Where Are The Black
Literary Agents?

by Elaine Watkins
Urban Book Source
January 2006

With major publishers finally turning their heads toward Urban fiction, African American authors are slowly being recognized for their creativity. Every time you flip through Publisher’s Weekly a new author is being signed to St. Martin’s Press or Simon and Schuster among many publishers. But who are the agents behind these major deals? One may assume that because many of the stories are considered “urban” or “street” it would have to be a Black Agent shopping them around, right? Wrong!

The sad truth is that there aren’t many African American literary agents out there. You may wonder why this is so, but I ask you to step back and look at the situation at hand. Most literary agents are between the ages of 40 and 60. If you calculate the time it takes to finish college, land a good editing gig, make a name for yourself in the publishing industry (creating a reliable network to shop future works) and build up the capital it takes to venture out and start your own business as a literary agent; you will see why the average age of literary agents is 50.

Now let’s take a further step back. A person who is 50 years of age would have had to been born in the fifties—right before the civil rights movement—when education for Blacks was still a struggle many were trying to overcome. In the early fifties many schools were still being integrated as a result of Brown vs. the Board of Education, when the Supreme Court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” which means that any minority born at that time were still enduring the growing pains of the integration of the American school system. Unfortunately this means their formidable years of education were undoubtedly disproportionate to their White counterparts. By the time anyone born in the fifties would be old enough to go to college we would be in the early seventies, which at that time it was still very much a financial, and social feat for a Black person to not only go to college but graduate and land a successful job in the industry of their choice (It still is today!).

Over the past three decades the number of African American students enrolled in a higher education institution has steadily risen in part due to affirmative action (which oddly enough can be attributed to shutting some Blacks out…but that’s another article,) and the overall realization that the only way to maneuver your way out of poverty is with more education. In 1980 there were 935,140 1 students awarded a bachelor degree; Blacks and Hispanics accounted for only 8% of that total. Fast forward a couple of decades. In 2002 there were 1,291,900 2 bachelor degree candidates of whom 15% were Black or Hispanic. Although our numbers have increased, we still have a ways to go before the corporate playground is leveled.

There are many factors that play a role in the low enrollment of minorities in colleges and universities. The majority of minority college students face struggles their White peers usually don’t have. Most minorities have to work more than part-time to finance their education, or take care of other responsibilities. A lot of Blacks and Hispanics are still first generation college students, meaning that they have grown up in a home with parents who don’t have the same financial freedom as the parents of white college students, who are more likely than not to have been college graduates themselves. In this instance the old saying of it takes money to make money is undeniably true; higher levels of education results in more income, which increases the access to higher education. With Black students often working close to full time to pay their way through college, their studies are often times neglected and in many cases they are forced to attend half-time or completely delay their education until it is financially possible. But the financial breakthrough that many are waiting for will never come without a higher degree.

With this said it is no wonder why there aren’t many black literary agents. I can only hope the authors and editors of today will step up to the plate and grab this publishing game by the horns and take control. But I ask you to help your brothers and sisters up when you reach the top, if we don’t help each other we will never see a change.

1 U.S Department of Education, national Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). (2004). Digest of Education Statistics 2003 (NCES 2005–025), table 261. Data from U.S. Department of Education, NCES, Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), “Degrees and Other Formal Awards Conferred” and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, “Completions Survey” (IPEDS-C:1990–91 and 2001–02).

2 U.S Department of Education, national Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). (2004). Digest of Education Statistics 2003 (NCES 2005–025), table 264. Data from U.S. Department of Education, NCES, Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), “Degrees and Other Formal Awards Conferred” and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, “Completions Survey” (IPEDS-C:1990–91 and 2001–02).

Elaine Watkins is the Editor-in-Chief of The Urban Book Source.

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