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Caribbean Writers Discuss Publishing – Lessons, Breakthroughs, and Rights 3/5

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).

daylight comeGone to DriftMy-Fishy-StepmomHome HomeMusical Youth

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 Think of this question in light of what you would say if you were mentoring your younger, yet unpublished, self.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.


Diana in a panel with other Burt 2019 winners at the Bocas Literary Festival.

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.

white liver gal
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.


Caribbean students with several Burt titles including Lisa’s Home Home.

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.


Diana at her first Burt ceremony in 2015.

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.

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Wadadli Pen 2012 Now Accepting Submissions


Origins, Liberating Love; the Focus of Wadadli Pen 2012

16th January 2012

The Wadadli Pen 2012 Challenge in partnership with the Best of Books is inviting submissions of poems and short stories from Antiguans and Barbudans between now and February 17th 2012.

You don’t have to create to a specific theme but your stories, as usual, do have to be Caribbean in spirit. Don’t interpret this to mean you have to create in a box but rather use the Caribbean as the foundation from which you will let your imagination fly. Returning to its roots, when it started in 2004, the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize 2012 edition will not limit you to a single theme; let your Muse be your guide and write about whatever you want. That said, in addition to the prizes within age categories (12 and younger, 13 to 17, 18 to 35) and for the overall winners, judges will select best stories under the themes Origins and Liberate Love. For those of you who need it consider it a prompt.

Liberate Love as a theme is a tie in with a new campaign, of the same name, set to be launched here in 2012; while the idea behind Origins is to encourage us “to dream our own dreams, let our imaginations run free for a while”, to quote Caribbean author Joanne Gail Johnson. Origins, therefore, can range from physical to mythological, from the origin of an idea to the origin of a country. We really want to encourage you to push the boundaries, break with convention; take risks.

Entries must be original, created by you, and previously unpublished; they can be no more, give or take, than 600 words; and each individual is allowed up to three submissions. You must be 35 years or younger to enter, and you can write in any genre.

Parents and teachers, here’s an opportunity to provide a new challenge for young people in your lives; build their literacy skills, while drawing on their knowledge and experience and unleashing their imagination.

For full terms of use and other guidelines visit https://wadadlipen.wordpress.com or email wadadlipen@yahoo.com if you have specific questions.

We look forward to receiving your submissions.


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Seeking Caribbean Writers

The Caribbean Writer is an annual publication out of the University of the USVI, edited by Opal Palmer Adisa. It is a tough publication to get into and a quality publication as a result. I’ve had four pieces published there over the years (poems Ah Write and Tongue Twista, and short stories Rhythms and Country Club Kids); and I’ve recently been selected as the recipient of its David Hough Literary Prize. I’ve just finished reading the 25th annual edition and will, soon as time allows, post my thoughts on that. But I’ll say again it would be nice to see these contemporary Caribbean stories being read in the classroom because I think students will find them more relatable and there’s no doubting the qality. But this isn’t about all that. This is to alert you to the publication’s annual submission call. Here’s what you need to know:

The Caribbean Writer is an international, referred, literary journal with a Caribbean focus. Issues unique to the Caribbean should be central in the work, or the work should reflect a Caribbean heritage, experience, or perspective.

Submit poems, short stories, personal essays, and one-act plays. Maximum length (for short stories and personal essays) is 3500 words or 10 pages. Only previously unpublished work will be accepted. (If previously self-published, give details.)

Now accepting submissions for Volume 26, to be published in 2012.

Deadline: October 15, 2011.

THEME: Nature & Ecology

This 26th anniversary issue of The Caribbean Writer will be dedicated to the environment: nature and ecology. As we move into the 21st century we have to be mindful of our environment, how we care for it, what kinds of expansions (developments) we allow to take place, how do we preserve and maintain its pristine beaches, lush mountains and diverse, extraordinary bird/insect and animal life.

The Caribbean Writer seeks works that celebrate as well as explore our relationship to nature, how tourism and cruise ships impact our environment, the role nature plays in our lives, the names of our trees and flowers, the rich fauna, etc.

TCW will also celebrate women writers and welcome interviews, essays, personal narratives on Sylvia Wynter, Olive Senior, Paule Marshall, Claire Harris, Lorna Goodison, Nancy Morejon, Velma Pollard, Erna Bordber, and Zee Edgell.

Follow this procedure for submissions: List name, address, and title of submission on a separate sheet. Title only on submission. All submissions should be on a separate sheet. Include brief biographical information and mention previous publications and Caribbean connection, if any. Type (double-spaced) all manuscripts.

All submissions are eligible for these prizes:

The Daily News Prize for best poetry ($300)The Canute A. Brodhurst Prize for best short fiction ($400)

The David Hough Literary Prize to a Caribbean author ($500)

The Marguerite Cobb McKay Prize to a Virgin Island author ($200)

The Charlotte & Isidor Paiewonsky Prize for first-time publication ($250)

Book Reviews – Persons interested in reviewing books should contact the editor, indicating their areas of expertise. Include sample reviews if possible.

The Caribbean Writer

University of the Virgin Islands

RR 1, Box 10,000

Kinghill, St. Croix

U.S. Virgin Islands 00850-9781

Snail mail submissions to address above or email submissions to
submit@thecaribbeanwriter.org as attached Word or RTF files.

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FYI – Wadadli Pen update

Be advised that the judging round of the Best of Books Wadadli Pen Challenge 2011 has begun. This year’s judges are Dotsie Isaac Gellizeau, an Antiguan and Barbudan poet who made her name on the local open mic circuit before releasing her spoken word CD Absoulutely Dotsie and going to have her work featured in different fora such as the presentation of Wednesday’s Child during the 2010 production of When A Woman Moans, and Brenda Lee Browne, writer and former coordinator of the A & B Independence Literary Arts competition who has mentored many young writers. The roughly 40 submitted pieces will be shortlisted and the top three in each age category returned to the writers for editing and resubmission before the final ranking per age category (12 and under, 13 to 17, 18 to 35) and for overall winner is done. The winning pieces will be posted on the Wadadli Pen website and possibly elsewhere.

Winning pieces must be in the genre of children’s literature, must be creative and interesting, and in the spirit of the Caribbean. We continue to look for writing that engages.

Registrations have started to come in, meanwhile, from artist (35 and younger) interested in creating illustrations for the top stories. Interested artists can continue to submit their names until the first round of judging is completed later this month. Extracts will then go out for visual interpretation along with guidelines from art teacher Renee Philip, also organizer of St. Anthony’s Sidewalk Art Festival. If you like to draw, we invite you to submit your name, age, gender, location and contact information to wadadlipen@yahoo.com

As founder/coordinator of the competition, I am still in the process of soliciting sponsorship as all winning writers and artists will be awarded prizes. Thanks so much to the sponsors who are already on board.

Winners will be awarded during the planned June anniversary street book fair.

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First Issue of Anansesem Hits the Market

This youth-centric publication is a truly Caribbean production, started by a Trini, it’s attracted editors and writers from all over the region. The first issue debuted this September.

(From the editor’s pen)…”And what will you find in this first issue of Anansesem?

Bajan teenager and young aspiring poet, Che Blackman, graces us with his poetry, in which the voices of Caribbean youth ring through loud and clear. We are happy to present an exhibition of Annalee Davis’ original artwork from the Caribbean children’s book Diego Dish and Carlotta Spoon. It is also with great pleasure that we feature poems by the likes of Carol-Ann Hoyte and Maggie Harris, veteran that she is the the production of truly delightful Caribbean children’s poetry. The short stories written by adults in this issue are varied and ambitious, and it is our dearest hope that parents will read them with their children and also download and use the pdf. version of the issue when it becomes available. There are some longer stories targeted at older children, like Jan Bester’s Mama and Me on Montserrat stories which are sure to strike a chord with those of us who remember the eruption of the volcano and understand the troubled history of this special island. The multi-talented Jan Bester also gives us the gift of her poignant illustrations to accompany and complete the stories. Anansesem Editors Anouska Kock and myself weigh in with insights into children’s literature in Aruba and a review of Mario Picayo’s picture book A Caribbean Journey from A to Y (Read and Discover What Happened to the Z.) Finally, we also welcome children’s writer Jim Wasserman, our ‘Guest from around the World.'”

Read the entire issue at http://www.anansesem.com/2010/09/september-2010-inaugural-issue.html

Feel inspired yet?

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Site seeking children’s stories

Anansesem is scouting for original Caribbean Children’s literature. Submission deadline is August 15th 2010. For submission details check http://summeredward.blogspot.com/

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