Why you should care
Because she’s elevating marginalized voices in publishing — the ones without trust funds.
From reading Harry Potter in a closet during a family vacation by the light of a flashlight to wanting to skip class at New York University to read books, Beth Phelan’s life has been wrapped in stories. Now she’s making sure the next generation of readers revels in the magic of a wider range of voices.
As a literary agent, Brooklyn-based Phelan is one of the most active online voices boosting work by traditionally marginalized authors. Not only is the list of authors she represents diverse, but Phelan also is helping unrepresented authors sign with other agents and revealing the truth about the finances of the industry.
Phelan, 32, created #DVpit (Diverse Voices Pitch) in 2016, a Twitter event for aspiring authors to pitch their books in the hopes of connecting with an agent. She was doubting herself at the time, trying to find her voice as a young agent and woman of color, and was met with rejection and skepticism about using Twitter as her primary channel.
If you don’t have a trust fund or really wealthy parents or a spouse that can help you, it definitely becomes really, really difficult.
But now she can point to more than 100 success stories from #DVpit participants who signed with an agent or got some form of work out of it. They include Opposite of Always, by Justin A. Reynolds (a Phelan client), which will be adapted into a movie; The Tiger at Midnight, by Swati Teerdhala; and We Hunt the Flame, by Hafsah Faizal.
Now #DVpit is a three-day event that runs twice a year (the most recent one was in April), where marginalized voices and unagented writers pitch their work according to strict guidelines. There’s a limit to how many times a writer can tweet for every project, throughout the appropriate day and time slot, using #DVpit and at least one hashtag about the story’s genre and/or category. There’s a day devoted to books for children and teens, one for adults and one for illustrators. Agents and editors search the hashtag for pitches and respond to manuscripts or artwork that draw their interest.
“I think DVpit has changed the industry,” says Claribel Ortega, author of the forthcoming Ghost Squad, who found an agent through the initiative. “It’s given authors of color a safe place to come and to not just find representation, but to have a community, because that’s really important.”
Twitter pitch events are increasingly part of the literary landscape, says Sangeeta Mehta, a 20-year publishing veteran and founder of her own editorial services business. While Mehta praises #DVpit for its “huge impact on the industry,” she says younger writers’ focus on online pitch events can distract from developing their writing and presentation. “If they’re just concentrating on ‘How am I going to get attention on Twitter?’ I think it defeats the purpose of what they’re trying to do, which is … probably to build a writing career,” Mehta says.
Phelan’s own Twitter feed, in fact, expresses concern about #DVpit functioning like a popularity contest. It’s part of how she operates as an open book online, from finances to her own mental health.
People from low-income backgrounds often find it harder to break in. “If you don’t have a trust fund or really wealthy parents or a spouse [who] can help you, it definitely becomes really, really difficult,” she says, particularly given New York’s outrageous cost of living and publishing’s notoriously low salaries. Phelan worked as an agency intern while holding a second job as a bookkeeper’s assistant at a military surplus store. She worked as an assistant at several literary agencies before being promoted to agent, and she now is with Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency.
The middle child of three sisters, Phelan was an introverted Catholic school student. She recalls her hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts, as a predominantly White community, where she was one of only a few Asian kids in her school and was teased. She also witnessed the discrimination against her mother, a Korean immigrant.
In her work today lifting up minority voices, Phelan says, “I’m discovering my own identity and sort of parsing through all of the bad memories from when I was younger and just, you know, finding … my own place in the world also.” Sharing her own mental health story, Phelan says, is in part about holding herself accountable after restarting therapy.
for a decade i’d been telling myself i’ll go back to therapy once i have time and money. or that i don’t need it at all. i just need something good to happen. or i need the sun. or a change of scenery. but i couldn’t remember the last time i woke up excited for life.— beth phelan (on hiatus & closed to queries) (@beth_phelan) February 4, 2019
For a while, she worried potential clients would think: “How am I supposed to trust her with my book? How am I supposed to trust her with my career? How am I supposed to expect her to give me good advice on things? What if she disappears? What if she has a breakdown?” But then she concluded: “Fuck that. I want to. I need to be accountable, and I feel like it’s not fair that I can’t talk about it. I think we need to start allowing agents to be human.”
Agents are entitled to breaks.— beth phelan (on hiatus & closed to queries) (@beth_phelan) October 4, 2018
Agents are entitled to privacy.
Agents are entitled to boundaries.
Agents are entitled to mental health.
Agents are people.
Moving forward, Phelan raised enough money via GoFundMe to hire an intern for the next season of #DVpit and has applied to trademark the term. She’s also working on establishing a formal mentorship program between agented and unagented authors.
Her broader goal in bringing a wider range of authors into publishing is to build a wider range of readers. It starts at home: Her two sisters are not “big readers,” not even the younger one, whom she often read aloud to as a kid, she admits. So she wants to make sure the next generation has better material to work with.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Beth Phelan
- What’s the last book you read? Sadie, by Courtney Summers.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Is it cheesy if I say stories? Yeah, I think stories in whatever form they take.
- Who’s your hero? To be honest, I don’t know if I have one. I feel inspired by a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons, and I respect them a lot, but everybody is human, so I try not to idolize anybody.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I’m not a very adventurous person. Maybe skiing down a double black diamond. It’s supposed to be the hardest, but I just started to learn how to ski and it’s really hard.
- Any fashion-trend regrets from your younger days? My mother used to dress me up in these really, not outrageous exactly, but very loud dresses. I felt embarrassed at the time, but you know what? It makes for better photos.
Read more: The author bringing home the horror of “comfort women.”