A lot of advice geared to authors who aren't from America and want to break into traditional US publishing is centered around not giving up, and for good reason: it's easy to look at this industry from thousands of miles away and think "That's impossible. I'm never going to make it."
This is patently false, and please tell your brain I said so. It is possible. You can make it. There are more of us here now than ever, and we're your proof that it can be done.
The thing is, though, that once you're in this industry, there's very little that tells you how to navigate it, what you'll encounter while you're here, and how to deal with all of it. So that's what this post is for. Hopefully, for those of you who are trying to break in, it will paint a clearer picture of the realities in store; and for those to whom this doesn't apply, you'll have a clearer idea of exactly what challenges international authors have to deal with.
Also, because you should never just take one person's experience as gospel, this post features three of my amazing author buddies: Laura Pohl, Rin Chupeco and Jesse Q Sutanto, all of whom live outside the US and publish with major American houses.
1. First of all, they're not lying: Your geographical location really isn't necessarily a barrier to entry in this industry. I have never met my agent, or any of my editors, or heck, most of my authors friends (including the three interviewed here!) in real life. Agents and publishers are looking for a unique story, well told; where you're located is not an issue as long as you've got a good book and a solid internet connection.*
"I would say the one thing about being a non-US author who is published in the US is...I get so many questions from people asking how I did it, and the answer is: the normal way!" says Jesse. "I queried through the slush pile and I even mentioned in my query that I'm based in Indonesia. With e-mail and Whatsapp and Zoom etc, the barriers are lower than ever, so geography doesn't matter as much. SHOOT YOUR SHOT."
*Having said that, the "solid internet connection" part is a privilege that many parts of the world aren't privy to, and that still knocks a large percentage of people out of the running.
2. Geography, however, can limit your opportunities once you're actually in the industry. In the US, authors often work to build buzz by doing bookstore events, tours, offering pre-order merch, appearing on panels at literary festivals, and more -- though many still pay their own way to do most of this, with publishers really only investing in marketing for a handful of anointed books.
"The geographical factor of interaction...means you don't get invited for stuff, can't organize bookstore events, can't do giveaways or even sign bookplates if it's not of your own pocket," points out Laura.
The thing is that international authors can do all these things outside the US, in their home regions and even other countries, with great success. But a thing I've noticed is if that it doesn't impact the American market, it doesn't seem to count. A book is only considered a success when it's successful in the US. Which brings us to...
3. What kind of diversity? American publishing is still grappling with the idea of diversity, what that means, and how it impacts the decisions that are made and the stories that are acquired. "I know a lot of US authors who are marginalized still face the same 'can't connect to the story you're telling', same as us," says Laura.
At the same time, it can often feel as though the diversity that gets talked about is one that is still very much US-focused, with the rest of the world more of an afterthought than anything else. "I feel that publishers want more stories from different cultures, but they would prefer it from a US point of view," says Jesse. "So i actually kind of dealt with it by doing it step by step. With Dial A For Aunties, i had Indo characters, but the story itself is set in the US. And once that was successful, I wrote about an Indo-American girl born and raised in America [and] going to Indo. And my next book is going to have an Indo girl in Indo! But yeah, I definitely don't think I would've had this much success if I'd just started with that story. Which sucks. But I hope that things are changing...I think they are (slowly)!"
4. Find your champions. If you do want to break into the industry with a story set purely outside the US, based on a culture or mythology less familiar to American readers, it's still possible! Anything is! But you have to find a team that will support you and stand by the decisions you make. "I'd say that one of the most important things you will need to do is find people who will champion not just your work, but you," says Rin. "And that means agents who understand where you're coming from and will give you support, and also editors you'll be working with. Ask as many questions as you feel to make you comfortable that they will do that."
When I started getting offers of representation for The Weight of Our Sky, one of the questions I asked every agent I spoke to was this: "I write stories set in my country, featuring my people, drawing from our folklore and our history and our culture, and I don't see that changing in the foreseeable future. Is that an issue for you?" I didn't expect any of them to say no -- I'd done my research before querying, after all -- but it was important to me that the expectation was laid from the beginning of our relationship. And I do the same with every editor I've ever worked with; from the start, I make it clear that I WILL protect the Malaysianness of my stories. I won't work with anyone who insists on making them something they are not.
Luckily, my agent -- and all my editors -- are gems who fully support this MAKE IT MALAYSIAN agenda.
5. Did I mention time zones? Time zones are a definite issue to navigate. I'm lucky in that the time difference between where I am and New York City, which is where my agent and editors are, is usually 12 hours -- 13 with daylight savings (which, while we're here -- HONESTLY AMERICA, this is such a WEIRD CONCEPT to me, I don't understand it at all). That means my calls usually happen anywhere from 9pm to midnight for me, which is ideal -- my kids are asleep, the house is quiet, and this is usually when I'm writing anyway.
But time zones don't often match up so well, and that means, for example, being up and ready at 5am for the Kirkus Prize award ceremony, or investing in ring lights to make sure you don't look like death on a 4am Zoom visit with a classroom on the other side of the world. In Jesse's words: "Be prepared to either lose sleep or lose events!"
6. The paperwork. Oh god, the paperwork. There's a tangle of bureaucratic mess to sort through when it comes to contracts, clauses, money and taxes, a lot of which can change because of the specific country you're from and its relationship to the US, and "no one that can guide you through because it's not really made thinking of you," Laura points out.
The very first time I got a book advance, my publisher mailed me a check all the way from NYC to Malaysia. When I took it to the bank, I couldn't get them to process it. The house used the [last name], [first name] convention that's used in most of the West, and we're a country in which that simply doesn't apply and doesn't make sense. "We can't do anything with this," the teller told me apologetically, and I had to go back, point this out to my publisher, sort out a wire transfer (which involved going back and forth with more forms), before I could finally get paid.
The pandemic has made things hell in a lot of ways, but you know what? At least now publishers finally accept wire transfers and DocuSign as regular, everyday things, and I no longer have to spend RM80 of my own money couriering a single signed page of my contract back to America every time (true story).
7. Building community can be hard. Meeting your peers is really only something you can do via the internet, and navigating both time zones and cultural differences to get to that point of comfort and familiarity can feel impossible. I joined a debut group filled with fellow kidlit authors who, like me, were debuting in 2019 -- this is how I got to know Laura! -- but even these can often feel alienating when almost everything is centered around the American experience.
While everyone meant well and people went out of their way to be friendly, in the end I found myself taking part less and less. My community and friendships came from being on Twitter, taking part in conversations with fellow authors; while the medium has many, many issues for BIPOC creators especially, I can't deny how instrumental it was for me in finding my people.
8. You will sometimes get flak simply for being who you are. A readership that's used to seeing a certain type of character or author will sometimes mistake strides in representation for the threat of takeover. As someone who is visibly Muslim and ever-so-slightly vocal about issues of diversity and inclusion, this has often resulted in less than savory emails and messages accusing me of "riding the diversity wave" to success, many with bonus threats of violence.
If this happens to you -- and I hope very much that it doesn't, nobody really deserves it -- but if it does, my advice is to block and mute liberally on your social media accounts and shut down DMs. I've also taken steps to remove my email address and contact forms from my website so that all communications go through my agent, a white lady who Does Not Take Nonsense. I hate that I've basically had to erect barriers that make me less accessible to readers, but until I'm in the right headspace to deal with hate, I'm afraid this is how it will have to be.
While I want you to be prepared for the things you may encounter, I don't want you to lose all hope either. There are so few of us out here, and so many kids who deserve the stories that only we can tell. So if you're still reading, here are some final thoughts from Laura, Rin and Jesse to hold onto:
Laura: "Be prepared to find barriers when you least expect, but don't be too scared to overcome them: there are people who came before you and will reach out a hand. Be kind to everyone who's trailing the same path as you. They're not competition, they're helping you keep that door open so more people can follow."
Rin: "Remember that you *deserve* to be here in this industry to be championed. A lot of authors don't always feel that, and I always have to remind them that it has nothing to do with their books, and that they should stop being too hard on themselves."
Jesse: "But now, with writers like Hanna Alkaf** and my latest idol Uzma Jalaludin (okay so she's Canadian but she's also talked about how that's also considered 'too international' by some publishers?? lol! So that counts, right??), I think things are definitely changing and we shouldn't give up. Especially because my mom would throw her slipper at you if you gave up."
** I DID NOT MAKE JESSE SAY THIS, but she also will not let me edit it out :(
This is a public post for the benefit of international aspiring authors who may not have the means to pay for a Patreon subscription. If you enjoyed this or found it useful, please consider supporting the Patreon for more content! Thank you.
Laura Pohl is a YA science-fiction and fantasy author. Her debut novel, The Last 8, won the International Latino Book Awards. Her next series starts with The Grimrose Girls. She likes writing messages in caps lock, never using autocorrect, and obsessing about Star Wars. When not taking pictures of her dog, she can be found curled up with a fantasy or science-fiction book or replaying Dragon Age. Her favorite Disney princess is Cinderella, and her favorite Disney prince is Kylo Ren. A Brazilian at heart and soul, she makes her home in São Paulo. Website / Twitter / Instagram
Rin Chupeco wrote obscure manuals for complicated computer programs, talked people out of their money at event shows, and did many other terrible things. They now write about ghosts and fairy tales but is still sometimes mistaken as a revenant. They were born and raised in the Philippines and, or so the legend goes, still haunts that place to this very day. Their pronouns are they/them. Website / Twitter / Instagram
Jesse Q Sutanto is the author of Dial A for Aunties, The Obsession, and Theo Tan and the Fox Spirit. The film rights to her women’s fiction, Dial A for Aunties, was bought by Netflix in a competitive bidding war. Jesse lives in Indonesia with her husband, her two daughters, and her ridiculously large extended family. Website / Twitter / Instagram