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The Literary Gatekeepers

Literary agents play a huge role in shaping what we see in bookstores.

Take a short walk with me and I’ll illustrate.

Let’s say you’re asleep one night when you’re woken by a voice calling your name from the darkness. After some investigation, it turns out that the voice belongs to God.

I know. Plot twist.

It’s the great I AM speed dialling you from Heaven and He orders you to sit down at your computer and start typing.

Several days and hundreds of pages later you finally finish and you’re shocked to discover that you’ve been inspired to produce The Bible: The Lost Testament.

What do you do next? Well, you’re gonna want to whisk that beauty into the hands of a publisher ASAP because it’ll be the most coveted thing since Harper Lee decided she had a little more to say about mockingbirds.

If you approached any of the Big Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster) via their fifty million subsidiary imprints, despite holding (literally) God’s Word, they’d ask you to submit your masterpiece via a literary agent. You’d then have to toddle off to go hunt for a suitable literary agent, persuade them to read your new manuscript, get them excited enough to sign you, then wait for them to successfully sell your work to a publisher.

This is how most publishing deals work. Many publishers, big and small, will only consider a manuscript that comes to them via a literary agent. That’s an awful lot of power concentrated in the hands of a few. So, who are these people with so much clout dictating our reading choices and do they represent the UK population?

Well, in the UK right now, in the Year of Our Lord 2019, there are only three black female literary agents.

I know.

I spoke to two of them.

Emma Paterson and Nelle Andrews were kind enough to make time in their insanely busy schedules, to give me the inside scoop on what they do, how they became agents, how they select the authors on their lists, and how they feel the lack of racial diversity in literary agencies impacts UK publishing.

I’ve made it a two-parter.

First up…

Link to Q&A with Emma Paterson

Emma Paterson


9 Black Book Podcast Interviews

I caught the podcast bug in 2014 when the world went crazy over Serial. Two episodes in and I decided that True Crime was not for me, but the show was a launchpad for discovering the multitude of other shows available.

These days I’m a badge-wearing podcast addict. I listen in the gym, on bus rides, during the weekly grocery shop, on flights, as I get dressed in the morning…basically whenever I have a few minutes free and I want to engage my brain. My Gen X heart grumbles that podcasts weren’t an option a decade or two ago. Talk radio in the 80s and 90s was a crowded field of the same middle-class, middle-aged, white guy sharing his views on every station. I wouldn’t have dreamed that a few decades later I would be able to curate a library of shows that reflected my life experiences and discussed topics of interest to me. The change is staggering.

There are tons of literary podcasts out there. Because sharing is caring, I have compiled a list of 9 excellent Black book podcast interviews I have loved and believe you will too.

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Where are the joyful Black books?

If you spend any time with me, the conversation will probably veer onto books. From there it’ll take me about 2.5 minutes before I start talking about my desire to see more books by Black authors. The slide from ‘more Black books’ into a lament on the lack of joyful Black books then becomes sure and unstoppable.


Because I love joy. I love safety and peace and goals achieved and lives celebrated and love that fills you up until you glow.

Alas, it’s difficult to find joyful themes in Black UK books, to find hero(ines) that win the day and lives were things turn out well. That’s not accidental. The 2015 report, Writing the Future, concluded that the “’best chance of publication’ for a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) writer was to write literary fiction conforming to a stereotypical view of their communities, addressing topics such as ‘racism, colonialism or post-colonialism’.”

Since then, I think the parameters have expanded somewhat, but the focus is still on struggle, dysfunction and pain.

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10 Things You Should Know About Angie Thomas

Her first novel, The Hate U Give, topped the New York Times bestseller charts for over a year and birthed a star-studded film adaptation that achieved critical and commercial success. Her second novel, On the Come Up, hit store shelves in February and shot straight up the bestseller lists. Like THUG, it has been snapped up for a big-screen adaptation.

There’s no question that Angie Thomas is a powerhouse of a writer. Here are 10 things you should know about her.

1. She was born in Jackson, Mississippi

Mississippi has turned out a remarkable number of writers including Richard Wright, Mildred D Taylor and Jesmyn Ward. Thomas likes to joke that her home state is known for two things: writing and racism. “And I happen to be a writer who writes about racism.”

Thomas grew up in Jackson’s predominantly black Georgetown neighbourhood. “I grew up hearing about black people who were killed, like Emmett Till and civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Evers actually lived in the same neighbourhood I grew up in and when he was killed, his house was so close to ours that my mum, who was a little girl, heard the gunshot. So yeah, I heard those stories but they felt foreign to me. I was more worried about the cops and gang wars.”

Quote – gal-dem

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Video Review: Midnight Robber

The Robber Queen is Tan Tan’s favourite costume to wear at carnival on the Caribbean-colonized planet of Toussaint. When her father is exiled to the brutal world of New Half-Way Tree, and Tan Tan is forced to go with him, she must reach into the heart of myth and become the Robber Queen herself in order to survive.

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Can you name 5 BAME tween boy books?

My nephew is 11 and obsessed with Derek Landy’s Skulduggery series. They’re a set of fantasy books about a skeleton detective and are as madcap as they sound. Every time I pop round he has his head stuck in a new book in the sequence. Either Landy has a factory churning these books out or he’s extremely prolific.

I keep artfully suggesting to my nephew that maybe he might consider expanding his reading diet a little, throwing in the occasional non-Skulduggery to stretch himself. (A recent study suggests UK teens are not reading enough challenging books). He politely ignores me.

Now with his sisters, I’d advance to Phase Two. I’d drop off a couple of books on every visit until one of them piqued their interest. The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas) was a big hit, as was Oh My Gods (Alexandra Sheppard) and Everything Everything (Nicola Yoon). Cinder (Marissa Meyer) alas, got a lukewarm reception. Thankfully, when you’re looking for teen fiction with a young female lead, you’re spoilt for choice. I can keep this up for a good few years.

However, when it comes to options for boys, the shelves suddenly look bare. There are a million articles about how/why boys hate reading. I’m going to take a leap of logic and suggest that publishers have responded to these studies by acquiring fewer books for tween and teen boys, the result of which is boys reading even less. It’s a downward spiral.

Despite the odds, because I like a challenge, I stepped boldly up to the plate.

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Homegoing calls out African complicity in slavery and offers healing

Last year I visited Elmina Castle, a slave fortress on the coast of Ghana. It’s a beautiful white-washed building, very similar in style to Cape Coast Castle, the slave fortress where Yaa Gyasi sets key pieces of action in Homegoing. The castles are two of about 40 such structures that were built along the Ghanaian coastline by Europeans. They were trading posts that became holding prisons for millions of West African slaves who were then shipped off to the Caribbean, the US and South America.

The structures are huge. They dominate the coastline. Markets and towns would have grown up around them, like the town of Elmina that sprouted up around Elmina castle. It is impossible that the locals did not know what the primary trade from these castles was. Did it trouble them? Why was the trade in African bodies accepted? Gyasi takes us aside, sits us down, and says, ‘let me a paint you a picture, let me show you how the system worked.’

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Video Review: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

Baba Segi has three wives, seven children, and a home filled with riches. Now he has his sights set on Bolanle, a university graduate with a tragic past. When she joins his household, she unwittingly uncovers a secret which threatens to destroy the patriarchal foundation of his life.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin

Talia Hibbert is giving Black women happy endings (and publishers a lesson in business)

“When I was younger, I wrote stories with white heroines. I thought, ‘If I want to be published, this is what I’ll have to do. No one wants to read about black people.’”

Romance writer Talia Hibbert is talking about her protagonists. Specifically, about the effort it took to stop imagining them as thin, white women and write characters who looked like her.

“I grew up reading all these romances that I loved and they were so important, but they were also the kind of books that said, ‘His hand looked so dark against her pearlescent blah, blah, blah.’” She rolls her eyes and smiles.

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19 Black Books out in 2019

Have you written your reading list for 2019, yet? No? What are you waiting for? Let me lend a hand. Whether you’re a fervent fantasy fan, longing for some literary, hungry for a historical or crazy about crime, there’s a 2019 book out there for you. Here are 19 books by Black authors coming out this year.

(Click the book jackets to buy or pre-order)

Alexandra Sheppard1. OMGs – Alexandra Sheppard

Helen has just moved to North London with her dorky dad and self-absorbed older siblings. Her stress levels are off the charts as she tries to juggle new friends, a big crush and the secret fact that she’s half mortal and half Greek God.
3 January

2. New Daughters of Africa – Margaret Busby

25 years after Margaret Busby’s landmark anthology, Daughters of Africa, this new companion volume brings together the work of over 200 women writers of African descent. It showcases key figures and popular contemporaries, as well as overlooked historical authors and today’s new and emerging writers. Amongst the contributors are: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Malorie Blackman, Bernardine Evaristo, Aminatta Forna, Andrea Levy, Taiye Selasi, Warsan Shire and Zadie Smith.
24 January

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