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 Camacho of the Prospect Agency.
|Agent Linda Camacho|
Linda Camacho joined Prospect Agency in 2015 after nearly a decade in publishing. After graduating from Cornell University, Linda interned at Simon & Schuster and Writers House literary agency, and worked at Penguin before happily settling into children's marketing at Random House. She has an MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
In terms of submissions, she's pretty omnivorous. She enjoys a variety of categories and genres, ranging from picture book to adult, from clean and lighthearted contemporary to edgy and dark fantasy. Her Twitter handle is @LindaRandom.
Lee: Hi Linda! Thanks so much for agreeing to talk about your interest in Diversity in Children's and Teen Literature!
Linda: Thank you for inviting me, Lee! I’ve been a fan for quite sometime, so I’m excited to be included in your amazing lineup of people involved in the discussion.
Lee: Aww, thanks. 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: I get way too many to count, but proportion-wise, I get quite a few submissions featuring diversity of some kind. In my unscientific deduction, I’d say it’s a 60/40 ratio of diverse vs non-diverse, so to speak. I credit that to the fact that I’m a POC (though sadly, not related to Macho Camacho) and that we’ve had a big spike in the diversity conversation the past year or so.
Lee: I love hearing that! Let's unpack that a bit: Are you seeing many stories featuring protagonists of color?
Linda: I am! It tends to be mentioned in query letters, so I do take note of it. The quality of those submissions, I will admit, can vary. Since diversity is a big trend now, I do get the occasional submission where I can tell that a character has been made “diverse” to garner interest. It reads as inauthentic and that’s very disappointing. Token characters are not what I’m looking for. On the flipside, I’ve received more authentic portrayals than not, so I can’t complain too much.
Lee: 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 definitely get LGBTQ characters as well. The most diverse submissions I see fall into this category, with a close second being ones featuring protagonists of color. With regards to LGBTQ, if I had to list in descending order of categorical quantity that I receive, it would be: Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Queer/Gender Non-conforming, Questioning, and Trans. These submissions tend to fall into the realistic genre. I’d also really, really like to see them branch into other genres as well, particularly fantasy and horror—and not just as side characters, but as protagonists.
Lee: I'm all for LGBTQ protagonists! How about characters with disabilities?
Linda: Sadly, these are the fewest I receive. One of my clients, a POC with a disability, recently lamented that there just aren’t enough books with disabled characters out in the world. That, of course, is something she and I will certainly be working on. And to other writers whose work features disabled characters, know that your voices are being sought by me and plenty of other agents, so please do submit.
Lee: Everyone reading, take note! Back to Linda, are you seeing other types of diversity in the works submitted? - And please share any specific categories that spring to mind.
Linda: I’m sure I’m missing something, seeing as how diversity can encompass so many things, but occasionally I do get plus-size protagonists. I’m a fat girl who’s always excited when I see a protagonist looks like me, without the plot necessarily revolving around weight loss. I’d love to see more of them across all genres.
Oh, and I recently got a few submissions with religious diversity, so that’s exciting!
Lee: How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers and illustrators submitting to you?
Linda: I’m seeing more under-represented writers submit to me, so that’s promising. Would I love to see that number increase? Yes, absolutely. I’m still building my list, but so far, half of that list includes diverse writers across the board (one of them is Mary Cronin, actually, who was featured on your blog last May for her workshop on Gay (LGBT) & Questioning characters in Middle Grade).
Lee: Mary's workshop sounded amazing! (Here's that link.)
Linda: I’m focusing on my MG, YA, and adult fiction list at this stage, but if a special writer-illustrator catches my eye, I’m game. I have been trying to keep an eye out for under-represented illustrators, which I know editors are hungry for.
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 have clients writing outside of their experience in terms of diversity, and I do like to ensure that they really do their research and to do the best they possibly can. I warn them to expect criticism and to learn from any mistakes they made. Yes, non-diverse (for lack of a better word) writers can certainly write about diversity, but I ask that they be humble and improve with each effort. I’m a Latina, but even though I’m a “diverse” person, I don’t speak for every POC and I certainly don’t get it right all the time. I’m learning as I go, too.
As someone in the publishing industry, I try to remain as open-minded and pragmatic as possible, since I’m all about inclusivity and, well, good business. However, there are times that my Latina side groans when I get yet another border crossing story written by a white person. Reflecting on that, however, I realize that it’s not so much that a white writer can’t write that border crossing story, but if that’s the only story they can think to tell with a latino character, I wonder why, when there are so many stories out there to tell. Therein lies the danger of only one story.
Maybe a better question a non-diverse writer should ask himself when writing that perspective is not can he write that particular story, but should he. If he really feels the answer is yes, since it’s adding to the canon, then they should. I’ve read some tremendous stories written by people who are not necessarily of that experience.
What I would really love to see more of is non-diverse people being allies in not only writing the subject matter, but also in helping those disenfranchised voices tell their own stories. That’s the true need, getting more diverse people access to create their narratives.
Lee: Nicely said. When you're submitting projects to editors, do you think stories with under-represented characters take more 'selling' on your part?
Linda: The diverse market is in an upswing right now, so I’ve seen things sell that wouldn’t have sold a year ago. It’s a trend, what can I say? I have a love/hate relationship with the word “trend,” but there you have it. I feel I can sell a story with an under-represented character more easily in this market. I only hope that it’s a trend that’s here to stay. The idea that it could be a passing fad is a scary prospect and I wonder where we’ll be even a year from now.
Lee: Here's hoping it's a trend like cooked food. That's really caught on. (Apologies to my raw food friends, but it was the best metaphor I could come up with...)
More seriously, 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: I’ve been in publishing ten years now and hadn’t really realized the lack of diversity until a few years ago. It’s a funny thing, how what can seem completely normal can be problematic. I’m a Puerto Rican from the Bronx who went to prep school, then the Ivy League, and eventually, moved into publishing, all the while not questioning being the rare person of color in the room.
When I was working at Random House, I was getting my MFA in children’s writing, so my first semester, I introduced myself to writing instructor Matt de la Peña (whom we published). We had a lovely chat, during which he said it was important to write POC characters and to not be afraid to do so. I hadn’t really thought about it before and considered it for a long time afterward. I’d thought of POC characters as a bonus, not something that we really needed. I’ve learned so much since then. I’m still learning every day. I have to say, it is pretty nice to feel like I exist in books.
Beyond the authors, I’m well aware of how few diverse people are on the publishing side, which is something that I would like to see change over time as well. If you thought it was bad in the publishing houses, it’s even worse on the agenting side. I’ve really come to notice it now that I’m an agent. Also, as a POC writer who’s looking for diverse agents to query, that list is pathetically short. There are some people working to change that, folks like Michael Mejias at Writers House, who makes a concerted effort to recruit diverse candidates for the internship program (he’d recruited me way back when!). At Prospect Agency, I recently noticed that about half of us are POC, which is thrilling. We need more diverse recruitment across the board, so when I see more instances of that, I’ll be very glad.
Lee: Here, Here! 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 really love Lauren Castillo’s Nana in the City, Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s Last Stop on Market Street, and Meg Medina’s Mango, Abuela, and Me because they harken back to my Bronx days when my abuela lived with us and would take my sister and me around.
Lee: Middle Grade?
Linda: So many!
· Cece Bell’s El Deafo
· Paolo Bacigalupi’s Zombi Baseball Beatdown
· Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
· Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist
· Alex Gino’s George
· Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.
Lee: Young Adult?
Linda: Yet again, quite a few to choose from!
· Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints
· Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
· Malinda Lo’s Ash
· Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns
· Justine Larbalestier’s Liar
· Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
· Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not
· Sarai Walker’s Dietland
Lee: Okay, here’s your wish list moment. What are you looking for? Put out the call...
Linda: I love so many things. What I can say is that I’m especially looking for stellar middle grade, young adult, and adult fiction across all genres and all aspects of diversity (socio-economic, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, etc.). Like everyone else, I’m looking for a great story that resonates, really. More specifically, though, I’d love a fantasy set in a non-European setting and, of course, a story featuring a plus-size protagonist (contemporary is fine, but bonus points for another genre!)
While I’m only choosing to work on select illustrator projects, if you’re a diverse writer-illustrator, do reach out!
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: You can query me via the electronic form on Prospect Agency’s submission page (http://www.prospectagency.com/boathouse.html).
Lee: Anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?
Linda: Even with the state of diversity of the industry, things are slowly starting to shift. We have some terrific allies, “diverse” and “non-diverse” alike, who are fighting together to change things. I remain hopeful that given more time and more sweat, we can all effect a long-lasting change in publishing.
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: It’s something that hits close to home for me, so it’s definitely a pleasure. And thank you for the work you do on your end as well!
Thanks Linda! Look for another AGENT LOOKING FOR DIVERSITY interview on the first Monday of next month. Until then,
Illustrate and Write On!