Morgan Stanley
  • Access & Opportunity Podcast
  • Jul 6, 2022

Breaking Down Gatekeeping in the World of Publishing


Carla  Books should be a reflection of our society.

And yet, between the authors landing 6 figure deals to the editors sourcing new talent: the publishing industry in America is much whiter than the general population.

In June 2020 author L.L. McKinney launched a viral hashtag campaign called "Publishing Paid Me." It opened up a national conversation on pay equity and diversity in the industry.

While some progress has been made since then, there’s still a long way to go to make the publishing industry equitable from the inside out.

Dawn Michelle Hardy: Most of the editors in publishing houses are either white women or white men So as a black woman if I have a story to tell is there someone on the other side of the table that's going to be able to understand what I'm talking about even if they themselves haven't lived through it And oftentimes the answer is no

Carla: This is Dawn Michelle Hardy, AKA The Literary Lobbyist. Today, I'll speak with her about how to navigate the publishing industry as an aspiring author of color. But first, we'll hear from author Khalisa [Kah-lee-sah] Rae, who is breaking down gatekeeping in the writing world by helping her community.

Khalisa Rae: you know, the harsh truth of being a black author in this industry is that your work and your talent sadly does not always equate to you receiving the wage and the pay that you deserve.

Carla  Welcome to Access and Opportunity, I’m your host Carla Harris. On this show, we provide context about racial inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day. 

Carla: When Khalisa Rae was in undergrad, she found her voice through a uniquely powerful medium: slam poetry.

Khalisa Rae: After I would perform, people that didn't know me would come up to me and tell me, wow, your story about mental health made me want to go get help your talk about being a black woman in the south. And racism really opened my eyes and I didn't know that's what you experienced.

And so the more people would come up to me, the more I would feel empowered and confident enough to speak up and not be silent .

Carla: Today, Khalisa continues to channel her voice and her values through writing. She’s a senior writer at the online publication Jezebel and a full-time author and educator in Durham, North Carolina. Her potential shined at a young age.

Khalisa Rae: I wouldn't necessarily say that I've always known I would be a writer, but I've always been a writer.

Khalisa Rae: The story goes that I was, you know, a little seven-year-old and I used to just always storytell. I have, tupperware containers of my stories uh, that my mom has kept underneath my bed in my childhood room I would just create these magical worlds in my head that like, nothing was impossible for me but I guess the other darker side is Growing up in what used to be called the murder capital of the world, Gary Indiana, I saw a lot, you know, a lot of traumatic things and so I think writing was definitely a way to escape.

Carla - VO: For much of her youth, Khalisa attended an all white, private Christian school. There she was largely exposed to books by white authors in her English classes.

Khalisa Rae: So I had to kind of create what I wanted blackness to be, what I wanted, um, womanhood and girlhood to be in these stories. And I was able to shape a new narrative in the way that I wasn't seen. I wasn't represented,

Carla - VO: At home and church, Khalisa's talent for the arts was nurtured. But she didn’t get that same support from her teachers. Quite the opposite, in fact. Khalisa’s been falsely accused of plagiarism not once but multiple times in her academic career. The first accusation came at just 10.

I put my heart and soul into that paper. in my bones, I knew the paper was really good. Well, fast forward to us getting the grade the teacher has put a big red F across And that was the biggest slap in the face that somehow she thought, my mom or one of my siblings, or my parents had written my work And that wasn't true. I was very studious. I was at the top of my class.

Khalisa Rae: I didn't really realize that that was rooted in prejudice and racism at the time. it didn't occur to me, til my mom really sat me down and explained to me that I was really one of the only girls of color in my school.

Carla - VO: Unfortunately, teachers not believing in Khalisa's ability was a pattern that repeated itself over and over, even in college. The feeling that she didn’t belong in the Southern university she chose was exacerbated by racism with deep roots.

Khalisa Rae: So I would turn in my poetry at UNC Wilmington and I saw, a lot of diminishing in my confidence through me not really getting the celebration and empowerment of my work by my professors and my peers, and experiencing a lot of racism that ran the gamut I learned about the 1898 race massacre that occurred in the town.and it really left a dent on my self esteem to even want to study and do well as a student.

Carla - VO: It wasn't until she transferred from a predominately White institution to a historically Black university that the debilitating cycle was broken.

Khalisa Rae: Stepping onto the campus of NC A&T university was transformative.

Khalisa Rae: walking into a place where all I learned was representation Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks.

Khalisa Rae: These are names that I can now spout off and I can quote them because I was introduced to them, and I knew through them, that that life was possible for me, too. but it took me getting to this new place that believed in cultivating the talent of all students, but particularly underrepresented students like me. I didn't know that I wanted to pursue creative writing literally until my professor, uh, Dr. Ahmad looked at me and said, this is what you should be doing. And just imagine the power one person has to speak into your life. And then that changed the whole trajectory of my career.

Carla: For an aspiring writer, mentorship and community is invaluable. It was the connections that Khalisa made at NC A&T that would set her on the path to her MFA program, and ultimately to publishing her first book of poetry inspired by her experience in Wilmington, Ghost in a Black Girl's Throat. Mentors also helped her navigate the financial uncertainties of a writing career.

Khalisa Rae: So by way of my professor, I met my mentor, the coach of the bull city Durham slam team. He's a guru at fellowships, grants, residencies. I had no idea that people do want to support you as a full-time author writer, entertainer, performer, artist, there's tons of grants out there. And so he really opened my eyes to and being involved in nonprofits and how, really grants and fellowships are literally one click away,

Carla: In 2020, Khalisa launched a collective called Think in Ink as a way to pass along her hard-earned knowledge to other Black and Brown writers.

Khalisa Rae: You know, the harsh truth of being a black author in this industry is that your work and your talent sadly does not always equate to you receiving the wage and the pay that you deserve. Think in Ink was born out of this idea that there's so much not just gatekeeping, but there's also this like secrecy in the writing community that only the elite get to know about opportunities like fellowships and grants and awards.

Only they get published and that's ridiculous. All writers deserve the opportunity to win an award, get a fellowship, learn more, have a writing coach, join a workshop.

Khalisa Rae: Again, lifting the veil, telling people things that we wish somebody would have told us before we made all these mistakes and had all these trials and tribulations in the industry and so we try to eliminate barriers for black and brown artists in a way that wasn't done for us.

Carla: This Spring, Khalisa celebrated the one year anniversary of the release of Ghost in a Black Girl's Throat. On the same day, she found out that she won the Appalachian Arts and Entertainment Award for Poetry. It wasn't the first, nor is it likely to be the last award Khalisa will win for her work. As she looks ahead to publishing a YA novel based on her own life called Unlearning Eden as well as a Southern romance, Khalisa is continuing to pay forward the wisdom she's gleaned.

Khalisa Rae: I was told when I was younger. as a black writer, aspiring artist, full time author, that I would never make it. And so the first piece of advice that I would give black authors would be.

Know that you are capable and that you are powerful beyond measure, that you have everything that you need to be successful and survive and that the possibilities are endless. And that for every person that told you that you couldn't use that as drive to say that I can use it as motivation to say I will. I am. I won't stop. Community and mentors are everything and so I would say if you're someone that has a platform or access, please, please pull other authors up.

Khalisa Rae: And with that, I would say, go find your community because they are out there. and don't be afraid to talk to someone new because that one person could change your entire life. Like it did me.

Carla: Thanks to the support Khalisa has received as an author and performer, there’s no limit to her success. But she recognizes that it could have gone very differently.

Our next guest has made a career out of breaking down barriers for people of color in the publishing industry.

As the founder of The Literary Lobbyist, Dawn Michelle Hardy is a publishing triple threat: a publicist, agent, and consultant. Dawn has spent the last 20 years helping authors of color get published and paid. She’s also working with HBCUs to create clear career paths into publishing.

As a published author myself, I know how opaque the publishing process can be for newcomers. So I sat down with Dawn to help shine a light on what it takes to get a book published and to learn how the industry is slowly changing for the better.

Carla Harris: Don Thank you so much for being here with me today. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. Are you ready?

Dawn Michelle Hardy: Yes I am Carla, let's do it!

Carla Harris: Alrighty, so let's jump right into publishing. In December of 2020 the New York times published an op ed revealing that just 11% Published in 2018 were written by people of color So can you talk a little bit about some of the barriers that BiPAP authors face in getting

Dawn Michelle Hardy: Yeah I would say it's definitely changed you know over the last couple of years the last 24 months has been insane but I would say from the time that I came into publishing what I've seen if you want to get a traditional deal is that usually there's no Shared experience Most of the editors in publishing houses are either white women or white men So as a black woman if I have a story to tell is there someone on the other side of the table that's going to be able to understand what I'm talking about even if they themselves haven't lived through it And oftentimes the answer is no

Even as an agent you know I've had editors say I like to acquire books that I personally would buy for myself even if I wasn't in the publishing industry And at that point what a white man by a book by a young black woman you know is is that a book that he would buy if he didn't work in publishing And oftentimes the answer is no.

Carla Harris: Well that's a big playbook point frankly because you're also speaking to bias Right And even though I may not understand your experience as a black woman that suggests if you're writing about something personal I might not be able to identify if I don't look like you but what if I am writing about something in general or about business or about music or about art You know what you're suggesting is that there may be an assumption that even though you're talking about a common point I may not be able to identify your perspective because that don't look like you.

Dawn Michelle Hardy: Absolutely

Carla Harris: you know as an author and my third book is coming out in September I remember having all these questions and despite the fact that I was a career investment banker I know a lot about a lot of different things When I tell you this was Obscure as it could possibly be and even signing the contract with my second And frankly if I'm to be honest my third book I was still sort of like Hmm is there something I ought to know that I don't know Um know let's talk about the gatekeepers because I want to take one of our listeners who might be interested in writing a book let's take them from the beginning all the way to the point where they're having that publishing conversation. So what do you need first If I am an author with a great story? What do you have to do in order to get that visible?

Dawn Michelle Hardy: so I tell authors whether they want to go the traditional route or decide to do it independently you have to build a platform and a community for yourself You should already be out there speaking on podcasts writing articles doing speaking engagements about the topic that you want your book to be on that should platform because that means you already have 20 speaking engagements lined up this year The only thing you don't have is a book to sell in the back of the room. The bigger your platform the more excited agent will be as well as the more excited that a publisher would be as well because they want to know how many books can you sell on your own If we do nothing

Carla Harris: Okay. So now you're out there. You've got a platform, you've written a book. What do you do next? How do you get to the agent?

Dawn Michelle Hardy: So I tell everybody Twitter is like a goldmine Twitter has a hashtag that's M S w L which basically stands for manuscript wishlist and agents and editors go on there and tweet what they're looking for that's the way for you to organically connect with that individual and say oh I saw that you're looking for why a romance set in the inner city I have something there's also a publisher's marketplace which is a gym It is a publishing database that lists agents editors Everybody in the publishing industry whether you're a sales or social media is listed on there but it's a place also where agents and editors can go and put their books So you can find out Okay You know I think I have a great fresh idea for a romance book but if you go on publishers marketplace and type in the category of relationship nonfiction you'll see all the books that are coming out within the next two to three years [00:18:00] as well as all the books that have come out in the last 10 to 15 years So then you get a chance to say oh well you know what After looking at all the deals that have been done in the last year I realized Mazda is not as unique as you think

Carla Harris: outstanding Those are excellent playbook points hashtag MSWL and Publishers Marketplace to figure out what else is going to interconnect with agents and editors. Okay, so now you connect it with five agents. What should you care about if you're the author?

Dawn Michelle Hardy: the first thing I say is keep in mind that it's a partnership They don't work for you and you don't work for them Therefore your agent is oftentimes the first person beyond your spouse or your That believes that you have something great on your hands and and the difference between your spouse and your mama is that they don't have a seat at the table Your agent does So your agent is actually your advocate and they have to believe in you So you want to find out ask them stories about how is you know w what [00:19:00] brought them into the business you know have they ever gotten a six-figure deal for We want to ask them those types of questions There's nothing off limits simply because it's a partnership

So I always tell them make sure that you ask how diverse the list

And if it isn't it doesn't mean that they're not now in a position where they're looking for that because prior to two years A lot of people didn't have diverse lists but now a lot of editors and publishers and being more intentional about that So even if a person says my list isn't quite that diverse but I love your writing And I really want to work with you You may be the first diverse author on their but again it helps to know if they've done that before simply so that you can find out do they have the experience to advocate for someone that

Carla Harris: very good Well you would think that the interest would be aligned right Because they get paid a percentage of what you get paid So they're motivated to get a

Dawn Michelle Hardy: absolutely like agents get traditionally 15% of whatever the advances So if you're advanced as a hundred thousand dollars 15,000 of that is is my compensation for getting you the deal

Carla Harris: So let's talk about you got the agent you got a deal now how do you sell

Dawn Michelle Hardy: I tell everybody It doesn't matter whether you self publish or you could get a traditional deal The marketing is So whether you're doing it from your living room or you have the whole team at Harper Collins on board is really the marketing And again that comes down to community  taking an entrepreneurial approach because I'm an entrepreneur And I got my start working with self-published authors I see how hard self-published authors work because they don't have a team of

Carla Harris: 20

Dawn Michelle Hardy: There is no Salesforce. You are the Salesforce, you know. There is no social media team. You are the social media team. So taking an entrepreneurial approach means that you take the lead seat and promoting your book And then your publisher basically is supporting you

Carla Harris: I could not agree more and that's a whole nother conversation we could talk about but let's talk about progress because you made a point earlier in this conversation about. Things have been crazy in the last couple of years And I assume what you meant is on the back of the horrible murder of George Floyd people Now all of a sudden were interested in black authors because it was an awakening around black readers and the commercial reality of that audience but have we made progress in your opinion have some of the promises and focus of 2020 been followed through on?

Dawn Michelle Hardy: I believe that we have just when I look at people in my network and people that I follow on social media. Author St Clair Detrick-Jules, She had a book about black women and their hair as a photography book. She couldn't get representation. An agent actually told her we don't see who the audience is for this book. Well it’s women of color who are battling and supporting the CROWN Act and things of that nature. But nonetheless that's what she was told that So Sinclair decided to publish and secure enough rights when she was ready to prepare for the marketing. Guess what, George Floyd 2020. The world set on fire And then she went back to that same agent and said can you give me some ideas on marketing And the agents say you know what I want to take a second look at your book. And that book wound up being published with Chronicle.

Carla Harris: Oh Wow

Dawn Michelle Hardy: and it came out last year September And now that same publisher is now talking to St. Clair about doing a young reader version of that same book. So when I look at change I know authors who receive rejections or retold We don't see an audience for this or we don't think that we can break this book out nationally after the year of 2020 happened Everybody was having those internal conversations and then started doubling back to or were actually going out looking and scouting for black and brown I had never seen that before in my 20 years.

Carla Harris: Yeah. Wow. Well you can't debate that that's progress in my view. So now let's talk about hashtag publishing [00:23:00] paid me right Let's talk about that movement and Publishing Pay Me.

Dawn Michelle Hardy: Okay So that has tag um was started by a YA author simply to put on blast that publishing as the industry overall would pay someone of color who had an established platform and an established community less money for their second or then they would pay a white author with no platform Working on their first book. So there's a gentleman he put out a book I think in 2019 he got $800,000 Jasmine ward won the national book award twice And I think for her second book she really had to fight to get a Yeah So publishing paid me it was mostly women But it basically said household names that readers already know and love their book This is how much money they got for that book that you love This is how much money they got after they won that award that you congratulated people had to fight just to clear six figures but someone with no platform and stepping on the scene for the first time gets almost a million dollars.

Carla Harris: Wow Wow And was there any correlation to lack of agent because again I don't understand how the agent would stand for that given that they're getting paid.

Dawn Michelle Hardy: no they they they were all represented They were all represented And and so that's the thing So because you are brown or black author the conversation that the agent is having with someone inside is not really about the quality of your work Do we believe that we can sell a lot of copies of this book bad feminist written by this woman Roxane Gay? So a lot of times they advance what the publisher is willing to lose. You know I'm betting $15,000 on you but I don't want to bet a hundred thousand dollars.

Carla Harris: So tell us about the partnership that you're developing with HBCUs to help get more young black professionals in the industry because you are right Having more decision makers at the table changes the landscape No question about it We've seen it in VC and We've seen it at other industries. Talk to us about what you're doing there.

Dawn Michelle Hardy: So when I became an agent I would always say wow like we have the black editors as a black agent I would love to have a meeting with a man or a woman that that looks like me and discuss what kind of books we can do together And so one of the conversations that always came up from uh veteran literary agents and editors was that Dawn listen People that start on an assistant level do summer And oftentimes those internships unpaid. So think about your college years: you got student loans and you had a part-time job and you had work study. So could you have afforded to work this summer for free in New York city to learn about book publishing? So oftentimes black and brown students they can't afford to do non-paid Therefore if you can't afford it you don't have access to go to Simon shoes to every day to go to penguin random house every day Therefore you're not learning when those internships are over There are a lot of times interns can get hired on as assistance. So if you never got a chance to be the intern, you never get a chance to be the assistant. So at that point I was like okay what can I do to help get the next generation of students to want to work in publishing And I have a lot of friends that went to HBCU They brag about it all the time Um and so I said you know I worked with a lot of authors of color Why don't we start setting up speaking engagements and have the authors come So whether they're coming to talk about the subject matter of their book or the role that the publishing industry played in their career for them to get that particular simply because I want authors to go into HBCU and talk to students about what that process is Like I don't have an MFA Um you know I didn't take a creative writing course I got my start in publishing 20 years ago by being an assistant to an author So one of the things that I say to these students is you have a favorite author You follow them on social media already Why don't you ask if you can be their assistant because again they will pay Whereas you can't afford to do the free internship So you need access you need experience but you also need money.

Carla Harris: Well let me just add one other thing that you might want to think about giving you a tremendous experience Is working with some of the publishing houses and setting up a 10 to 12 week internship so that they can structure it in a way that you know the student will have you know two weeks in marketing two weeks and sales you know two weeks around copy editing or whatever but help them structure it. Because one of the things I have figured out, Dawn, is that the reason why people don't move forward on initiatives like this is that they don't know how. So when you can give them a structured program and say, “Here, publishing house A B C D and E. This is what a 10 week program looks like. And here are my partnerships with 12 HBCUs.” Now after 10 weeks or 12 weeks at your house here's what they know. And they now become a community that you can pick from when you're looking to hire your entry level people. And because you know the whole business from soup to nuts you can help them put together what you think, you know, a sophomore at Howard what they need in order to be the career decision about publishing.

Dawn Michelle Hardy: Thank you.

Carla Harris: Dawn Michelle Hardy thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. I might be calling you Ms. Dawn.

Dawn Michelle Hardy: I'm here for you Carla!

Carla Harris: All right. Excellent.

Dawn Michelle Hardy: Oh my gosh. Thank you so much, Carla.

Carla: What an illuminating conversation that was with Dawn. It was full of practical advice that I wish I had when I got started as an author. The information that both Dawn and Khalisa Rae share is crucial to help break down barriers in the publishing industry for people of color. Not only because it takes power away from gatekeepers, but also because it provides a more even playing field for those hoping to get published. As Khalisa said, all writers deserve equitable opportunities to have their talent nurtured and their work amplified.

I want to thank both Khalisa Rae and Dawn Michelle Hardy for joining me on this episode of Access and Opportunity. What did you think of today's episode? Send us your thoughts at And to continue learning about individuals working to drive systematic change within their communities, subscribe to Access and Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along.

On this episode, author and poet Khalisa Rae speaks about how she is breaking down gatekeeping in the writing world. Then, Carla sits down with Dawn Michelle Hardy, also known as The Literary Lobbyist, to discuss how best to navigate the publishing industry as an aspiring author of color.

Between the authors landing 6 figure deals to the editors sourcing new talent: the publishing industry in America is much whiter than the general population. While some progress has been made since the #PublishingPaidMe movement of June 2020, there is still a long way to go to make the publishing industry equitable. On this episode, we learn about how industry insiders are breaking down barriers for aspiring authors of color. First, we hear from published author Khalisa Rae about how she found her voice as a poet and, after facing discrimination in her youth, found mentorship and belonging at an HBCU, which ultimately set her on the path to becoming an award-winning writer. Then, host Carla Harris sits down with publishing expert Dawn Michelle Hardy, also known as The Literary Lobbyist. Dawn has spent the last 20 years helping authors of color get published and paid, and shares her insights on what it takes to get a book published, as well as how she is seeing the industry become more accessible for talented writers who’ve traditionally been left off bookshelves, and what more needs to be done

Access and Opportunity is also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and other major podcast platforms. 

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