Meet The Literary Lobbyist Fighting For More Black Representation In Publishing
By Pauleanna Reid
Over the past two years, many industries in America have been called to answer for their lack of diversity. One of the industries where this issue is most glaring is publishing. A 2019 survey by Lee & Low Books found that only 5% of roles in publishing—staff, reviewers, and agents—are Black. The other side of the industry is just as concerning. According to the New York Times, only 11% of books published in 2018 were written by people of color, and Black authors only made up a fraction of that percentage.
For more than 20 years, Dawn Michelle Hardy has been working to shift the industry. Hardy is a publishing industry triple threat—she’s a book publicist who helps authors promote and market their books; a literary agent who secures authors’ deals with traditional publishing companies; and a publishing consultant supporting authors who choose to self-publish. Her resume includes working with best-selling author Teri Woods and landing her clients deals with noteworthy publishing houses like Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, and Harlequin. She works under the appropriate title of The Literary Lobbyist, a nickname she got from an Essence Magazine writer.
“[A writer] said, ‘You’re lobbying for your authors and advocating for them from every stage of the process, and he described me as a literary lobbyist. It works. It’s catchy, it’s original, and it really does articulate the work that I do,” Hardy said.
Challenging Tradition and Making Space
Hardy wasn’t always into publishing. As a child, she had dreams of being a fashion designer, and her career began in that industry. However, Hardy was inspired to pursue publishing after witnessing the resourcefulness of urban fiction writers. She noticed how those writers found a way to publish and promote their books despite being excluded from traditional literary circles. From self-publishing to finding their audience in places like hip-hop concerts in urban centers, these authors were blazing their own paths to success. With her creativity, marketing know-how, and background in experiential fashion events, Hardy saw an opportunity to push these authors even further.
“I’m not a storyteller in that regard, but I’m good at promotion, and I wanted to help. We didn’t necessarily need mainstream publishing. I figured maybe they’ll come around; maybe they won’t. But together, these authors had the product and the know-how, and I had the creativity and the hustle,” Hardy recalled.
From working as an agent with Serendipity Literary Agency to building her own brand as The Literary Lobbyist, Hardy has spent her career consistently helping Black authors create massive success, from book deals and partnerships to speaking engagements. Her book publicity and marketing methods are shaped by her time in fashion, including experiential and lifestyle-centered approaches.
“Going from fashion to books, I just wanted to bring over the creativity, the fun, the sexiness. Because, traditionally, book publishing is not sexy at all. So that’s what I brought to the table. Let’s do fun stuff. Let’s do sexy stuff.”
Spotlighting The Value in Black Culture and Audiences
Hardy isn’t just successful because she’s willing to push the envelope. She’s also genuinely invested in her authors, their audiences, and the work they do. As a Black woman, she’s able to recognize the importance and impact of her clients’ work in ways that many others in the industry can’t. While this unique perspective has made Hardy a gamechanger for her clients, she notes that the lack of Black professionals in publishing has been a stumbling block for authors.
Black authors and their work are often overlooked and their potential for impact is undervalued. Hardy noted that many publishing houses pass on potential best-sellers because they simply don’t recognize the market for Black authors and their writing.
“There is a market for this. You’re just not tapped into it. And because you’re not tapped into it, you believe that it doesn’t exist. You’re passing up an opportunity to help somebody launch or grow their career simply because you don’t understand how their culture works,” Hardy said.
Hardy works to counter this lack of understanding by making sure her clients’ proposals are airtight and that her presentations prove that there is an audience for her authors’ work. From providing copies of Ebony and Essence Magazines to citing articles from The Root and The Grio, Hardy makes sure that her peers in publishing are aware of the market for books by Black writers.
“I started educating my white colleagues on what media outlets, changemakers, influencers, and writers they should be aware of for potential book opportunities one day,” Hardy explained.
Tumbling Roadblocks for Black Authors
For Black authors aspiring to overcome the roadblocks created by publishing’s diversity problem, Hardy encourages them to focus on building a platform that will allow them to have more successful books. She emphasizes the importance of establishing their expertise on their chosen subject and building their audience by engaging in public conversations through podcasts, blogs, social media, and other spaces.
“If you haven’t given any thought to your platform and audience, then how is anybody going to buy the book? It’s basically saying you’re ready to give a presentation, but you haven’t actually opened the auditorium, and there’s no one in the seats. A platform is basically filling the auditorium before you get to the stage,” Hardy said.
According to Hardy, authors should also be focused on creating strategic partnerships that allow them to amplify their voice and reach a broader audience.
“You start out writing a book by your lonesome, and it’s just words on a page. But when you come out and you want to get this information out there to the world, you have to align yourself with individuals who have influence and a willingness to share the mic with you. Because you’re not going to be able to target every single one of your readers solo,” Hardy said.
Hardy advised Black authors to know their worth and advocate for themselves. She suggested that writers connect with published authors to learn about their experiences and deals to understand what they should expect to be paid. Hardy cited the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe that sparked an important conversation on Twitter about book advances and noted that these kinds of transparent discussions empower authors to negotiate better deals.
Creating Pathways for Black Women in Publishing
In addition to supporting authors, Hardy is eager to see more Black women fill traditional publishing roles but noted how challenging that is because of the way publishing relies on apprenticeships and internships.
“That’s been the biggest barrier—that people of color can’t afford to learn the publishing industry for free. So, they don’t get access to information; they don’t get to meet people. They don’t get on people’s radar simply because they can’t afford to be present,” Hardy said.
Hardy urged Black women interested in publishing careers to seek alternative opportunities, like reaching out to authors and publishing professionals on social media and offering their time and skills in exchange for mentorship. But she’s also working on a new partnership with HBCUs that will give more young Black women (and men) the opportunity to connect with authors and professionals in publishing and beyond.
“I’m specifically creating this partnership with HBCUs for the sole purpose of having guest speakers and authors go directly to HBCUs and help inform and educate and build a networking community with the next wave of Black leaders. I know people in beauty who are the only [Black woman]; people in tech who are the only. I’m tired of being the only and so are they. The only way that’s going to stop is if we go into schools and say, I’m gonna be your mentor…I’m going to help you get the job, and you’ll come out of college never being the only because you have my network and my support,” Hardy said.