AGENTS AND EDITORS
NEED TO ADVERTISE THEIR INTEREST IN DIVERSITY
That's the idea. And this series is an effort to do just that.
For now we're focusing on agents, and today's post features agent Amy Boggs of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.
|Agent Amy Boggs|
Here's Amy's bio:
Amy Boggs is a sci-fi/fantasy geek and agent at the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York City. She has been with the agency since 2009, having previously worked at a psychiatry magazine, a college library and a children’s bookstore. She can be found on Twitter @notjustanyboggs and blogging bi-monthly at Pub Hub (http://www.publishing-hub.com/).
And here's our interview:
Lee: Hi Amy!
Amy: Hi Lee!
Lee: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk about your interest in Diversity in Children's and Teen Literature!
Amy: My pleasure! Thanks so much for having me.
Lee: There's been growing discussion about how the 5,000 or so traditionally published books a year don't reflect the actual diversity of our world, including the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and the stunningly low numbers of representation revealed in "Children's Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States," put out by the CCBC (The Cooperative Children's Book Center.)
To start us off, of the submissions you get, let's say in the past year, how many of those projects included some kind of diversity of characters or theme?
Amy: I have been getting queries for five years now, and this past year was definitely the best in terms of those queries more closely reflecting our world. I think a big part of it has been thanks to the conversations both in the sci-fi/fantasy, YA, and children’s writing communities (I represent mostly sf/f, of all age categories). I also know that things like #MSWL allow me to make sure people know that’s what I’m looking for, and over three years ago Rose Fox suggested agents make it clear on their websites that they want diverse work, so I use their template. Simply making it clear that I support and want diverse stories goes a surprisingly long way to getting those stories sent to me.
That said, I don’t have actual numbers currently, and I know if I did, they would be lower than I want them to be and than they should be. A couple years ago, I did a presentation at Sirens Conference with agents Bridget Smith, Emily Gref, Jennifer Udden, and Rachel Kory where we analyzed our queries over a period of two months. We looked at gender, race, and sexuality representation in protagonists, and the numbers were quite disappointing. I imagine they’d be improved now, but still too low. So everyone out there needs to keep writing and keep querying me! :)
Lee: Let's unpack that a bit: Are you seeing many stories featuring protagonists of color?
Amy: Depends on the definition of many. I’m definitely seeing some, and I definitely want to see more.
It’s also unclear numbers-wise because characters’ race often isn’t mentioned in a query, and character description isn’t always in the first five pages. For that Sirens presentation I mentioned, I found that the majority of protagonists didn’t have their race mentioned in any way, and many of those that did relied on descriptors rather than stating race, particularly if those descriptors presented white (i.e., if a character has red hair and pale skin, chances are they are meant to be seen as white, even though POC can have red hair and pale skin).
This gets all the more complicated for other-world sf/f where they don’t have our words for race. But to combat the reader “defaulting to white,” I think it is important to try to get race across early in the text. Writers should also be aware of their own bias in defaulting to white; for example, I often see that skin color is only mentioned if the character isn’t white. There is no reason to treat white character’s skin as though it needs no description.
Lee: Excellent point! How about LGBTQ characters, and please break that down - are you seeing lesbian characters? gay? bi? trans*? questioning? queer or gender non-conforming?
Amy: I used to bemoan the times I was reading a query and a unisex name made me briefly think the main romance was queer, until a sentence or so later it became clear the romance was straight. That doesn’t happen anymore, because now it’s not my mistaken perception; the romance is actually queer. Definitely a positive development.
That said, what I chiefly see in my queries are LGB, and while it is great to see more of those characters, there are a lot of folks left out. I sometimes see intersex characters; I have only rarely seen trans or genderqueer or asexual characters, at least specified in the query itself.
They also tend to be white and typically-abled, which reflects a problematic notion that a main character can only fit into one category of marginalization.
Lee: Yes! How about characters with disabilities?
Amy: I do see some; the disabilities tend to be mental illness and developmental disability, and even then they often feel like methods of making the protagonist “special” or for a secondary character to be a complication in the protagonist’s plot. Which is all levels of no.
So this is certainly a place my queries fall short. I need more queries with disabled characters, all kinds of disabilities, where the disability is part of who they are but isn’t the only part. And no tropes!
Lee: Are you seeing other types of diversity in the works submitted? - And please share any specific categories that spring to mind.
Amy: I’m getting more immigrant stories and more books where the setting isn’t U.S. or Europe-inspired, which is excellent. I’d also like to see more diversity of class and religion and (in adult) age. And more intersectional diversity! People have a multitude of identities and characters should, too. And there is no such thing as “too much diversity,” no matter what anyone says. Diversity is reality.
Lee: How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers submitting to you?
Amy: Yes, so far as I can tell. Most of the time authors don’t mention much about themselves in queries, so I don’t know at that level, but of the authors where I get to the talking level, I do get many writers from under-represented groups. Again, though, not enough. There are certainly a lot of possible reasons for this, first and foremost that I am not doing a good enough job at making myself available to marginalized writers. At a larger level, publishing has not been welcoming to everyone. One can easily look online at how many books have been published by marginalized writers, how many have characters who are marginalized, how those books are marketed and reviewed and sold. If the situation looks dour, why try in the first place? Especially when self-publishing is an option. While I hope publishing is getting better and working against the harm in its past and present, I can also see why someone would avoid the whole situation.
That said, traditional publishing asks for an author’s time while offering an advance, whereas self-publishing asks for that same amount of time plus more time plus money upfront while offering larger per-book royalties. For those with money and time to spare, self-publishing might be a great avenue, but for those without that flexibility a lack of advance might mean they cannot publish. If traditional publishing isn’t an option, it means we lose a lot of important writers. This is not to say traditional publishing is a surefire way to make a living; far from it. But for many people, the ability to publish does depend on getting an advance versus paying upfront.
So I hope marginalized writers query me, and I hope I can represent them and fight for them in a market that isn’t always the most welcoming.
Lee: There's a lot of discussion about who has the 'right' to tell the story of an under-represented type of character. What's your take?
Amy: I think it’s a valid criticism and that readers have a right to decide not to read a book because the author is writing marginalized characters from a position of privilege. This is generally because they’ve read a few or many such books and were hurt by them and don’t want to risk spending their money or time getting hurt again; see, totally valid!
That said, valid doesn’t mean absolute, and many readers from marginalized groups can point to privileged authors who get it right. What it takes is careful research, consideration, listening, and learning. It takes being aware of what aspects of that culture aren’t open to those outside that group and respecting that. It takes a broad and deep awareness of stereotypes and the narratives that have been obsessed over, even fetishized, by outsiders. An author may create a stereotypical character with the excuse that their friend of that same group is that way, but just because something is sometimes true doesn’t mean it isn’t a stereotype. (And doesn’t mean the friend would appreciate it.)
No matter how much work is put into it or how much personal experience is drawn from, an outsider is always an outsider and so must write like one. For example, while I grew up in Utah and was well-immersed in Utah LDS culture, I am not nor have ever been LDS myself. If I were to write a story with a main character who is LDS, I know the LDS aspects of her life I would not explore because they are closed off to outsiders. An LDS author might address those aspects because it’s their culture to share.
TL;DR: I think privileged authors have the right to tell a story of an under-represented type of character, but not all stories.
Lee: That's an important distinction: A story, not all stories. And as we get to having more diverse stories published and selling, the weight on each story to represent a whole group of people or culture diminishes. Letting it be A story of an LDS character, not THE story of an LDS character.
When you're submitting projects to editors, do you think stories with under-represented characters take more 'selling' on your part?
Amy: Admittedly, my tastes run a little weird, so selling always takes some work. I haven’t noticed it yet in my own submissions, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I’ve talked to editors who lost a book because the sales department was wary of the representation. Never actually stated that way, of course; everyone says things like “niche audience” and “too quiet” and “unrelatable main character.” I haven’t had it happen to me, and it doesn’t make me think twice about signing a work, but I am aware. And when it does sell, the people designing the cover and marketing might be wonderful and get it just right, or they might get it very wrong, going towards erasure or stereotyping. And if everyone at the publisher does everything perfectly, booksellers could balk or mislabel or even insist on a cover change. Again, I haven’t had this happen to me, but I’ve heard the experiences of others, and so I’ve prepared myself to go to bat for my authors and their books should it ever happen.
Lee: I often feel the sense of ‘otherness’ is transferable. That from my own experiences being marginalized (for being Gay, being ill as a teen, being Jewish, being an Atheist, etc…) I feel tremendous empathy for people who are marginalized for other kinds of ‘otherness’ as well.
Can you share what’s driving your desire to see more diversity in Children’s and Teen books?
Amy: Shonda Rhimes recently said in a speech that she isn’t diversifying TV, she’s normalizing it. That’s exactly it. The history of publishing in the U.S. is one of erasure. Diverse stories are correcting this damaging, centuries-old lie. I want to be a part of that. I can’t imagine not doing so.
Lee: Tell us about some books that highlighted or included diversity that you loved and that inspired you (maybe even ones you wish you represented). What’s a Middle Grade favorite?
Amy: Ah, asking about books I love is always the worst; there’s so many and I’m bound to miss some! I’ll just focus on two non-clients:
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (thanks to a rec on Twitter!) was wonderful. Played with fairytales in just the way I like and such a complexly real MC. I’m also a particular fan of MG that deals with the pain of growing apart from friends.
I’m currently in the middle of The Great Green Heist by Varian Johnson, which is a blast. I love really clever characters getting into shenanigans.
Lee: Young Adult?
Amy: As with MG, just two non-client books:
Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves totally entranced me last year. Can’t stop talking about it. Gorgeously written, wonderfully weird world, a protagonist who certainly isn’t likeable but whom I adore; what more could you ask for?
The Wrath & the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh, which I haven’t started but I’m so excited about! I’m particularly fond of 1001 Nights, I love revenge, I love really complicated romance, just, I can’t wait to read this one.
Lee: Okay, here’s your wish list moment. What are you looking for? Put out the call...
Amy: I am always looking for all kinds of science fiction and fantasy. I also like unique contemporary YA, historical fiction, and work that challenges its genre. I particularly seek and support diverse projects and marginalized authors.
More specifically (but not exclusively), I’m really keen on high fantasy right now, especially any not set in medieval-Europe-inspired worlds. I want to be taken to lush-built worlds, to see something new to me but everyday to the characters, to feel like the cities and towns are real and keep on moving even when the main character has left.
More worlds that don’t reflect modern U.S. society; i.e., we don’t always need the patriarchy in place. I like works that really flesh out a simple “what if,” particularly if it’s just in the world-building rather than the plot.
I’d also like more of what can be called speculative or magical realism, where it’s contemporary but with a surreal twist. One of my clients, Shaun David Hutchinson, does this kind of thing and I’d love more.
Lee: And for writers reading this who feel a resonance with what you’ve shared and who want to submit to you, how should they go about that?
Amy: In the body of an email (no unsolicited attachments, please!) send a query, the first five pages, and a 1-2 page synopsis (if you have it) to aboggs[at]maassagency[dot]com
I keep my website updated to reflect what I’m looking for, so always best to check: http://maassagency.com/amy-boggs/
Lee: Getting the world of Children’s literature to better reflect the diversity of our world -- the world kids today are growing up in -- is so important. Thank you so much for working to make things better!
Amy: Thank you so much for giving me a venue to reach out to the authors who feel the same way!
Thanks Amy! Look for another AGENT LOOKING FOR DIVERSITY interview on the first Monday of next month. Until then,
Illustrate and Write On!