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 Linda P. Epstein of Emerald City Literary Agency.
|Agent Linda Epstein|
Here's Linda's bio:
Linda Epstein has been a literary agent since 2011. She joined Emerald City Literary Agency in 2016, representing picture books, and middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction. Prior to that she was at the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency for 4 ½ years. Linda speaks at writing conferences throughout North America and you can find her all over the Internet, at her agency website EmeraldCityLiterary.com on Facebook, on Twitter @LindaEpstein, and talking about writing and publishing on her blog theblabbermouthblog.com.
And here's our interview:
Lee: Hi Linda! Thanks so much for agreeing to talk about your interest in Diversity in Children's and Teen Literature!
Linda: Hey there, Lee! Thank you so much for the opportunity. It’s truly my pleasure.
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?
Linda: First of all, can we have some applause for the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement?! I’m hopeful that this focus of attention on the lack of diversity in traditional publishing will make a difference. I think it’s important to make sure forward movement occurs, and that it’s not just talk and hashtags. As agents are the first “gatekeeper” in the traditional publishing world, I’m trying to do my part to attract and encourage projects with diversity of characters or theme, and written by diverse authors. But to answer your question, I think only about 3 or 4% of the new projects that come my way could be categorized as “diverse.” Which is frustrating, given my commitments.
Lee: Let's unpack that more: Are you seeing many stories featuring protagonists of color?
Linda: Not so much. In the last year I probably only got a handful of submissions that included Hispanic or Latino characters, and then maybe another handful of submissions with Asian characters. I rarely get any submissions with African American main characters. Mostly I see people of color cast as peripheral characters, like my black best friend, that Chinese girl in class, or the Puerto Rican kid down the block.
I’ve tried to let writers know I want to see more stories in my inbox where the protagonist is a person of color, that this is something important to me, but I haven’t been very successful. I’ll have to figure out some other ways to attract those kinds of submissions.
Lee: Here's hoping this interview will help! How about LGBTQ characters, and please break that down - are you seeing lesbian characters? gay? bi? trans*? questioning? queer or gender non-conforming?
Linda: I’m more successful in this area. Perhaps this is because LGBTQ writers know I represent Lambda and Stonewall book award winning author Bill Konigsberg? Of the submissions that can be put in this category, in the past year I’d say I get mostly stuff by and about gay males. After that would be lesbian and bi girls, in about equal numbers. I can’t recall if I’ve gotten any submissions with a trans, questioning, or gender non-conforming character, which shows how few of these have ever come my way. I currently represent three clients who specifically write about LGBTQ characters, and who identify as one of those letters. That’s not the reason I initially took any of them on as clients though. For me, it always always always comes down to the story. These are authors who are writing great stories, and who know their craft.
Lee: I was so happy for Bill and his recent win! Congrats to you both. How about characters with disabilities?
Linda: I get very few submissions about characters with things that could be labeled a disability. I get so uncomfortable with the “disability” label. For example, say you’ve lost your leg. You have a prosthetic limb that you’re comfortable with. You do all the things that you like to do, and are even on the track team at school. I mean, you might think it sucks that you need to use a prosthetic, but you also might not consider yourself disabled. To me, disabled implies not working at full capacity or in some way handicapped. And perhaps some people with a prosthetic limb would fall into that category, but certainly not everyone. I’ve heard the term “differently abled” used, but that sounds so clunky. I think we’ve got to come up with a better moniker for this.
Lee: Are you seeing other types of diversity in the works submitted? - And please share any specific categories that spring to mind.
Linda: Not so much. I do get some submissions of stories that either touch upon or include characters on the autistic spectrum.
Lee: How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers and illustrators submitting to you?
Linda: I don’t think so. Or, if I am, they aren’t identifying themselves as such. I mean, how would I know? I really want my list to be more diverse but it seems like I get very few under-represented writers or illustrators submitting to me. I think.
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?
Linda: I believe that writers, as artists, are free to write about whatever they’d like. I don’t think one has to live a particular experience, or be labeled a particular thing (whether that’s based on gender, sexual orientation, race, lived experience, or something else…) to tell the story of a traditionally under-represented type of character. The most important thing, in my opinion, is to do one’s best at getting it “right.” That, of course, can be the difficult part.
Lee: When you're submitting projects to editors, do you think stories with under-represented characters take more 'selling' on your part?
Linda: Most of my experience with this has been in submitting LGBTQ projects, and I’d have to say no, it doesn’t take more selling. This has changed though. I’ve only been in the publishing industry for seven years, but when I first got into the business LGBTQ projects were still considered “niche.” That’s not the case any longer, which I’m so happy about.
Lee: Here I have to interject with a "YAY!"
Linda: It’s also been a positive selling point when I’ve had the opportunity to pitch some of my client’s projects and say something like, “This story includes ethnically and racially diverse characters.” The editors that I know are looking to publish books that more accurately reflect the diversity of our world.
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?
Linda: This is kind of a funny question. I mean, I get it… I really do. I guess I’ve felt like an outsider in some ways, and at times I’ve felt marginalized for various reasons, but I’m not sure that those feelings have anything to do with why I’m committed to diversity in literature. Someone once said to me, “You’re not black, you’re not gay. Why do you care so much?” I had to laugh. I don’t really need a reason to be committed to diversity in literature, or a reason why I care, do I? I just care. Maybe what drives my desire to see more diversity in Children’s and Teen books is my personal commitment to do my part to make the world a better place. I know the world will be a better place when all different kinds of voices can be heard, telling all different kinds of stories. It’s way more interesting that way, don’t you think?
Lee: Yes, I do. Well said.
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 Picture Book favorite?
Linda: I don’t know if this would traditionally be considered a “diverse” book, but Munro Leaf’s FERDINAND is an all time favorite of mine. I find it inspiring because it’s about a character who lives his life true to who he is. It’s not specifically about what we're talking about when we talk about diversity, and yet… Also it’s about being peaceful. I must have read Mem Fox’s WHOEVER YOU ARE to my own children about a thousand times when they were little. I loved reading it because it goes for a global perspective of humanity, uniting us as a human family. Another favorite picture book is Chris Raschka’s CHARLIE PARKER PLAYED BE BOP, because I love the pictures and the musicality of the text.
Lee: Middle Grade?
Linda: I was blown away by Holly Goldberg Sloan’s COUNTING BY 7’s. That’s one I wish I’d repped. And like so many other people, I really loved Cece Bell’s graphic memoir, EL DEAFO.
Lee: Young Adult?
Linda: Well, I’m lucky enough to be able to brag that I represent Bill Konigsberg, and quite honestly I’m one of his biggest fans! If you haven’t read THE PORCUPINE OF TRUTH, get on it. For me, it hits all the right notes: friendship, family, spirituality, history. It’s SO good. A couple of YA books that I’ve particularly enjoyed, by people I don’t represent, are Jandy Nelson’s I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN and Malinda Lo’s ASH. Both were terrific.
Lee: Okay, here’s your wish list moment. What are you looking for? Put out the call...
Linda: Like many other agents and editors, I find this such a difficult question to answer, because I really just want to say, “Something different!” And how do I know what that is, until it comes to my in-box? That being said, I can specifically say that I’d like to rep more racially and culturally diverse stories and I’d like to rep racially and culturally diverse authors. I’m on the lookout for diversity, in general. My client list is currently full of extraordinary writers, writing quirky, interesting, funny, challenging, entertaining, sometimes even important stories. I guess my wish list is for more of that!
Lee: And for writers and/or illustrators reading this who feel a resonance with what you’ve shared and who want to submit to you, how should they go about that?
Linda: They should follow the submission guidelines on my agency’s website (Emerald City Literary agency) or my blog (theblabbermouthblog.com), and send queries to QueryLinda (at) EmeraldCityLiterary.com. I suppose it would be helpful if they want to mention in their query if they identify themselves as part of an under-represented community. Of course that won’t guarantee that I’ll take them on as a client, but I’ll be honest, I will give their work a closer look.
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!
Linda: Thank you, Lee, for giving me the opportunity to let people know I want to see more submissions by and about all kinds of people. Bring ‘em on!
Thanks again, Linda! Look for another AGENT LOOKING FOR DIVERSITY interview on the first Monday of next month. Until then,
Illustrate and Write On!