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Soraya is a Literary Agent’s Assistant at Bell Lomax Moreton, and has been working in the publishing industry for over five years. She has a Creative Writing MA from the University of Westminster and also works as a freelance writer, featuring in publications such as Stylist, Metro, Huffington Post and Bad Form literary magazine. Soraya is an avid reader of middle-grade, young adult and literary women’s fiction from marginalised races and genders, including the High-Rise Mystery books by Sharna Jackson, Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart and If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha.
You must have read hundreds of manuscripts in your career to date. Can you tell us new ways in which writers are adapting, and are there shifts in the types of submissions coming your way? How much do you think cultural movements in the last decade have shaped this?
It’s actually very dependent on what you see online or trends that circle throughout pop culture, also based off the new emerging literary agents and editors. Those on the newer side tend to be more experimental with the type of projects they like to see and as the industry expands to be more inclusive that means tastes shift and differ. We see more marginalised voices in fiction and non-fiction now – nowhere near enough, but definitely more than five years ago. Cultural movements tend to momentarily shift what publishers look for and publish, and I’d personally say it’s in order to keep up appearances that they’re staying with the times and public demands. However, it’s the newer employees that work on the longevity of this. You see a lot of agency and publishing assistants collaborating in literary prizes and competitions in which marginalised voices are encouraged to apply and enter. Through this, many find agents, publishing homes and even receive prize money. Many prizes don’t have entry fees either, which definitely removes an exclusionary barrier which has previously halted writers from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds from entering the publishing world.
Do you still get excited by the same submissions and styles now as you always have, or have your views evolved on the sorts of projects you want to get behind?
My area of passion has always lain in marginalised voices. That hasn’t changed, however I do go through ‘moods’ where I fancy a different type of book; also it depends on where I believe a gap in the market is. For instance, there is a huge gap in the UK market of fiction written by East Asian and South-East Asian authors – across the board of fiction – but it’s particularly scarce in YA and romance novels. Similarly, it’s rare for middle-grade fiction to be set in council estates and homes, areas that many readers will come from but never see reflected in books. This can range from contemporary to comedy to science fiction. The most recent – and only – middle-grade fiction that successfully does this is Sharna Jackson’s High-Rise Mystery books, which have two children solving crimes in their block. So I’d say that despite my tastes staying the same, they slightly shift when I think about what’s missing in books or what I am craving reading.
Are you finding that authors’ expectations or goals have changed over the last few years? If so, in what way? Do they vary depending on whether they are established or debut authors?
Debut authors rarely have expectations – unless they already work in publishing – so managing what expectations they do have is usually achievable. Mostly, their expectations are centred around advances, which are disappointingly poor. Existing clients, especially authors who have built a brand over a period of time, tend to expect more when it comes to advances, PR and marketing, and overall treatment. Like any profession in which you’re dealing with clients, this varies depending on the person.
Do you think readers’ appetites have changed / are changing?
Absolutely, oftentimes I think they have a hunger for books they aren’t even aware of. For instance, most of the general public weren’t aware of the African SFF book Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi until publication. It became an NYT bestseller very quickly, showing that there was indeed a market and audience that wanted to see variety in the SFF genre. It’s a matter of taking risks, and some publishers aren’t always inclined to do so, choosing instead to stay safe despite online media now providing access to people who haven’t otherwise been able to voice what they want as readers. In particular racial and ethnic minorities.
In your opinion, what are the measures of success for a book and its author now versus ten years ago?
It’s dependent on the status of the author: if the author is well known the metric of success differs to an unknown author – this is in regard to book sales. Six thousand copies in three months is an amazing performance for a debut author, but is poor for a known author/an author in the public eye. It’s definitely shifted in a decade; as the market has expanded to make room for more authors and to cater to a growing market, it means fewer copies are sold. Where there may have been ten authors in one genre all selling extremely well, let’s say in the tens of thousands, there are now hundreds of authors. It’s not a bad thing to me, but obviously others tend to disagree.
Books have been around for centuries and whilst there has been lots of speculation over the impact of digital publishing, all recent figures show that physical print is as popular as ever. In your personal opinion, why do the traditional formats still seem so robust no matter how much we advance in digitising content?
There’s an element of nostalgia connected to book buying, which isn’t as easily transferable to physical music buying or film buying. It’s more personal than either of those to physically hold and engage with. I think, ultimately, humans are attracted to things that they perceive as vulnerable and open; authors provide that in a book. It asks very little of you, except to join the author along the way. This, paired with the nostalgia of holding a book in your hands, is why I believe it has outlasted digital publishing. Though, in my honest opinion, digital publishing isn’t inherently bad. It’s accessible to the visually impaired and other disabilities and is also cheaper for readers from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. But everyone loves holding a book in their hands.
What, in your opinion, has been the most notable moment in publishing over the last ten years?
Probably the increase of racial representation within the industry itself. When I started off six years ago, hiring me – a white-passing, North African Muslim – was the extent of their diversity. It was difficult even for me to feel comfortable in and navigate spaces, so people who are Black, brown and ethnic were suffering to a degree that I will never be able to understand. That isn’t to say racism has been eradicated in the industry, because I’d possibly say it’s thriving better than ever – but minorities have been able to create a space amongst them where they can at least work on books they love for readers who haven’t been catered to before.
If you could have one wish granted for a change to the industry in the next decade (or less!), what would it be?
To see more Black, brown and minorities in director and CEO roles, with budgets that allow them to radically exact the change we always talk about online. Nothing major.