How Do Literary Agents Approach Diversity?

Eric Smith and Saba Sulaiman

Today’s guest post is a literary agent Q&A by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.

Most people working in the book world would agree that, although strides have been made to increase diversity, there’s still a long road ahead. Some publishing companies have imprints devoted to multicultural books (HarperCollins’ Amistad, Simon & Schuster’s Salaam Reads, Kensington’s Dafina), and others make diversity their primary mission (Lee & Low). Nearly every established publisher, from the Big Five to independent presses, has launched some sort of initiative or committee or program dedicated to diversity. But are these efforts enough? How do agents—generally considered the gatekeepers to publishing companies—approach this highly subjective issue? Are they in a position to increase diversity and equity in publishing? I asked Saba Sulaiman of Talcott Notch Literary Services and Eric Smith of P.S. Literary. 

SANGEETA MEHTA: To start, what is your definition of diversity? Do you think that this word is losing its meaning, or is the conversation just getting started?

SABA SULAIMAN: I think the conversation has already started—in fact, author Alisha Rai did a fantastic panel at the RT convention this year called Diversity 102 which addresses this issue perfectly (here’s the thread). Most industry professionals are aware of the need for more diverse books—I’m ready to talk about how best to combat the lack of diversity in publishing, both in terms of the books we read and push out, and in terms of employing more marginalized people in the industry.

ERIC SMITH: For me, diversity is about a wide array of people being represented. And the reason we frequently talk about publishing having that diversity problem, is because…well, those people aren’t represented. And it’s tiring. I don’t think we’re losing the meaning, I think lots of us are just exhausted from having the same conversations again and again

Have you encouraged any of your authors who don’t consider themselves under-represented to include diverse elements in their manuscripts, whether in the form of characters or themes? To hire sensitivity readers? Assuming that acquiring editors are looking for books that reflect diversity of their readers, would you be helping your clients become more competitive by suggesting they write inclusively? Or would it be disingenuous to nudge your clients to write in a certain direction?

SABA SULAIMAN: I would feel uncomfortable advising anyone to purposely make their books more inclusive, or cater in any way to the so-called “diversity trend.” If they were seriously considering it on their own, I would encourage them, point them toward useful resources, and let them know it’s a huge responsibility which they should commit to with honesty and rigor, but I think it’s disingenuous to suggest it out of the blue (I actually wrote a blog post in which I go into more detail about this issue).

In terms of sensitivity reads, I have certainly encouraged my authors to seek them out, and will continue to do so. I like to think of them as competency reads; just like it’s necessary to ask a trusted critique partner for editorial feedback to ensure that your book is polished from a writing craft perspective, making an effort to get multiple reads from people who are personally familiar with the aspects of marginalization your book contains will help ensure that your story, your world, your characters, and their interactions make sense. This is aside from it being imperative that readers, especially young readers, don’t walk away from books that contain inaccurate or damaging representation feeling alienated, confused, or compelled to say, do, or think things that perpetuate harmful stereotypes of marginalized individuals.

ERIC SMITH: I don’t push the authors I work with out of their lane. When you’re driving, that’s how a car crash happens.

But, when they do have diverse characters in their works, characters who they don’t identify with, I do encourage sensitivity readers. I wouldn’t be interested in the project, otherwise. It’s important to get those voices right.

It’s also important to me to respect my clients. I work with a Muslim author. I work with an author who is a cancer survivor and an amputee. I work with a mental health advocate who lives with bipolar II. What would it say to the authors I work with if I worked with a writer trying to discuss a subject they don’t personally identify with, when these are topics my authors are so very close to?

I’m not interested in doing a disservice to readers, or to the authors I call clients and friends.

Are you inclined to pitch projects by a marginalized author to marginalized editors who share the author’s background? Is it appropriate to take an editor’s background into consideration when you put together your submissions list? 

SABA SULAIMAN: It may be. It depends on whether or not the editor has ever indicated or mentioned an interest in reading work that relates to their marginalization. Many editors don’t, so I don’t assume either way.

As an agent, it’s my job to make sure I get my clients’ books into the right editors’ hands, especially since many houses have policies which limit how many editors we can submit the same project to. This does involve my making an effort to learn about their interests in order to get a sense of what kinds of books they enjoy and want for their lists, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable for me to take their various backgrounds into account—where they grew up, what their personal interests are, etc., all count towards that.

ERIC SMITH: Hm. That’s an interesting question. I don’t know. Something about that seems not-quite-right? I think I’m more inclined to pitch an editor based on their tastes. The genres they read, the books that are their favorites. Projects they’ve been asking to see more of. I’ve definitely sent pitches to editors who have said they were looking for more diverse voices.

I’ve had some bad experiences with people assuming they knew more about my background than they really did, or thinking I would relate to something when pitching me at conferences. 

On this same note, do you think writers are more inclined to pitch projects to you if you share their background? Do you find this attitude complimentary, or does it place unreasonable expectations on you? Pigeonhole your expertise as an agent?

SABA SULAIMAN: Yes, I do receive many queries from authors who share different aspects of my background and identity, but since I’ve gone out of my way to welcome these submissions, I don’t think it’s a problem. I can understand that it can be frustrating for an agent who’d rather not receive such queries (for fear of being pigeonholed, or for whatever reason), but I personally do not feel that way. I get plenty of queries from people who don’t share my background—purely from a statistical standpoint, most authors aspiring to get published traditionally in the US do not share my background at all, so queries from them will continue to pour into all of our inboxes, not just mine.

As a result, I actually welcome queries from people who share my background because I’m an immigrant and a woman of color; I know for a fact that many female immigrants of color don’t even know if there’s a space, let alone any interest, in their stories and artistic endeavors in our industry, so I feel especially honored to welcome submissions from them (and from other people belonging to any marginalized groups).

ERIC SMITH: Not really. I’m sort of this ambiguously brown person who gets asked “where are you FROM from?” on the regular. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind it if someone decided to pitch me because they knew my background and could actually relate to me (that part is key). But that’s a personal thing. I can’t speak for all agents/editors here.

Sometimes, though, in-person, people will pitch me with something like “you’ll like this because [insert something terribly offensive here].”

I think there’s a right and a wrong way to do this. The right way? You’re writing in your lane, you relate to the agent, and you bring it up. The wrong way? You’re writing out of your lane, and assume the agent will be all about the book because of a character you’ve written. I’m sorry, but if you aren’t writing in your lane, don’t come at me saying I’ll love a book because you happened to write a black character, and know my wife is a black woman. This happened once at a conference, and that’s not even the most disastrous pitch I’ve had in-person.

Needless to say, I screamed internally the rest of the day.

From forming We Need Diverse Books to creating hashtags like #ownvoices and #PoCinPub, to establishing DVPit and an open call for submissions from Muslim writers, members of the publishing community have made a remarkable case for the need for diversity in publishing. Interestingly, most of them are children’s book writers and agents. Is this because diversity is more necessary in children’s books than in the publishing industry as a whole?

SABA SULAIMAN: I do think the stakes are higher for making children’s fiction more inclusive in terms of its characters and themes, because young readers are impressionable, and the books they read will more likely shape their worldviews than in the case of adult fiction. As publishing professionals working in children’s fiction, we have the power to influence what kinds of narratives children have access to—catering to children is certainly a bigger responsibility than catering to adults, as in most cases. So it makes sense that the initial push came from organizations like We Need Diverse Books, which focus on children’s fiction.

That being said, I’m very glad that adult publishing professionals have also begun to put out calls for diversity. We need more diverse narratives across the board, and it’s also important for us to empower marginalized authors writing both adult fiction and nonfiction to step ahead and share their stories. 

ERIC SMITH: You know, I don’t work on enough adult fiction to really say much about representation there. But diversity in children’s fiction feels so critically important. When a kid sees themselves in pop culture, whether we’re talking about novels, comic books, or movies, that has one powerful effect on a child. It’s seeing that they matter. That their voice matters. That it has a place out there in the world.

I mean, what could be more important that that?

What is the literary agent’s responsibility to represent diverse voices, if any? Assuming that everyone within the literary ecosystem has a responsibility, should the onus be on acquiring editors, since it’s their companies that ultimately choose which books go out into the world?

SABA SULAIMAN: If everyone within the literary ecosystem has a responsibility, then the onus should be on all of us. Acquiring editors should not bear the entire brunt of this, since they often operate under circumstances which they have little to no control over. So many editors I know have had diverse books they wanted to buy get disapproved of by sales and marketing, or by their colleagues or publishers, so editors aren’t solely responsible for what gets published.

Booksellers and librarians also have a huge role to play since they determine which books get shelf space—this matters considerably because even books that eventually do get published will have little to no impact if readers don’t know they exist, or have no access to them.

ERIC SMITH: I mean, I can’t speak for the goals of other agents or editors. But in a dream world, sure, ideally everyone is actively looking for those marginalized voices and using their position in the industry to elevate their work. And I certainly feel like I’m seeing more and more agents and editors discussing wanting more diverse authors on their wish lists. Which makes me happy and hopeful.

Personally, though? It absolutely is my responsibility to represent diverse voices. If my children, and my nephews and nieces…if they grow up and one day ask me about the books I’ve worked on, and are unable to see themselves in the work I’ve represented…I have utterly failed to do my job.

Do you have any other tips for writers—under-represented or not—who are looking to secure representation with you? With any literary agent?

SABA SULAIMAN: Try to make sure your project is in its absolutely best shape before you query it—you only get one chance with each agent you query, so use it wisely!

ERIC SMITH: When it comes to me, the best way to get my attention is a great query letter. Often times, that’s all I have to rely on, really. Take your time, follow that particular agent’s instructions (some agents want to see a first chapter right away, others just want a pitch), and do your research (make sure they represent your genre).

When I can, I also like to play along with events like DVPit and other Twitter pitch contests. That’s another good way to potentially get my attention, but remember, hundreds of people play along in those! You can always just send an email. That works just as well, and I’m guaranteed to see it.

Saba Sulaiman PhotoSaba Sulaiman (‪@agentsaba‪), an agent with Talcott Notch Literary Services, works with both Adult and Children’s Fiction and Non-Fiction. She is looking to build her MG and YA lists, particularly with contemporary realistic stories. In adult, she likes Fiction (Literary, Upmarket, Commercial, Romance), Mystery/Thrillers, and Memoir. A first generation immigrant who is constantly negotiating her own identity and sense of belonging in a place she now calls “home,” Saba is committed to highlighting more diverse voices with compelling stories to tell; stories that demonstrate the true range of perspectives that exist in this world, and address urgent and often underexplored issues. Authors include Lyz Lenz, nonfiction writer and managing editor of The Rumpus.

Eric SmithEric Smith (‪@ericsmithrocks) is an associate literary agent at P.S. Literary, with a love for young adult books, sci-fi, fantasy, and non-fiction. He began his publishing career at Quirk Books in Philadelphia, working social media and marketing on numerous books he absolutely adored. Eric completed his BA in English at Kean University, and his MA in English at Arcadia University. A frequent blogger, his ramblings about books appear on Book Riot, Paste Magazine, Barnes & Noble’s blog, and more. If you would like to send a query to Eric, please review his Submission Guidelines, and check out his wishlist on his website.

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