Isobel Dixon grew up in South Africa, studied in Scotland and now works in London. She is a director of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency where she represents a wide range of writers from around the world. Norah Myers interviews her here.
1) Why was it important to you to speak at Building Inclusivity in Publishing?
Inclusivity is important to me as a life principle (especially as someone who grew up in as privileged white person in a completely segregated country, apartheid South Africa). It’s a principle I seek to carry through to my work, both with my client list and with my like-minded colleagues, aware though of how much more there is to do. I think in a political era where polarisation and open prejudice are on the rise it’s more important than ever to be proactive about promoting inclusivity and openness. There’s growing awareness of this in the agenting and publishing community and the Building Inclusivity in Publishing conference was a positive sign of collective effort on this front.
My colleague Juliet Pickering and I were both involved at the conference – we wanted to meet other people with shared concerns, get fresh ideas, be challenged to think more broadly – and I think the day was productive on those fronts. I went away with lots of food for thought and met people with whom the conversation will continue, including other agents. The Association of Authors’ Agents is keen to do more and will help facilitate more connections and action.
2) What can literary agents do to make publishing more inclusive for workers?
On the employment level we all need to look at our recruitment practices and (paid) internships and see what we can do to be more attractive as a profession to talented and ambitious candidates from diverse backgrounds. Organisations like Creative Access can be valuable partners here, but I think agencies have to make it very clear that they are actively seeking to hire in a more open fashion as well.
Taking on interns and entry-level staff via personal recommendation and family contacts in the old-fashioned publishing style limits the pool of talent to those already connected. The publishing industry needs to seek to forge new connections. At Blake Friedmann we recognise we have good university links, but need to find ways to reach schools as well, before students make their university pathway choices, to show that there are exciting and varied careers in publishing and agenting – in rights, marketing, the specialised finance expertise of royalty accounting and so on– not just editorial roles. We’re looking into all of this, also with regards to the internship project we’re launching next year, The Carole Blake Open Doors Project, where we want to draw candidates from beyond the London metropolitan area, from diverse backgrounds, and not necessarily with university degrees (Carole Blake, who was a hugely respected agent, and was posthumously awarded Agent of the Year by the Romantic Novelists’ Association, went into publishing straight from school). What we do require is a passion for books and an ambition to succeed in publishing – but we need to reach out and tell people more about the industry, throw the net out wide. You can see more here.
3) As an agent, do you actively seek out diversity in your client list?
Yes. To start with I represent South African writers from a range of different backgrounds, with recent new UK deals done for Zakes Mda (his LITTLE SUNS sold to Jacaranda Books – where founder Valerie Brandes who is quoted in our Open Doors announcement, did an internship with us some years ago), and the Estate of K.Sello Duiker (his children’s book THE HIDDEN STAR sold to Cassava Republic). Achmat Dangor’s new novel has just gone to Picador South Africa who will also re-issue his Booker-shortlisted BITTER FRUIT. This month Blue Mark Books published the late Tatamkhulu Afrika’s classic novel BITTER EDEN and I am closing some exciting new deals for prize-winning Indian writer Manu Joseph. More great work on submission (or soon to be) by Australian-based South African Sisonke Msimang and British-Eritrean author Sulaiman Addonia, among others, also across the agency.
I am always interested in writers with different global perspectives, and try to attend varied events and read the shortlists for prizes like the Caine Prize. I heard Hannah Lowe read her poems about her Jamaican-Chinese father at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and it was the power of her words and the story she told that blew me away. However, I don’t take on many new clients, given the existing range of my list, but luckily I have fantastic colleagues, Juliet Pickering, Tom Witcomb and Hattie Grunewald actively building their lists. We’re very collegiate in sharing projects we think more suited to each other (though encourage authors to choose one of us to submit to – more guidelines here). Recently Juliet Pickering took on Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinene and worked with them on their proposal SLAY IN YOUR LANE: The Black Girl Bible, which went to Helen Garnons-Williams of Fourth Estate after a hotly-contested 9-publisher auction just before Frankfurt.
Literary agents wishing to expand the diversity of their lists have to think a bit more creatively about scouting out talent, not just wait passively for submissions. Keeping an eye on authors supported by organisations like Spread the Word, attending the growing numbers of festivals and events that feature more diverse talent is one way, and social media is also an important platform for young writers.
4) What are you most optimistic about with regards to diversity in the next couple of years?
That people are starting to take the issue seriously now, having recognised there is a problem in the industry. A few years ago so few people thought this question mattered. Now it’s become part of the conversation, and I think some real momentum is building to effect multi-level change. But we still need more appetite for acquisition from publishers as well, as we so often encounter commercial caution here.
5) What advice would you give a new agent who is interested in promoting inclusivity and diversity?
Some of the practical advice is above, but more generally there’s a watchword I also quote for writers, from Henry James: “Be someone on whom nothing is lost.” Keep your eyes and mind open. Don’t just follow fashion. Question your assumptions and be open-minded about genre too. Read widely, engage energetically, listen to what other people are reading and loving, be curious, and hungry for the stories no one has yet told, and find the people who tell them brilliantly. Then sell them – and therein is another whole chapter. You have to commit to work you are passionate about and feel you can sell, to earn an income for the writer, but you may often have to be pretty damned determined, if not downright stubborn, to succeed with work that’s not perceived as the most mainstream or easy. But that’s part of the adventure.
Isobel is also a poet. Her latest collection Bearings is out from Nine Arches in the UK and Modjaji in South Africa, and Scottish publisher Mariscat brought out her pamphlet The Leonids in 2016. See more on her agent page and her poetry website.