The book publishing industry has been criticized for many years for its lack of diversity—not just in terms of personnel but also in terms of the titles it publishes. Only within the past five years have real changes come about, spearheaded by a March 2014 op-ed in the New York Times written by Walter Dean Myers, “Where Are the People of Color in Literature?,” which called out the industry for not publishing books featuring characters with whom children of color can identify.
Myers’s editorial was amplified by grassroots organizations and concerned individuals using social media to bring attention to the issue, as well as to connect publishers with new voices from under-represented communities. The groundswell of support for diverse literature has resulted in an upward trend during the past five years in the number of people of color publishing children’s books, and in the number of children’s books about people of color.
According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of 3,200 books received by it in 2013, 226 were written by people of color, while 255 were about people of color. In contrast, in 2018, of 3,500 books received, 689 were written by people of color, while 920 books were about people of color. Thus, since 2013, there has been a 13% increase in books published by people of color and an almost 20% increase in books published about people of color.
Not only are more books about people of color being published but some are landing in the marketplace with a splash. For example, Angie Thomas’s debut YA novel, The Hate U Give (which, according to the author, was prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement), has sold two million units since its release in early 2017, spent 98 weeks on the New York Times young adult hardcover bestseller list (64 of those weeks in the top spot), and was made into a movie. Thomas’s debut went to auction with 13 houses in competition, which is an unusually high number, but the fact that multiple publishers competed for it is not surprising. A number of the 10 agents PW spoke with for this piece reported auctions for debuts by writers from underrepresented communities who, like Thomas, were discovered via social media.
The #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag appeared on Twitter six weeks after Myers’s pivotal op-ed ran in the Times, and the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books was founded that summer. WNDB has had, agents say, an extraordinary impact upon the steady growth in the number of diverse books being published. It has effectively advocated for more people of color entering the publishing industry by sponsoring an internship program, and it also has encouraged publishers to take chances on publishing and promoting diverse books by sponsoring a mentorship program for authors and illustrators, as well as an annual awards program for established writers as well as for emerging voices.
Getting Published: It’s About Relationships
Though such efforts have been successful to some extent, book publishing remains an industry dependent upon personal relationships. Many publishers do not consider unagented submissions, resulting in literary agents serving as the industry’s primary gatekeepers. Agents traditionally have found clients by digging into slush piles, attending writers’ conferences, and, especially, through personal referrals, but many who spoke with PW recognize that this is not nearly enough—particularly if one wants to reach marginalized communities. Like WNDB’s founders did five years ago, agents are increasingly turning to social media to tap into undiscovered talent, thus leveling the playing field for writers who lack publishing industry connections.
Twitter pitch events, during which creators tweet their pitches and editors and agents indicate their interest in individual pitches by “liking” them, provide “a great opportunity to connect with authors,” says Folio Literary agent John Cusick. “You have access to great content all at once. I can take in hundreds of queries in one day, at my own tempo.”
Literary agent Beth Phelan of Gallt & Zacker founded the #DVPit Twitter event in 2016, and it has since become a force in publishing. According to #DVPit’s website, it focuses on “marginalized authors and illustrators only” and is held on two consecutive days twice a year, in October and in April, with the first day devoted to children’s pitches (from picture books to YA) and the second to adult books. With six #DVPit events having taken place to date, Phelan reports that more than 100 participating authors have found agents thus far, and that dozens of titles now in the publishing pipeline started off as #DVPit pitches.
Cusick discovered author Hafsah Faizal on #DVPit, and Macmillan will publish her debut novel, We Hunt the Flame, a YA fantasy inspired by ancient Arabia, in May.
There are so many popular Twitter pitch events covering practically every genre that such contests have almost reached “a saturation point, with everyone participating in the same contests,” according to Janklow & Nesbit agent Brooks Sherman (who is Angie Thomas’s agent), but #DVPit is one of the few that he participates in and he describes it as one of the most successful and highly regarded. After discovering writer Jennifer Dugan during a 2017 #DVPit event, Sherman negotiated a two-book deal for her with Putnam. Dugan’s debut YA novel, Hot Dog Girl, a coming-of-age queer romance, will be published in May.
Agents Receptive to Diversity
Phelan herself has signed two authors she discovered through #DVPit, for whom she has landed lucrative deals. Kat Cho’s debut YA novel, Wicked Fox, a tale inspired by a Korean fable, will be released by Putnam in June, and Justin A. Reynolds’s debut YA novel, Opposite of Always, a time-traveling YA love story featuring African-American protagonists, will be released in March by HarperCollins’s Katherine Tegen Books, which prevailed at an auction involving six houses. Opposite of Always is being positioned as one of the publisher’s lead spring releases, with a 40,000-copy initial print run; Reynolds was recently introduced to booksellers at Winter Institute 14.
Phelan says she launched #DVPit because she felt “frustrated with my limitations as a single person trying to make a difference, and wanted to corral other agents into some form of action.” She adds, “I thought something like #DVPit might give us a way to translate words to action.”
#DVPit was also conceived, Phelan says, to accommodate editors who are receptive to diverse authors and their work—especially those who cannot or will not accept unagented submissions. It allows editors to have more input into which submissions they receive, and to solicit projects directly from the agents “instead of waiting for a submission to fall into their lap,” she adds. Phelan describes #DVPit as a “symbiotic” experience that places agents and editors “on the same side, working together to bring these stories and these authors to the center.”
Carrie Pestritto of the Laura Dail Literary Agency notes that those editors who follow the hashtag can see in real time which kinds of stories are resonating with agents and on Twitter. Though Pestritto has yet to land a deal for Graci Kim, a client she connected with via #DVPit, she is confident that Kim’s “Korean, witchy YA” novel, The Last Fallen Star, will soon find a publisher after its positive reception on #DVPit, with 80 agents and editors liking Kim’s tweet.
New Leaf Literary’s Suzie Townsend says #DVPit also helps agents become interested in projects that they previously might not have considered representing. “When writers ask me for what I’m looking for, sometimes the answer is: ‘something that feels new and different—something I haven’t seen before,’ ” she explains. “You don’t always know what exactly that is until you see it. It’s exciting, scrolling through #DVPit: I love coming across a pitch and thinking, ‘This! Where has this story been all my life?’ ”
Townsend has signed on two middle grade authors she discovered through #DVPit. Claribel Ortega’s debut novel, Ghost Squad, which incorporates Dominican folklore, will be published by Scholastic Press in September, and Christine Day’s debut novel, I Can Make This Promise, which features Native American characters and themes, will be published by HarperCollins in October.
Most of the agents PW spoke with who have participated in #DVPit have done so since it began. Holly Root, who heads the Root Agency, praises #DVPit, saying, “It’s easier to go fishing in a pond that you know is stocked,” and adds that knowing that editors from all of the major houses are following along during #DVPit contests “doesn’t hurt.”
After connecting with Amanda Joy on #DVPit, Root sold Joy’s debut YA fantasy novel, A River of Royal Blood, set in a North African–inspired world, in a two-book deal with Putnam. A River of Royal Blood will be published this fall.
Thao Le, who has been an agent with the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency since 2012, says that #DVPit has been especially helpful to young agents like her, who are still establishing themselves in the literary marketplace. “Sometimes there are things that we might be interested in but won’t receive in our slush,” she says. “I think #DVPit helps give agents and editors an opportunity to actively pursue stories and authors they’d want to acquire. It also gives us a chance to shout about the diverse stories we are craving, and to give writers who wouldn’t have otherwise known what we were looking for a chance to submit to us.”
The first author Le offered to represent after a #DVPit event, Jessica Kim, “hooked” her with a tweet last April about her middle grade novel, Stand Up, Yumi Chung!, the tale of an 11-year-old Asian-American girl who is determined to become a comedian despite her parents’ objections. Stand Up, Yumi Chung! was sold in a two-book deal to Penguin’s Kokila imprint and will be released in spring 2020.
The experience of the Nelson Literary Agency’s Quressa Robinson confirms Le’s point that #DVPit is particularly advantageous for young agents building a client base. An agent for only two years, Robinson’s second client, Valerie Valdes, signed on with her in 2017 after they met through #DVPit. Valdes’s debut, Chilling Effect, a feminist science fiction novel with protagonists of Cuban descent, will be published by Harper Voyageur this fall.
Even older, well-established agents are turning to #DVPit in the hunt for new voices. Kristin Nelson, who heads the Nelson Literary Agency, has been an agent for 17 years. Describing herself as a Twitter dilettante, she says she “came late to the party,” participating in #DVPit only once to date, in October 2017. Describing the experience as “overwhelming,” with pitches coming “fast and furious,” Nelson connected with Swati Teerdhala and quickly sold her Tiger at Midnight YA fantasy trilogy, inspired by ancient India, in a mid-to-high-six-figure deal. The spirited auction included at least one editor who told Nelson she had first noticed Teerdhala during that same #DVPit event. The first volume in the trilogy will be published by Katherine Tegen Books in April.
“Editors can’t always wait for something to come to them via agents, and agents can’t always wait for material to come in via email or slush inbox,” Nelson points out. “I love that Twitter pitch parties shook up the system.”
Peter Knapp of Park & Fine Literary Media notes that #DVPit’s impact upon the industry is larger than it simply being a faster, more efficient method of connecting agents with diverse new voices: it also provides an opportunity for the publishing community to redefine its approach to representation. “#DVPit allows agents and editors to communicate to marginalized authors that we want to hear their stories and read their work,” he explains. “And it is just one part of a critical wave of initiatives helping to diversify the voices that make up both sides of publishing, alongside the work done by organizations like WNDB, Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey, and People of Color in Publishing.”
Knapp has participated in #DVPit since its launch, and he served as the coordinator of the #DVPit Critique Giveaway in 2017. As part of the giveaway, before every #DVPit event, 100–125 queries or sample pages (from picture books to adult) out of 300–500 entries are matched with industry professionals who read them and offer feedback.
Knapp has connected with two writers via #DVPit: Amélie Wen Zhao, whose debut novel Blood Heir, the first in a planned YA fantasy trilogy, was postponed by Delacorte last week at Zhao’s request, after complaints about her and the novel were posted on social media; and the author of a debut YA fantasy trilogy, which has not yet been officially announced.
Though all of the agents PW spoke with emphasized that #DVPit has made it easier for them to make their client lists more multicultural and inclusive, Robinson cautions her colleagues against complacency. “It’s great that things like #DVPit exist, but they shouldn’t be the only place editors and agents look to find that talent,” she says. “Pitch parties shouldn’t become another form of gatekeeping. Agents and editors need to start figuring out what else they can do to find and bolster those voices. Publishing is still overwhelmingly white, which is ridiculously appalling.”
“Speed Dating” for Diverse Novelists
If there is a common denominator among the 10 middle grade and YA authors PW spoke with who found representation after participating in #DVPit, it’s that the experience exceeded their prior expectations—particularly among the nine authors who had previously queried agents via other Twitter pitch events, as well as through more traditional methods, for months or even years.
“I was wary, because I’d had a very tepid experience in another pitch contest,” Cho recalls. “I had a healthy fear of rejection after my last manuscript had failed to get any interest, both in pitching and slush pile querying. So I was trying to protect my heart, because Wicked Fox was a story that drew from my heart. Still, I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t participate in this event. Twitter is a great equalizer; we all get the same amount of characters and the same forum to express our thoughts.”
Valdes notes that, for new voices from underrepresented communities, “it’s easy for us to get lost in the slush pile, or even to succumb to self-rejection.” She adds, “#DVPit puts us all in one place at one time, so agents get direct access along with a quick taste of our pitch abilities and social media presence. It’s like speed dating for novelists.”
Even for Reynolds, whose debut is being released with notable prepub buzz, the traditional process proved highly unsatisfactory: despite receiving a few nibbles in response to his traditional querying, he failed to land an agent. After the immediate and intense interest during #DVPit and afterward in Opposite of Always, his fears were allayed, he says. “No longer did I wonder if I was sending my work to people who simply weren’t interested in the story I wanted to tell. That gave me the confidence to push forward, to trust the process. “
Ortega recalls that after tweeting her pitch for Ghost Squad, within minutes, she received “20 likes, then 50, then over 100.” She adds, “I had agents I would’ve never queried because they were ‘too big’ or made me nervous requesting my work, commenting on the pitch favorably. A week later, I had my first offer of representation, and ended up with seven offers total before I chose Suzie Townsend—one of the agents I’d always believed I wasn’t good enough to sign with.”
But, though #DVPit and other Twitter events do speed up a process that can often seem to move at a glacial pace for writers, Ortega reminds authors that some things will never change. “At the end of the day,” she points out, “the agent still has to read your work via email, still has to request more pages if their initial request was for a partial manuscript, and your writing still has to stand on its own.”
For additional coverage on #DVPit, see #DVPit Connects NZ Author with Writers Community.