June 18, 2018

We Need Diverse Books Presents: Life Cycle of a Diverse Book | BookExpo 2018

Marietta B. Zacker

Renée Watson

Beth Phelan 

Alvina Ling

 

 

 

 

 

We Need Diverse Books is a staple at BookExpo, and this year’s well-attended session on Friday, June 1 answered an important question—How do books get made? Specifically, what is the life cycle of a manuscript? Moderator Marietta B. Zacker, agent and co-owner, Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency, led a spirited discussion with award-winning author Renée Watson; Beth Phelan (agent, Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency); Alvina Ling (editor-in-chief, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers); and Sara Hines, co-owner, Eight Cousins Books in Massachusetts.

Zacker began the conversation with the understanding that we are already in diversity 2.0. “It is hard to talk about what some people view as a trend when it’s really who we are.” Action is more important than talk, she added. The first step of the writing process is creating a draft. Watson always puts effort into drafting a good story, especially ones that are a balance of joy and sorrow since, in her opinion, that reflects the nature of life. “You could be going through the best thing ever and the worst thing ever,” Watson affirmed. When writing a novel, she gives serious consideration to the last line of each chapter in hopes that line will make readers want to turn to the next page. “I don’t want people to think like me; I want them to think.”

The next step in the process is a literary agent, who represents writers and their written works to publishers; Ling estimated that about 99% of pitches received at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers come from an agent. For each manuscript she receives, Phelan asks the author what they would like readers to take away from the story. Before sending a pitch to a publisher, she does a quick first edit. However, she emphasizes that she is not a trained editor; she simply wants to make sure that manuscripts are in the best condition before submission.

“Publishing is a passion industry,” maintained Ling. “People publish what they’re passionate about.” She looks for books that fall into three categories: books similar to ones she loved as a child, books she wishes existed when she was a child, and books that resonate with her as an adult.

Once Ling receives a potential manuscript, the next step at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers is an acquisition meeting, which involves several departments, including sales and marketing as well as the publisher. The committee discusses the profit and loss (P&L) capabilities of a given manuscript. If all goes well, they make an offer to acquire the book. This can be an emotional process for Ling since she considers each manuscript she presents to be worthy of publication.

Lastly, Hines spoke about ongoing diversity efforts at Eight Cousins Books. Before continuing, Zacker reminded the audience that diversity didn’t suddenly happen since she’s attended workshops where that isn’t a given. Instead, there is a renewed emphasis. To that point, Hines wrote diversity into her store’s mission. “We’re not having separate conversations; we’re having one conversation.” She regularly asks herself: What is our store representing? How is it reflecting our community? Besides the store itself, Hines also considers the environment she creates and which books are featured in store’s display and newsletter as well as their staff picks. Noting that her store isn’t representative of everything that is currently being published, Hines states that one of her goals is to empower teachers and schools in her community.

Ling believes we’re already at diversity 2.0 since 1.0 was simply acknowledging the need. However, Phelan added that we have to move past token books and token authors. While Phelan has been receiving more submissions from people of color, she stated, “If editors aren’t asking for it, literary agents aren’t looking for it.” It can be difficult to have perspective, she stated, since manuscripts she is currently working on won’t be published for another 18 months or two years. Ling mentioned the diversity committee at Little, Brown, which was implemented by the CEO and is run by HR. She is grateful for never feeling like the “only one” at her workplace, but recommended more diversity at the senior level throughout the publishing industry.

In her works, Watson aims to reflect the world we live in. After describing her childhood in Portland, OR, she mentioned how her stories often focus on black girls, particularly ones living in the Pacific Northwest. Speaking to the point of being better advocates for our own work, Watson stated she tries to advocate for dark-skinned girls with natural hair to be on book covers. There are many steps forward and many steps back, she cautioned, but she’s in it for the long haul. For additional resources she suggested following bookseller Nicole Brinkley on Twitter, who regularly posts statistics about diversity within publishing.

About Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula (ssendaula@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor at Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Be Astengo says:

    I’m so glad we have finally made it to “Diversity 2.0” since many of us old timers have been clamoring for diverse books for well over 20 years. It takes so very long for concerns to really get a voice (like #meetoo) so I’m glad the voice is finally being heard. Hurray for diverse books! Hurray for publishers for finally taking notice. Hurray for new authors and perspectives. Hurray for the movements that insist on representation. Hurray.

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