DC Writers Conference: Pitching Agents; Getting A Peek Into the Publishing World

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Washington Writers Conference. Usually I’m excited about the panels and workshops, etc., but the purpose of this visit was strictly business—meeting agents. By signing up for the conference you got 5 minutes to pitch 4 agents of your choosing. It was a solid selection. I decided to only meet with people I hadn’t already sent queries to.

The pitches

The conference came after my last post, in which I wrote that the idea of networking for this book was an annoying concept. Given that that’s how I was feeling at the time, I didn’t go to the cocktail party in Bethesda the Friday before the conference to mingle with agents and publishers—including a few I pitched. I should have gone, but I didn’t.

Saturday, I attended a few panels, during which the pitch sessions were scheduled. Two of the agents I sat with made me feel stupid for even being there (was it me, or was it the fact that they had been sitting in a 90 degree room all day?) One asked me for 75 pages (yes!) and the last asked me if my book was “like a Nicholas Sparks novel but with black characters.”

Blink.

If you follow this blog, then you have an idea of how my face reacted, outside of my control, to that question. I recovered though, and she asked for three chapters.

Nevertheless, I was feeling a little deflated at the end, like I hadn’t really made the most of the day. But then this guy who works at a tiny publisher approached me. I think his company has an interest in minority authors. Anyway, he said they do everything traditional publishers do- edit, market, etc. and you don’t need an agent to pitch them.

I did some investigating, and I learned that there are other ways to getting published besides querying millions of agents and then hoping to find a publisher. Apparently there is a whole army of tiny presses like his (e.g., university presses) that target niche audiences that you can pitch without an agent. Once I look into it further, I will probably blog about it in greater depth. For now, I’ll just let you know that I sent him my full manuscript.

The conference: a reminder that I’m a black woman

This is the first writing conference I attended that wasn’t 90% women. I hadn’t really thought about that when I signed up, but the differences were apparent immediately.

While most of the agents were women, all of the panelists on the publisher panel were men. The keynote speaker was a sportswriter for a major newspaper who mentioned at least dozen of writers and athletes who influenced him—all of them were men.  Meanwhile, the lady sitting next to me was there to pitch a biography about a woman and trees. One of the few male agents expressed some interest and she was surprised that a man was interested in that topic.  His response was “my sister is a women’s studies professor” (or something along those lines).

What I learned from that story is that if a man doesn’t have a sister who is a women’s studies professor, he won’t read a biography about a woman. For real though- is that what the agent was saying?

One of the panels was about gender and biography, which I enjoyed. The panelists included famous unauthorized biographer Kitty Kelley and James McGrath Morris– a white man who just published a biography about a black, female civil rights reporter named Edith L. Payne.

I really respected James’ comments about his position being a white man writing about Edith.  He seemed like he got a lot of what I talk about on this blog.  He mentioned that during his time in the industry he observed that when black women write about black women, for example, they are generally perceived as more biased or sympathetic to the subject (he used a different word—I wish I could remember—but that was jist).  Juxtapose those comments with Kitty Kelley’s discussion of her experience writing about Frank Sinatra, for which she got a lot of backlash. (Sinatra even tried to sue her before she had written a word! Thankfully that’s illegal.) She said that because Sinatra is perceived as the pinnacle of manliness, it was in fact men who had trouble writing about him objectively. They had too much reverence for him, while she could write about him (and his flaws) more honestly.

So basically, everyone’s biased. That actually is what I think—there’s always going to be some subjectivity. But what this panel demonstrated was that, while the idea that black women can’t write about other black women objectively is the majority view, Kitty’s perspective that white men can’t write about a white man objectively is the minority view. In other words, when white men write a biography that is the standard/baseline. When anyone else writes, however, they inevitably insert their biased female/minority perspectives into the page…right?

To be fair, I’ll leave you with this…

To wrap up this post about networking and gender/race issues in the publishing industry, I leave with this: at the conference I ran into numerous friends that I met in classes I took at the Writer’s Center (where this journey all began).  One, a white woman, told me she had pitched her story (elsewhere, not at this conference) to a black agent who she really connected with. She could tell the agent was interested in her work, but she couldn’t represent her- because she only represents black authors.

I think that’s a bad business move for the agent (and not just because I believe in my friend). I understand the thinking- it is historically more difficult for minority authors to find representation. Still, it’s never a good idea to turn down a good opportunity. If this agent believed in my friend’s book, she should have pursued it. Not only is that her job, but if the book became successful, then she would have more leverage when representing her other, mostly African American, clients. That’s my view, but I can see others disagreeing. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Tis all.  Have a great weekend!

That Deadline Article Hurt My Feelings (And is Racist)

I am coming off an amazing 5-day writer’s retreat taught by “Wild” author Cheryl Strayed, and expected my next blog post would be focused on detailing the experience and everything I learned.

But then I saw this: “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings—About Time or Too Much of A Good Thing?” And I have to speak on it.

If you haven’t read the article, it basically looks at Hollywood’s recent acceptance that non-white people exist in society, and concludes it is putting white people at an unfair disadvantage. The small steps the industry is taking toward rejecting homogeneity may be leading it down a dangerous path- so watch out!

My first reaction to this article was not anger, but hurt.

It literally hurt my feelings.

This woman completely marginalized my existence as a black person. My story shouldn’t be told, she says, because a white actress isn’t the right person to tell it. Sure, white people need hundreds—thousands—of TV shows to depict their lives, but I should be more than satisfied that How to Get Away with Murder, Blackish and Empire depicts my truth. She suggests that art like mine, which has minority characters, is in opposition to art that features white characters. The idea that all TV shows, whether they feature black or white people, are at their core, stories about humanity with universal themes are inconceivable to her. The concept of people identifying with characters not of their same race is beyond her (unless, of course it’s non-whites identifying with whites because their stories are always universal). Honestly, it was so insulting.

My second reaction was an intellectual (as opposed to emotional) one. That reaction was that the article is racist.

If you follow this blog, then you know that I don’t go around calling everyone racist. Nicholas Sparks, for example. I said he was an asshole, but I’m not comfortable calling him a racist. The Sony chick who joked about Obama watching Kevin Hart? A person who said something dumb, not a racist. The reporter who asked if Fresh Off the Boat would feature chopsticks? Ignorant, but not racist.

This Deadline article was actually racist.

It’s racist because she turns the celebrated idea of diversity in television into something that is adversarial to white people. She turns it into a zero sum game, engaging in the age-old technique of using racial division to advocate for a white, male-dominated status quo.

How does she do this? By suggesting that Hollywood is using affirmative action in its hiring decisions, knowing this is a trigger. The problem is that she presents no real evidence that anyone is actually using quotas, and if they are that it’s nothing more than anomaly. She completely dismisses the concept that the directed focus on increasing diversity and having color-blind auditions is a) a response to demand and b) an attempt to capitalize on the opportunity present in this moment to finally be able to hire the best actor, instead of the best white actor.

Any attempt to reinforce structural racism is, to me, racist. Any attempt to capitalize on our nation’s racial trigger is, to me, racist. So the Deadline article is racist to me. And frightening.

Agent Seeks Diversity…But Without Diversity

A couple of weeks ago a bunch  of agents turned to Twitter to share their manuscript wish lists using the hashtag #MSWL.  Writers were encouraged to narrow their searches to have an easier time finding agents interested in their genres (e.g., #MSWLwomen’s fiction” or “#MSWL diversity”).

When I searched “#MSWL diversity,” I found several tweets seeking something like “diversity where diversity is NOT an issue.”  And now I have some thoughts.

First of all, I get what they are saying.  They want a story with diverse characters that doesn’t focus on discrimination, identity crises, or the general struggle of being black/gay/disabled/[INSERT DIVERSENESS HERE].   I get that.  I myself wish there were more books, movies, shows that reflected black life, which involves more than a march to Selma.

The movie “The Kids Are Alright” is a great example of the type of thing I’m looking for when it comes to diversity (not sure about the agents).  Basically, it shows a family w/ lesbian parents dealing with talking back teenagers and marital issues- it’s a movie relatable to everyone.  HOWEVER, the plot of that story could not have been told but for the fact that they were lesbians.  Those things together are why I think it’s great.

So my first question is, are the agents who request “diversity where diversity is not an issue” asking for a story like “The Kids Are Alright”?

If yes, then they are probably not getting them because anyone who writes a story like that would not describe it as one where the “diversity is not an issue.”  It’s the diversity issues informing that writing.

If no, then my next question is what do they mean by “diversity where diversity is not an issue”?

If they mean a story with a minority protagonist whose minority status doesn’t play a role, my response is that’s impossible.  Minority-ness doesn’t have to be central, but it’s impossible for it not to play a role.  Remember- white/male/majority privilege is the privilege to not have to think about those things in your daily life.  If a story is written from a minority’s point of view then he or she doesn’t have that privilege and it’s just unrealistic that it won’t come up.  (Especially in fiction, which is so introspective.)

If they mean a story with a white/straight/abled protagonist who has diverse friends and co-workers, then my response is this:  That’s fine, but please don’t pat yourself on the back for bringing diversity to publishing.

There’s nothing wrong with those books, but ultimately, they still reflect a white person’s world.  It’s just a more accurate reflection because they acknowledge that non-white people are in it.  What these agents aren’t doing is publishing diverse voices or portraying the world diverse people live in.  And that’s the perspective that is underrepresented.