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 was serialized due to length (so click here for the start of the series) – there are 5 questions.
It was suggested by one of the participating authors and I’ve been asked since posting the first of the interview links online to share my responses to the questions posed to the writers in this series. So, okay. This EXTRAS was originally appended to the CREATIVE SPACE post at my Jhohadli blog but I decided there was some value in copying over here and linking to the main series.
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?
Joanne: It was my first experience of having choices on this scale – a wildly disorienting and at the same time exhilarating feeling. There were like six bids. I looked most closely at CaribbeanReads, which I ultimately went with, and a publisher in Jamaica. I researched and even communicated with some of the bidding publishers. That CaribbeanReads was, I believe, the only one from a small island in the Eastern Caribbean, like mine, appealed to me. But I tried to be scientific about it, weighing the pros and the cons of the offered deals. I’d signed a few contracts by that point and I thought it was a good deal – better than normal, in great part due to the fact that the Burt prize included an upfront buy and distribution of a couple thousand copies which is rare and allowed for a decent advance and royalty share, which plus the prize money made it one of my bigger paydays off of one book…to date. I also considered the chemistry, would I feel a valued partner in the process. I remember discussing the offer with my agent though she wasn’t directly involved in the negotiation.
The relationship with Caribbean Reads has been positive; so much so, I’ve since published Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure, which now has an audio and Spanish language version, in addition to being available in hard cover, soft cover, and ebook, with them. I re-upped with them for a second edition of Musical Youth when the original print run sold out. Musical Youth hasn’t been a runaway bestseller, but it’s on a couple of school reading lists, it opened some doors in terms of festival invites, and was distributed across the Caribbean and has found its way in to other markets, and Caribbean Reads has been one of my better publishing relationships because they communicate and they collaborate – which isn’t always the case.
Winning this prize was definitely an adrenaline shot to my writing career and Musical Youth has been a spike in my uneven publishing record. That’s all due to Burt whose impact I’ve written about because I believe it has been a boon not just to the teen/young adult market but to independent publishing in the region.
Q. 2. Why do rights matter? – US rights, Caribbean rights, UK rights, world rights, foreign language rights etc. what does it mean and is it something you pursued (yes this requires some repetition given what you said in your initial response but expound if you can – as much as you can share what the process has been like and explain what is meant by selling regional rights and why it matters? If it does)
Joanne: I actually come at the issue of rights from my experiences as a freelancer – all the research I did when I started freelancing about freelance writing contracts, all the ways I’ve tried to understand it and include it in my contracts, the fact that rights can slow down a negotiation more than the actual money sometimes and some treat it like a foreign concept. This is one of the reasons why I try to share what I learn through the Wadadli Pen platform and especially the Resources page, and why I try to do interviews like the one I did with these three writers. It matters because it’s how a writer profits from his or her labour; it’s about ownership and future earnings. It’s the reason, for instance, why my agent prompted me to rephrase the rights clause, when I asked her opinion on a contract offered for use of my story in an anthology, to make sure that any rights not specific to its non-exclusive publication remained exclusively mine – and this was just about a story in an anthology. But, as she said, Brokeback Mountain was based on a magazine article so you might want to hold on to those film and dramatic rights. It may sound ridiculous but you never know what future rights you can sell. I did a lot of listening to the other authors in this section because I’m still learning and they were talking about a particular experience I didn’t have – licensing regional rights for a book. Of course, what I learned is that often the publisher is the one actively working to sub-license regional rights. I do see value in having publishers and publisher networks in different regional markets – one US publisher I worked with bluntly told me they didn’t mail review copies out of the US when I asked for a review copy to be sent to a Caribbean reviewer. But I’ve always been conscious that rights matter – including duration and how to reclaim those rights when it comes to that (something I’ve had to do). I find contract negotiations anxiety inducing but I try to seek advice where I can (lawyer, agent, other writer, sensible friend), educate and advocate for myself, imperfectly, when I need to – obviously, it’s easier when you have someone to negotiate for you or someone whom you can ask questions when you have to negotiate for yourself. I remain a work in progress re all of the above.
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.
Joanne: Actually, I’m still learning this, stop being so anxious for the opportunity that you’re afraid to ask the things you need to ask or say the things you need to say. Like Shakirah says at some point, everything is negotiable. I feel like I’m stronger on this in my freelancing side than my creative writing side whether its short stories or books, because I want it so much. I mean, anxiety doesn’t necessarily stop me from speaking up, but it’s such a pick me, pick me dynamic and you work so many years writing and writing and clawing to get on, even after you get on. You’re so anxious to sign before whatever gets snatched away – especially at those points in your writing journey when you’re hungry (whether financially or creatively or just hungry for it to be real), never a good time for snap decisions or signing under some self-induced duress; slow it down, breathe, seek advice, listen to that advice, advocate for yourself (oh and get help if you can), know that you have a right to advocate for yourself. And I think that would apply to any of the relationships in the publishing ecosystem – agent to editor to publicist. You want to come at it feeling you’ve earned your seat at the table and have a right to take up space (shout out to Amina from the Women of Wadadli Awards who made us say that we have the right to take up space out loud; wild that that’s something we need to reaffirm). That would be my tip, that and have a beer – or some wine, whatever your celebratory beverage of choice is because you’ve earned this and you are worthy. Don’t wait for the moment when you’ve made it, in fact re-define what making it means, you may find yourself hopping the bus to your own book launch because your borrowed car broke down en route, true story, because it ebbs and flows; take a minute to soak in those little moments – it’s okay.
Q. 4. What opportunities have opened up for you as a direct result of being published in different markets? Do you have other editions by region of the Burt or any other books pending?
Joanne: This question was put to the chosen respondents given that each had inked a deal for a US edition of their winning Burt Award title, initially published in the Caribbean. That has not been my story so I can’t answer it from that perspective. But I can say that my Burt title is my first time publishing a book with a Caribbean-based publisher. The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight were first issued by Macmillan (UK) and subsequently by Hansib (UK) and Insomniac (Canada), respectively, though the rights were not limited geographically. My novel Oh Gad! was my first sale to a US publisher (Strebor/Atria/Simon & Schuster). That opened up my audience, I think, gave me some penetration in the US market. Since then between Caribbean Reads and Little Bell which published With Grace, I’ve been publishing with independent Caribbean presses (with US-bases). It’s a pretty patchworked publishing history and my next book, a picture book is with an international publisher working on a Caribbean series.
Oh Gad! was recommended on NPR in 2014, that was due to Caribbean-American writer Elizabeth Nunez deciding to recommend it by whatever instincts moved her to do so and possible only because the mass market edition of that book came out that summer. Publication in the cross-Atlantic anthology Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean landed me at Aye Write! in Scotland and the PEN World Voices Festival in New York (and my presence at the latter landed me in a photography book of some of the world’s well known authors, and me, Author by Beowulf Sheehan who was the official festival photographer); while being published in global anthology New Daughters of Africa landed me at the Sharjah International Book Fair. With Musical Youth I went to Trinidad, St. Martin, and USVI book festivals – panels and school tours. I was able to attract an invitation to the Miami Book Fair thanks to Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure. And each of those, and other opportunities to travel and make appearances, or to be interviewed or featured came in different ways – some I had to be proactive, some because the work went ahead of me through some advocate. None of it just happened because the book is out there and often it’s an accumulation of things rather than a single thing. It’s why, despite getting discouraged (and I do), it’s important to keep doing the work and keep scouting for opportunities.
Q. 5. I also want to touch a bit on the value of an author as a brand. How do you feel valued as a Caribbean author, how do you feel not valued? – re speaking fees, copyright etc. but, also, generally.
Joanne: How do I feel valued/not valued? Who wrote these questions? Okay, first before I started publishing I was a writer and if I never publish again I am still a writer, as long as my characters give me the time of day. That said, there’ve been moments – various write-ups and endorsements, various event invites. But mostly it’s the readers who when they read the work and like it, lift me up. But I’m not making bank whether with royalties or speaking fees, which I have gotten but not on the regular; so, I have to try to make my other work, work. I’ve had to and still have to knock and then wedge my foot in the door, sometimes it’s squeezed shut and sometimes it’s garped and I squeeze in. If there is a level where the door swings open, I’m not there. I still have to hustle and self-promote; and I do because I know what it’s like to have your books be critically ignored, underperform commercially, and go out of print. I know what it’s like to not know if that’s it and to fight your way out of feeling like you’ll never write again, never publish again, to resolve to not stand in your own way if you get another chance. And there are levels to this, feeling ignored v. feeling like you’re making some headway – locally, and, once you start to move in those spaces, regionally and internationally. I am a #gyalfromOttosAntigua and a writer from a small place who works hard to get my work out and be seen. Fun fact, I have my own Wikipedia page now – and I had nothing to do with it. But getting a wiki is among the things I have researched over the years of researching ways to push my books, because I don’t have the luxury of just sitting back and letting it happen nor the money to have somebody else take care of it. But then, as evidenced by my wiki, sometimes it does happen, if you’ve created enough work or, per luck, work enough seen by the right person. So, sometimes I feel like I’m begging for scraps, other times I do have moments of feeling valued. It’s a see-saw.
(Pictured immediately above: Valuable moments of 2020 – pre-COVID – an invitation to revisit my alma mater and read from Musical Youth and how enthusiastically the students got involved in the reading…er, dancing; and, right, an award for contribution to literature from Gender Affairs in Antigua and Barbuda at their first Women of Wadadli Awards. The latter award involves nominations made online by the public and decided by a committee and recognized 25 women in different categories from about 100 nominees)
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