Connecting Writers to Agents of Color

by
Enma Karina Elias
From the July/August 2024 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Publishing can be an opaque industry with its difficult-to-navigate network of publishing houses, editors, and agents. It has been particularly opaque for BIPOC people who have been historically underrepresented in an industry that has been dominated by white, middle-class, and upper-middle-class people. In recent years the industry has made strides toward broadening its workforce. The 2023 Lee & Low Books survey of industry diversity shows that 72.5 percent of publishing industry professionals identify as white, down from 76 percent in 2019. Among literary agents 74 percent identified as white, down from 80 percent in 2019. When the Literary Agents of Change (LAoC) initiative was launched nearly four years ago by a group of agents concerned with this inequity, it aimed to recruit talented BIPOC people into the agenting profession and to create more transparency in the industry. A natural extension of those efforts is to help connect BIPOC authors and editors with BIPOC agents.

To that end, LAoC has launched the Equity Directory. Since the free online database of BIPOC literary agents rolled out in February, nearly seventy BIPOC agents have created a profile on the site, with most displaying their headshot and information about the genres and subjects they specialize in, their agency name, and their pronouns. The profiles also direct authors to agency websites, where more details about each agent can be found. Typically authors search for agents in places like Publishers Marketplace and the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA). But these resources don’t categorize agents’ racial identities; and for many BIPOC authors it is important to find agents from similar backgrounds who might have special insight into their projects. These resources also charge fees, whereas the Equity Directory does not. The impact of the directory is still an open question: Katie Kotchman, LAoC’s vice president, hasn’t yet heard of a writer using the database to land an agent who put their manuscript in the hands of an editor. But she is confident such success stories are on the horizon.

Regina Brooks, a founding member of LAoC, says she was delighted to see so many agents sign up and to hear positive feedback. “I can’t tell you the number of times authors have come to me and said, ‘Wow, I’m so excited that I’m finally getting a chance to at least talk to an agent of color,’” says Brooks, who has owned Serendipity Literary Agency for twenty-four years.

The Equity Directory fills a gap that opened when a different BIPOC agent database, Literary Agents of Color, shut down in late 2023. That online directory was founded in 2018 by Penny Moore, now a senior agent at Aevitas Creative Management. It is unclear why it was dissolved; Moore did not respond to requests for comment. Kotchman imagines that it might have something to do with the difficulty of maintaining such a resource. But LAoC recognized its importance and stepped in to make sure BIPOC agents continued to have a prominent presence online.

Brooks says she is looking forward to seeing the Equity Directory flourish as a community of agents that can share knowledge and resources. “I might have a project that I don’t think is necessarily right for me, but I can share it within the community of other agents, and someone might find value and might be the ideal person for that project.”

LAoC also aims for the Equity Directory to serve as a resource for editors, whom Kotchman hopes will use the database to connect with BIPOC agents working on the genres and subject matter they’re interested in. “I would love to see us become basically the standard where it’s not just a few editors who might know about it and are recommending it in-house, but a lot of editors are turning toward it as a database to use to connect with agents who they may not know yet,” Kotchman says.

LAoC is overseen by the AALA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. Founded in December 2020, it aims to increase access to the literary-agenting profession for people historically underrepresented in the field. One of its major initiatives is a paid summer fellowship that matches literary agencies with college students. The program has supported fifteen fellows, pairing them with eleven host agencies, Kotchman says. Three former fellows are now employed by Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and a literary agency.

LAoC also works on professional development for BIPOC agents through its mentorship program, which pairs two established agents with a newer agent for a yearlong partnership. In a recent survey, LAoC found that twenty-one mentees with an average of three and a half years in the business garnered 238 book deals. The majority of clients represented by those agents are BIPOC authors, Kotchman says.

“To say that 238 book deals have been done by twenty-one agents—those numbers are staggering,” Brooks says. “You can easily be in this business for three to five years and have very few titles.”

While there has been some growth within the field, the change feels incremental, and there is still work to be done: Of twenty-one agents surveyed, almost 70 percent reported having to work another job in addition to agenting to make ends meet, Kotchman says. That stems from many agencies’ “eat what you kill” model of compensation, says Brooks: Nearly 70 percent of agents are paid all or in part on commission as opposed to a salary, according to a 2023 AALA membership survey. Although there are still more programs and initiatives that LAoC will explore to increase the retention and success of BIPOC agents, the database offers crucial support by fostering the visibility of BIPOC agents and peer-to-peer mentorships.

 

Enma Karina Elias is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest.