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. 1.2. You’re all Burt authors – the process involves the opportunity to select from a number of Caribbean publishers, tell me about your decision making process – why was your publisher right for your book, and do you have any thoughts on the Burt Award experience generally?
Shakirah: When I first decided to submit to Burt, I did research on the previous winning titles and several were published by Tanya Batson-Savage of Blue Banyan Books. I really admired the gorgeous cover designs and high quality of the books, and then truly enjoyed reading the stories. In making my final decision about a publisher, I spoke to previous Burt Award winners, and everyone spoke highly about Tanya’s editorial skills. Still, it was a tough decision because I was also impressed by another publisher who had great reviews and was passionate about my story.
After I had submitted the manuscript to Burt, I decided to try to find an agent in case the book wasn’t shortlisted and so I dived into the US publishing industry. Actually, it was more of a belly flop than a dive but luckily I managed to snag the interest of a top US agent at the same time I was informed that the manuscript was shortlisted for Burt. I thought I had to choose between the two opportunities, but a seasoned local author gave me a lesson in literary rights and I realized that I could negotiate with all parties. I’ve written about the full experience of finding an agent on my blog. In the end, I went with the publisher who had no issues in having only Caribbean rights to the book.
Lisa: The best part of the Burt Award for me was the guaranteed publication and distribution to regional libraries and youth literacy programmes. Not only would I have a book, it would be sold and it would be in libararies and in young people’s hands. I was ecstatic about that. I self-published when I was 18 and I still have copies of the book at age 46 so I know publication without marketing and distribution is a bust. With Bocas Lit Fest, Burt also organised a schools reading tour which took me to meet hundreds of young readers and got mainstream media and online spotlights for the book.
Diana: Lisa was able to do the book tour, I see. I am glad Gone to Drift is in libraries throughout the Caribbean, but I’m also aware that this has to be supported by some programme, or it just remains on the shelf. I’ve tried to get Gone to Drift as a set book for regional exams, and I think now it is on an optional reading list, but not as required reading.
Shakirah: I loved knowing that the Caribbean edition was available in libraries and schools all around the region. As a previous self-published author, I never had the resources to get that far a reach. NALIS in Trinidad selected My Fishy Stepmom for their “One Book, Many Schools” programme, where students read the book and did displays, art competitions, craft activities etc inspired by the book. With the support of BocasLitFest, I created a My Fishy Stepmom Educational Package that included discussions, quizzes (Fishy Feud!) and even science experiments for young readers and is available free online. I had the absolute pleasure of librarians engaging with me on social media, and sending photos of classes reading the text and playing the games.
One of the most rewarding opportunities was being able to attend the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2019. Janet Smyth, who was the Head Judge for Burt and also the Children & Education Porgramme Director extended an invitation to all the Burt winners and we were all part of the Schools’ programme. I also was asked to conduct two workshops during the festival. I met so many of my favourite authors and was fangirling throughout the entire event.
Q.2. 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.