Recently, I (Joanne C. Hillhouse of Antigua and Barbuda) reached out to three female Caribbean writers (Diana McCaulay of Jamaica, Lisa Allen-Agostini of Trinidad and Tobago, and Shakirah Bourne of Barbados) with whom I have in common the distinction of being a finalist for the Burt Award for Teen/Young Adult Caribbean Literature (Diana with Daylight Come in 2019 and Gone to Drift in 2015; Shakirah with My Fishy Stepmom in 2018; and Lisa with Home Home in 2017; my own Musical Youth was a 2014 finalist).
The three writers interviewed for this series have further distinguished themselves by selling rights to U.S. editions of their Burt books (McCaulay’s Gone to Drift released in the US market with Harper Collins in 2016; Lisa’s Home Home’s US edition landing in 2020 with Delacorte Press; and Shakirah’s book forthcoming in 2021 with Scholastic). I want to thank them for making the time because I believe their experiences, different though they are, are an education on publishing, especially if you’re a Caribbean Writer. The conversation is serialized due to length (so click here for the start of the series) – there are 5 questions.
Q. 3. What have you learnt through this journey about the business of publishing? – What tips do you have for navigating the publisher and/or agent relationship; Biggest mistakes to Best decisions. Think of this question in light of what you would say if you were mentoring your younger, yet unpublished, self.
Lisa: My advice: Submit your work. Be honest with your editor and realistic about deadlines. Persist. Network. Follow through.
Diana: I can’t say anything about the agent relationship – I did have one briefly, but she delivered nothing, even avoiding a scheduled in person meeting with me in New York. I’ve tried to get an agent because I do think it helps a writer to get a better deal, but in the current literary market, it’s harder to get an agent than a publisher, in my opinion. One issue for Caribbean writers who are resident in the Caribbean is that publishers and agents worry that you will not be able to do the kind of publicity a writer living in a literary market can do. And the days of writers being able to adopt a mysterious reclusiveness are long gone – you have to be out there, at library readings at which six people show up, doing the dreaded (for me, anyway) networking, etc.
Shakirah: I want to jump in to say that I’m grateful that my location was never brought up as an issue, because doing that dreaded networking (I feel the same) is much easier thanks to technology. Of course it would be much simpler for a US-based author to pop into a book store and sign books and establish a face to face relationship with readers and distributors, but booksellers and librarians are just as open to having online events. In the time of COVID publishers have relied on digital promotions and understood that these meaningful connections can still be forged from a distance. I would not refuse a physical book tour once it’s safe to travel again though!
Diana: Regarding the relationship with publishers, I have had three now, the thing I wish most is that they would communicate more regularly with you, tell you what they are doing for your book. Your contract will most likely require an annual royalty payment, so you know nothing about how sales are going until one year and three months has passed. In a way, you send your book out into the world and the only feedback you get is if you are reading in front of audiences, and those do not necessarily translate into sales, or the few emails and Amazon or Goodreads reviews you might get If you’re doing your own publicity you have no way of knowing what brought sales, and it’s easy to believe your publisher is not doing much.
This is why I self-published my fourth book. I wanted to see how difficult it was to promote my own book – I felt like I was doing quite a bit of promotion for my books that had publishers. And the answer – I’ll save readers some heartache – is that publishers are doing A LOT. They just don’t necessarily tell you about it. So, much as self-publishing gets easier and easier, I learned that everybody needs an editor, and even very low-key publishers have networks you have no access to as a writer. You asked about biggest mistake – and in one way I think the decision to self-publish White Liver Gal was a mistake, but it was a necessary one for me to make and I am glad I did it.
I’ll also say that I kept the e-book rights for my first two books (until recently), and the thing I loved about that was I could go online every day if I wanted to and see who downloaded my books, where they lived in the world, and the royalties would be sent directly to my bank account by month end. It was important, real-time feedback that made me feel connected to a reading public.
Lisa: The best decision I made was to tell Polly about my mental health conditions, even though I was afraid she would judge me. I had terrible anxiety and depression while publishing other books before and because it was a surprise to the editors I was working with they didn’t know how to respond. Being honest with her helped both of us. I followed the same route in working with Monica.
Shakirah: I have learnt that the journey to publication is more dependent on luck and timing than talent. We all know several amazing writers who are still waiting for a book deal, and are hoping to submit the right book to the right editor at the right time. In my experience, a lot of quality manuscripts aren’t selected for publication because the publishers already have a similar title on their list or are unsure of how to position the book in the market. It was difficult, but I had to learn to separate myself from the book, and understand that rejection is most likely a business decision and not a personal one; a rejection of your work is not a rejection of you as a writer. It has nothing to do with your ability to write or the value of the story. I had to redefine the meaning of rejection, and realize that every “not for me” brought me closer to finding the right editor, eliminating those who were not the best advocates for my work. It may take some writers more time to find that publisher, and the journey requires LOTS of patience, but in the mean time I’ve learnt to focus on what I can control—the writing.
Clear communication is key in navigating a relationship with both an agent and publisher. With an agent, it’s important to know what kind of support you’re looking for. Do you need an agent who is editorial and can help develop your story? A career agent or simply an agent for one manuscript? Do you want an agent with a good sales record in the genre? An agent who advocates for diversity and represents clients you admire? Figure it out and only query agents who you genuinely want to work with and whose goals and values align with yours. Talk to current clients, read and listen to interviews before signing with an agent. Don’t just say yes to any offer because having a bad agent is worse than having no agent. And always voice concerns. Though my agent readily answers all my questions, I still worry about bothering her or being seen as demanding. I have to constantly remind myself that it is an equal partnership and it’s her job to give insight and guidance along the publishing journey.
This can be applied to a relationship with a publisher as well. Speak up and ask for what you want. If you have an agent, you can voice these requests and let the agent communicate with the publisher. If there’s no agent, then engage with the publisher directly and do not be afraid of the word “No”. I think this fear of rejection stops us from asking for things that we want, and instead we sit and hope that the publisher offers and then get terribly disappointed if they don’t. Do not let fear of the word “no” prevent you from trying.
I think this ties into the question about biggest mistakes—that fear of the word “no”. Most of my unfavourable situations have come out of my fear of offending and subsequently acquiescing to unfavourable terms. I’d just advise that you get a lawyer or agent to look over every contract.
Lisa: I don’t know if I’ve made any big mistakes. For many years I won no prizes and was quite despondent about what I perceived to be my lack of success, but if I’m honest I’ll admit I’ve had more success than most so maybe I was doing something right.
Diana: If I were mentoring my younger, unpublished self, I would say – grow a very thick skin because no matter how successful you get, your work is still going to be rejected. I saw a post recently by Bernardine Evaristo, the 2019 Booker Prize winner for her book Girl, Woman, Other, that a commissioned short story she had written was rejected. I had the impression that once you “made it” as a writer, rejection was a thing of the past, but this is not the case. I would tell my younger self – write all the time. Submit. When stories or articles get rejected, send them somewhere else. Try to stop thinking about “success” – try. It’s hard to define anyway, and I know I keep moving the goal posts on myself. The thing I hate most about writing for publication (I have always written and will always write, but writing for publication is a different thing) is that feeling of envy you get when other writers win prizes, even prizes you have not entered! What’s that about?? But apparently we all feel that, and if I could get rid of those feelings, that’s what I would zap.
I would also say to my young writer self – learn your craft. I’ve done work as a creative writing teacher, a reader and editor and I’m often struck by how sloppy some of the submissions are – poor grammar, cliché-ridden, point of view changes in every other sentence and so on. If you want to write, be serious about it. Study it. Do workshops. Read widely and constantly. And write. And submit. And submit again.
Shakirah: I’d tell my younger self to trust in your story. Stop worrying about international editors not understanding the dialect or getting the subtext or voice. The story will appeal to its intended audience. Continue to read, experiment, challenge yourself and go where the pen (or keyboard) guides you. And practice self-care! All the inevitable rejection and waiting can take a toll, so make sure you have a good coping mechanism.
Get involved in the writing community and spend time around like-minded persons who can empathize with your journey, help you brainstorm ideas and give advice on navigating through the industry.
Q.4. and the author responses will follow in the next installment of the series.
All images are courtesy of the authors and interview was conducted and published by Joanne C. Hillhouse. You can excerpt and share with link-back/credit but do not republish without permission.