• Insider spoke with several Asian American authors about their experience pitching publishers.
  • Some faced “coded rejection” from white editors or felt forced to compete as the “token” diverse author.
  • Editors of color said there’s a diversity problem in publishing but are hopeful for the future.

When Julie Abe, 31, a young-adult fantasy writer, was told her book wasn’t “Japanese-y” enough by a publishing editor she’d consulted for professional advice, she was confused but not surprised.

Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch” follows the story of a young Japanese American witch who does good deeds around town. After the feedback, Abe told Insider, she considered featuring onigiri, a simple Japanese dish known for its versatility, more prominently in the story to appease the editor — but decided instead to find an editor to work with who would stand by her story as it was.

Abe’s experience is an example of what many Asian American authors say they encounter when working with editors and agents in publishing, an industry where historically the majority of decision-makers have been white.

Several Asian American writers told Insider they struggled to get their books picked up by publishing houses. Some said they were turned down for portraying characters or stories that were unrelatable to a white audience, while others described a tense environment where Asian American authors are forced to compete to become the “token” diverse author.

High demand for stereotypical Asian and Asian American stories

Jennifer Yen, a young-adult and adult-fiction writer, told Insider that in her experience, editors seemed to look for narratives around K-pop or martial-arts fantasy, which to her translated to nonstereotypical Asian characters not being palatable. As part of a tight-knit writing community, she said it seemed easier for other YA Asian American authors pitching these stories to be signed.

“Just as a broad general rule, if you are writing about K-pop, that book will sell for more than if you are writing about other things,” she said. “Publishing wants diverse characters, but they want diverse characters that are stereotypical.”

This has left some Asian American authors to wonder whether they’re the token pick of an editor’s stock — another checkpoint in a series of “new voices.”

“Am I a mainstream book, or am I a diverse book?” Abe said, vocalizing a main insecurity she had when submitting books to editors. “For myself, I don’t want to be just a diverse book.”

Abe acknowledged that some people didn’t have the luxury to turn down offers that don’t sit right. “But there’s a limit to how much microaggressions or feeling like you weren’t enough that I will allow myself to take before I move elsewhere,” Abe said.

Rejection from editors who can’t relate to diverse characters

During Yen’s submission process for her young-adult romantic comedy “A Taste for Love,” her editors requested that the racism and microaggressions in it be toned down, she said.

Yen said they asked her to soften certain dialogue. In one scene, Sarah, a supporting character who’s white, originally said a boy was “cute for an Asian” — a microaggression Yen had observed and experienced throughout her life. However, her editors were concerned this would make Sarah seem like an unlikeable character.

“It makes non-Asian people look at themselves in a way that’s uncomfortable,” Yen said. “Their response was ‘This is very harshly worded,’ and my thought was ‘But this is what happens. These are the actual words that people will use,'” Yen added. Eventually, Yen said, she had to change the dialogue to retain a sense of fun and lightness to keep her book palatable for her editors and a largely white audience.

Priyanka Taslim, 29, who writes stories about Bangladeshi Muslim characters, said a scarcity of Asian characters in books gave editors less contextual knowledge to evaluate a new story featuring Asian or Asian American culture and critique it meaningfully.

“Not having agents be familiar with what Bangladesh is or where it is made it very difficult, because I think they had certain expectations based on overall South Asian representation,” Taslim told Insider. The most common euphemism that editors use to describe their cultural disconnect, she said, is “I couldn’t relate to the character.”

There’s a lot of “coded rejection that I think authors of color receive because we’re not writing to that white expectation,” Taslim said.

Her words rang true for other authors. Abe said she was once told that her characters didn’t seem to show enough of their Japanese identity and that maybe she could add more rice balls or gold. Yen said she’d encountered confusion about the differences between Taiwanese culture and Chinese culture.

An industry that pits authors against each other

Some Asian American authors Insider spoke with expressed an internal, moral struggle they encountered in becoming a successful author.

A subconscious competition arises among Asian American authors to be the one who adheres to stereotypical expectations, Yen said.

“It’s unfair because I feel like the publishing industry unintentionally … pits us against each other,” Yen said. Though she isn’t Korean American herself, she said she’d had fleeting thoughts about writing K-pop into her narrative, then immediately felt bad for even thinking to represent a demographic she isn’t a part of.

“Inherently we’re afraid that if we don’t write for everything that you ask us to write, then you’re going to leave us behind for someone else who will,” Yen said.

Vivian Lee, 33, a senior editor at Little Brown, said she’d encountered racial quotas set by other editors. “Other editors say that they already have something similar on their list, like, ‘Oh, we already have an Asian author on our list, so we don’t need that,'” Lee said.

Change from the inside

Authors and editors that Insider spoke to agree that improving Asian American representation in publishing starts with getting more editors of color inside publishing houses.

A 2020 survey conducted by the publisher Lee & Low Books to measure demographics in the publishing industry found that in 2019, 76% of publishing staff, review-journal staff, and literary agents identified as white — a small difference from the 79% of respondents who identified as white six years ago.

Amara Hoshijo, 30, an editor at Saga Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, told Insider she’s the only Asian American editor on her team of three and one of nine editors of color in the 43-person team at Gallery Books. Many questions pertaining to race and POC experiences were often directed at the few employees of color, she said. “I don’t know if it’s because they feel like we’re the best equipped to answer them or other people can’t answer them,” Hoshijo said.

Hoshijo added that when the publishing house is interested in an author of color, that author is often competing against other projects by authors of color. According to Hojisho, this combined with the limited overall acquisition budget means less Asian and Asian American stories get told — 11% of Saga’s titles from spring 2019 to spring 2022 are by Asian American authors, she said.

Cindy Kim, 31, has had a similar experience at Little Simon, another imprint of Simon & Schuster. She said that though she was accustomed to the lack of diversity in publishing — she said she’s one of two Asian American editors between her team and her sister editorial team of 10 — there were awkward moments where she’d been asked whether characters in projects featuring minorities were represented appropriately. “Everyone comes to me because I’m the only Asian woman in the room, as if I can speak to that,” Kim said. (Simon & Schuster declined to comment on its diversity numbers.)

Hoshijo, however, is hopeful for the future. She said her team was focused on hiring more editors of color while increasing how many Asian and Asian American stories it acquires by Asian American authors.

After receiving the feedback about making her story more “Japanese-y,” Abe went to her current editor to ask whether her book had enough elements related to Japanese culture, she said. Her editor, a person of color, responded, “What you have is enough, if it’s what you’re comfortable with.”

“The only thing is getting people inside editorial groups who have a wide range of experiences and really diverse sponsors,” Hoshijo said. “We just need to make sure they keep happening. We’re moving in the right direction.”