Hi Zakiya! What is your best advice for breaking into the publishing industry as an aspiring Black writer? — Sasha, 29, FL
One way to do this is to dip your toe into various kinds of jobs that require you to exercise your writing muscle—even the somewhat less glamorous ones, like writing copy for retail websites, or even social media work. Sometimes, in order to write for yourself, you have to write for someone else, and heck, I would argue that a lot of working in publishing is doing just that—especially if you end up working in editorial, where you’ll likely draft flap copy or editorial letters to authors.
I also think just from a creative standpoint, it’s useful to have experience trying on different voices that maybe don’t come as naturally to you. It shows that you can adapt, that you’re open-minded. And I truly believe that any kind of writing that you do—no matter how seemingly unrelated—will be useful for any other writing you might do in the future.
Another way to build connections toward the publishing world as an aspiring Black writer is to immerse yourself in the current conversation that other Black writers are having. If you’re a social media person, keep an eye on Bookstagram and Book Twitter; if that’s not really your thing, keep an eye on book coverage in various kinds of literary outlets like LitHub or The Rumpus or The New York Review of Books. There are also so many great book podcasts, too, like The Root’s It’s Lit! and OverDrive’s Professional Book Nerds. Staying up-to-date on what’s getting published and which authors are writing about what kinds of topics will give you a nice sense of the cultural conversation, but also what’s missing from the cultural conversation. It might even inspire you to find ways to fill that gap—either as a writer, or a publishing employee.
Which leads me to my next, and perhaps favorite, piece of advice: Familiarize yourself with the world of book reviews! Read reviews from different outlets for the same book. Read retailer reviews online. Get acquainted with the language people use to talk about the books they love and books they don’t. Then, try writing a book review yourself. The more you engage with book reviews, the bigger your literary criticism toolbox will grow.
My last piece of advice is: Do your research! I generally encourage all writers who are looking to publish a book to read the acknowledgments of books to see who’s thanked. But I especially urge Black writers, and Black publishing hopefuls, to do this with Black authors. Pinpointing publishers and imprints who have done right by other Black authors in the past—especially if they’re authors whose work you love!—says a lot, and it could be useful in helping you gauge which avenues you might (and might not) go down while trying to publish your own work, or trying to find a publishing employer.