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, renamed Me Against the Sea, 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 (each installment linked at the bottom of the one before it) – there are 5 questions.
Q. 1. 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?
Lisa: The Burt Award was a huge deal for me. Financially, it was a gift, as I live as a writer and the prize was significant even for the third place winner. (I was doing freelance journalism at the time and now I’m doing stand-up comedy. Yeah apparently I like being hungry.) The promise of publication was extraordinary because the lit market is tough; even though I had already had a novel published [The Chalice Project, Macmillan Caribbean, 2008] I still have no agent. When I got the publisher options from the award I researched them online. I chose Papillote Press even though it wasn’t offering the biggest royalties.
Diana: The Burt Award is, well was, a wonderful prize to get. It was lucrative, it included a guarantee to a prospective publisher that a certain number of books would be bought by the prize and distributed to libraries in the Caribbean. So for the first time, I had publishers seeking me out, instead of the other way around. I had published two novels before Gone to Drift with Peepal Tree Press, but they as publishers were not eligible as they were not located in the Caribbean. I had no agent then, and still have no agent. As Lisa said, I considered the publisher options and also decided to go with Papillote Press, partly because I had read Polly Patullo’s work previously, due to my other life as an environmental activist. My only disappointment with Burt was there was a promise of a local book tour and that never materialized, I am not sure why.
Shakirah: I was not interested in writing books for children, even though several peers suggested I give it a try because of my penchant for writing short fiction from a child’s perspective. But the Burt Award was such a rare opportunity for any author, especially from the Caribbean, to win a publishing contract, a cash prize and guaranteed sales & distribution of books; I could not resist. I edited an old manuscript (taking out all the R-rated content lol) but unfortunately it wasn’t selected for a prize. When I saw the call for submissions the following year, a project had just been cancelled and suddenly my schedule was clear for three weeks. I was inspired by Joanne’s blog post where she revealed that she wrote her winning Burt book in two weeks and I challenged myself to write a new story to submit to the competition. In writing My Fishy Stepmom, I realized that I had been so focused on creating stories to highlight a particular social issue or as commissioned work (freelance) or with a budget in mind (for film) that I truly forgot the joy of writing for fun. The Burt Award helped me to re-discover my calling and unearthed a love for writing fantasy; it changed my life.
Diana: I want to say that in my experience, there are only a few things that make a difference to the sales of your book – a champion who is well connected in one or more major literary markets, reviews and prizes. So any prize opens doors – without a prize, you probably won’t get invited to festivals, you might not get reviews, your book just won’t get much attention. A prize is something to hang publicity on, a focus for social media posts etc. The Burt Prize was unusual because of the guarantee of sales for a publisher.
Lisa: Papillote’s publisher is Polly Patullo. Her books are gorgeous. I’d reviewed her Lawrence Scott collection and the book was a beautiful object, not to mention a good collection. She also had Diana McCaulay on her list with a previous Burt book. I wanted to be able to offer Papillote my other unpublished work, which includes a collection of short fiction and an adult novel-length manuscript. She hasn’t picked up either but she was a sensitive and thoughtful editor; as a publisher she was thorough and painstaking and prompt in her payments (very very important!). And her edition of Home Home is indeed a beautiful book.
(Above, Caribbean editions to the left, US editions to the right)
Diana: I agree that Polly’s books are beautiful – in fact, I prefer the cover done for Gone to Drift by Papillote than the one later done by Harper Collins, after the US rights were sold. I also enjoyed working with her as an editor – she was thorough, respectful and pushed me in essential ways. The Harper Collins edition got Gone to Drift a Kirkus review and star – that had never happened for any of my work before. I don’t really keep a good track of reviews, so I’m not sure if there were others, but I do remember that one.
The responses to Q.1 are running long and so they have been split in to two. I’m calling part 2 Q. 1.2.
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.