Every assistant with literary dreams, sifting through the slush pile, can now focus on the tale of Zakiya Dalila Harris, a former Knopf assistant editor who just sold her debut novel in a seven-figure deal.
The Other Black Girl—a cheeky blend of horror, suspense, and cultural commentary that sends up the industry the 27-year-old used to work in—has been acquired by Atria’s Lindsay Sagnette after a 14-bidder auction. Pitched by agent Stephanie Delman as “Get Out meets Younger,” the novel, which became a hot commodity shortly after hitting the desks of New York editors late last month, is now likely to be the talk of the upcoming London Book Fair, where foreign rights to it will be up for grabs.
About a young black assistant at a publishing house who is initially excited, and then unmoored, by the arrival of another young black colleague, the novel puts an uncomfortable spotlight on the microaggressions and racism that many people of color say continues to be a staple of an industry with an overwhelmingly white workforce.
Delman began sending the manuscript out on January 30. When asked about the fact that The Other Black Girl surfaced as the controversy surrounding American Dirt put a fresh spotlight on the subject of diversity in publishing, the Sanford Greenburger agent admitted that what was happening in the background of the submission process came up in initial editorial meetings.
Noting that Harris’s novel doesn’t have any direct literary comps, Delman said she felt the American Dirt controversy, and the topics it has resurfaced, may have made editors even more confident that The Other Black Girl has an audience. “The editors who loved this book were always going to love it,” Delman said. “But, I think from a business standpoint, [the American Dirt controversy] probably... proved this isn’t just something we’re screaming about.”
What about Harris’s former colleagues? Will they welcome the novel? Delman said that she doesn’t really see the book as a roman à clef, and that Harris’s friends at Knopf were some of her earliest supporters. “I think that she was confident and comfortable that this isn’t about Knopf; it’s about the industry at large. Anyone who knows her from working with her at Knopf or Doubleday would be first to say she’s not skewering us.”
For Harris, the experience of selling her novel has been a whirlwind. She got the idea for the book about a year ago, and then decided to quit her job to try and write it. Having been in publishing since 2016, the Brooklyn-based author supported herself with part-time teaching gigs and a job in a cupcake shop.
So what was the moment that inspired her to write The Other Black Girl? It happened in, of all places, the bathroom at her former office in the Penguin Random House building. Harris said she was washing her hands when another young, black girl emerged from one of the stalls. “I thought, ‘Who are you?’ ” Harris said, explaining that it was a rarity to see another person of color in the office. “I thought about how shocked I was. Then I was shocked at how shocked I was.” She went back to her desk and recounted what had happened with a colleague. Emboldened with what she felt were the early seeds of a much deeper story, and disillusioned at work—she had recently gotten a promotion, but couldn’t shake the feeling that she wanted to write the books, not edit them—she quit.
Harris, who has an MFA in nonfiction from the New School, said there have been a number of seemingly too-good-to-be-true moments during the sales process for her book. One came when she returned to her old office, at PRH's Manhattan headquarters, for editor meetings. “When I went back to [PRH], I remembered having my first interview there. I recognized all the people working in the lobby. And, getting into the elevator, I felt that muscle memory and initially tried to hit the button for the floor I used to work on.”
Even better than the feeling of going back to PRH as an author instead of an assistant has been the feedback Harris has received from certain young people in the industry. “One of the coolest things has been meeting POC [people of color] in publishing I didn’t know before.” Explaining that a number of young people who’ve read the manuscript have reached out to her—some in person, some via social media—Harris said that she’s been “blown away” by the response. “A few young women of color have said to me in meetings that [this book] meant so much to them. That they feel seen. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to be this voice that didn’t necessarily exist before.”
Atria bought North American rights to the novel, and Sanford Greenburger’s Stefanie Diaz is handling foreign rights for the title at the fair. Diaz confirmed that the book had been preempted in Brazil (selling there before the sale to Atria closed) and in France. At press time, an auction for the novel in the U.K. was ongoing. The novel is also out for film, with UTA handling those rights.