Literary Agents of Color: Empowering Authors & Agents to Succeed

Penny Moore has always had a love of books, especially young adult and middle-grade. While completing degrees in linguistics and Japanese language & literature at the University of Georgia, she spent time studying comparative literature at top universities in Japan and South Korea. She then worked as a middle-school TESOL teacher, which is where she solidified her passion for publishing and kids lit in particular.

Penny joined Empire in 2016 as an agent after working at FinePrint Literary. She represents Morris Award Finalist Akemi Dawn Bowman, author of Starfish; renowned Instagram illustrator Beth Evans/@bethdrawsthings, author of I Really Didn’t Think This Through; Nicki Pau Preto, YA fantasy author of Crown of Feathers; hit Instagram illustrator and author husband and wife duo, Chan Lee & Marina Ahn, of Drawings for My Grandchildren; and popular Instagram teen poet, Caroline Kaufman/@poeticpoison, of Light Filters In.

Moore’s brainchild is the new online directory Literary Agents of Color—which includes bios and submission guidelines for around 50 such agents, and growing.

 Can you tell us a little bit about how Literary Agents of Color came about? What is the inspiration behind it, and who is involved in making it happen?

The inspiration came from seeing writers of color on social media expressing their disappointment over how there were no agents of color to query with their projects. But we [literary agents of color] see each other at events and on social media all the time, so we knew there had to be a better way to respond to that need than an individual ‘I’m here!’ It’s common for a person-of-color (POC) writer to feel that a POC agent would better understand the challenges facing them in a predominantly white industry, so the fact that our numbers are few just increases the importance of letting authors know we’re here and we want to see their work.

The numbers are out there: Publishing largely favors white authors and white professionals, and this has even more of an affect on the agenting side. Because of the unique pay structure of agenting (where things are almost entirely commission-based), it can be incredibly hard to sink 5-plus years into building your list and income without a wealthy background or extensive support system. As a way of pushing back against this and building up a support network to retain those agents we do have in the industry, we saw the need for a place that both increases visibility for agents of color and encourages and supports their careers.

The people involved in making it happen have been: Kurestin Armada (P.S. Literary), Linda Camacho (Gallt & Zacker Literary), Quressa Robinson (Nelson Literary Agency) and myself. This brilliant group of POC agents has been key to helping me get things off the ground.

What has the response been so far, from colleagues as well as from writers? Is there any one conversation that stands out as especially meaningful or affirming?

The response has been amazing. There wasn’t [merely] one single meaningful conversation, but we’ve had so many writers and other publishing professionals across social media express how they’ve been waiting for such a site, and what a great resource it’ll be! That wave of support has been incredibly affirming, and it lets us know that the passion is there, it just needs to be organized. We’ve had several interview requests and offers from other organizations to help spread the word about our directory, so we’re hoping that more writers discover it every day.

Your website [currently still in progress] lists two collective goals: To advocate for and protect the interest of creatives, and to support and promote the careers of POC agents. Can you speak a bit to how you hope to strive toward each, and where you’d like to be a year from now?

In the rising tide of focus on diversity, we want to ensure that publishing continues to publish and promote writers and illustrators of color in the long term. In order for it not to be just another passing trend, we’ll need literary agents of color in the industry to keep the momentum up, to keep selling those books and protecting POC creatives’ interests. Of course, that won’t be possible if we can’t keep agents of color in the industry. It’s reciprocal, really—we support writers and they in turn support us.

We’re currently focusing on visibility, just getting the word out that we’re here and slowly increasing in number, and that POC creatives now have a resource to better find us. We’ll also be partnering with the People of Color in Publishing Group to supplement their efforts, as our goals are one and the same. In the end, retaining POC professionals across publishing is the only way to support long-term shifts in the demographics of the industry. Instead of just constantly turning over new hires that quickly burn out, we want to support the people already here and build opportunities for future mentorship.

At present the website consists of a helpful and growing directory. Do you foresee expanding your site to include other elements—a social media presence or an active community, perhaps—or is that central directory resource your primary focus?

Right now we are taking it one step at a time. There certainly is the possibility for more active engagement within the literary community in the future, but we don’t want to rush things. At present our focus is making sure the directory is a solid and complete resource for writers as well as other publishing professionals. Moving forward, we’ll be touching base first with the professionals within our directory to see what would best help them connect with future clients, and then see what other possibilities lie in store. In the meantime, we hope that anyone who has suggestions and additions for the directory will contact us through the site. And please, query away!


ROAR: Writer’s Digest Turns Up the Volume on Underrepresented Voices in the Writing World

Read more from this extended series, entitled “ROAR,” which appears in the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. Feel the thunderous reverberations of authors and industry pros working to broaden our perspectives—as writers and readers alike. Plus, learn how underrepresented voices are rising in the writing world, all in these articles:


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