘acceptable’ by everyone,” she said, explaining that her efforts included “toning down” her hair, “policing” her vocal inflections and tone of voice, and omitting cultural references from her conversations “when I thought nobody in the room would understand” them.
Morris said, “I wrote Slay for black teens who live between worlds as I did, who feel pressure to be one version of themselves at work or school, and only get to be themselves among people who share their experiences.”