BIPOC agents say they’ve seen significant increases in interest—and deals—with Christian publishers since summer 2020 for books by authors who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. Yet, they have reservations about the future.
Sharon Elliott, the owner of Authorize Me Literary, says, “Suddenly everyone is aware that Black lives matter. I’m proud of Christian publishing for looking at itself [now], yet we should be ashamed of ourselves. Someone shouldn’t have to say ‘that’s a white industry.’ The industry has been missing out on the richness that comes when cultures come together under the Christian banner.”
Barb Roose, a new agent with Books & Such Literary Management and an author, has seen the increase in contracts via a Facebook group for Christian women writers of color. “There was very little movement before the last six months, but now there are at least eight contracts,” says Roose, whose eighth book, Breakthrough: Finding Freedom in Christ, was published this month (Abingdon).
Jevon Bolden of Embolden Media Group says it seems that interest in publishing authors of color has increased, "especially since George Floyd’s death. But it’s hard to say if these are actual changes,” Bolden says. Although she reports close to a dozen book deals for BIPOC authors with Christian publishers recently, she's unsure if this signals lasting change.
The 'Platform' Problem
One sign of doors opening is a wider awareness of authors who don’t yet have vast personal platforms. Adrienne Ingrum, owner of her eponymous agency, says, “Recently the focus has shifted from almost exclusively mega-pastors and high-platformed Christian entertainers to a wider spectrum of writers.” In the past, she continues, “If the author wasn’t a ‘name’ it was extremely difficult to interest Christian publishers. Now I see that loosening a bit, primarily due to interest in books about race.”
Leticia Gomez of Savvy Literary Services, who placed 28 books with publishers last year, 60% by BIPOC authors and a least a quarter of them in the Christian spiritual market, also points to publishers’ concern with whether an author brings a large platform via social media, speaking, or podcasting. “New books are being published [because of] the author's platform instead of the content, and there are a lot of great books out there not being published because the author doesn’t have a great platform,” she says.
“Spirituality is very important in the Latino culture, but Latinx writers don’t feel they have the credentials to write for the Christian market,” Gomez says. She counters that, saying, “In order to offer a great spiritual book, publishers have to look for a fresh perspective that only a person from a different background can bring to the table. We need the hope that spiritual nourishment can provide, but not everybody eats the same way.”
For Chris Park of DeFiore & Company, half of whose clients are in the Christian/religion market, almost all the projects she’s placed there are by authors of color and almost all are women, “moving forward the conversation about race within the church.” She points to Ekemini Uwan, Dr. Michelle Higgins, and Dr. Christina Edmonson, hosts of the podcast Truth’s Table and co-authors of (Truth’s Table: The Book, Convergent), and Helen Lee and Michelle Reyes (The Race-Wise Family, WaterBrook Multnomah).
Park says she has seen limited progress in Christian publishing both for BIPOC authors and personnel. “I don’t know if Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise would have been published 20 years ago—and today it’s a New York Times bestseller, thank God. And there are a few more BIPOC editors in the acquisitions ranks than there were back when I was an editor. But there’s still a long way to go. Consider the fact that half of younger American evangelicals (under age 30) are nonwhite. Obviously, we are nowhere near that in Christian publishing. We need more representation."
Still Roadblocks Ahead
Ingrum is concerned that larger legacy agencies “don’t seem to want to chance the fact that a Black agent could be expert in this BIPOC author niche and that it could be bankable. White agents believe they can serve BIPOC celebrity clients themselves, so agents of color are not seen as adding value or perhaps even viewed as competition.”
Ingrum adds, “I have faced obstacles from white women more than from men, and I believe it’s because my white sisters in the faith have had to be super competitive in order to gain their own place at the table, and white men often don’t even see a Back female agent as viable enough to construct obstacles.”
She also questions why “a white person in an editorial meeting or pub board needs to green-light a project by a BIPOC author. This need for white people to understand our projects ultimately results in bias, though often unintended.” Ingrum says, “Respect BIPOCs telling their own stories.”
When Roose looks at publishers for her clients, she looks for a commitment to discovery, financial equity, visibility, and credibility for BIPOC authors. Are BIPOC authors getting the same advances and royalty rates as majority authors? Are there the same opportunities and financial commitment for publicity and marketing? Are sales teams reaching into the markets that reach BOPIC readers? “These things are easier to come by for majority authors. The plan from the publisher in these areas for BOPIC authors has to be there,” says Roose.
Bolden also has concerns. She says, “I wonder if we’re seeing changes or more a desire to catch up to something that should have been done already. I don’t want this to be ‘Oh, we need to get the next Latino, Black, Asian author just to be part of the trend,' I appreciate the effort and can see it, but I can’t say that I am full of hope that the changes we’re seeing will be sustained. We still need the infrastructure and publishing teams that are passionate about forming authentic relationships between themselves and booksellers, book reviewers, the authors themselves, and the target readers especially. We need teams that are diverse and speak the language of the diverse authors they serve and can help them translate and mold their ideas so decision-makers can give them the green lights they deserve. The audience is already there.”