BWS 10.03.21 report: “The Business of Publishing and Inclusion” with Jen Sookfong Lee

Jen Sookfong Lee was born and raised in Vancouver’s East Side, and she now lives with her son in North Burnaby. Her books include The Conjoined, nominated for International Dublin Literary Award and a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction PrizeThe Better Mother, a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book AwardThe End of EastGentlemen of the ShadeThe Shadow List, and Finding Home. Jen teaches at The Writers’ Studio Online with Simon Fraser University, acquires and edits fiction for Wolsak & Wynn, and co-hosts the podcast Can’t Lit.

In her guest talk Jen Sookfong Lee guides us through the process of supporting inclusion in publishing by getting to the heart of the matter, “how do we navigate this space in a way that honours the diversity of our stories voices and identities, while uplifting and making space for others who also need that support?”


  • Publishing has historically been a challenging industry to navigate for BIPOC writers, as well as writers who are LGBTQ+.
  • Publishing spots have been scarce, and the types of narratives that have been allowed into the marketplace have often been ones that advance certain stereotypes about these communities.
  • In addition, jobs within the publishing industry are often held, still, by people who are born with privilege—usually white, straight, and cis. This is definitely changing and many publishers have actively tried to counteract this with inclusion initiatives, and change has been happening at the entry level. Where it is stalled somewhat is the managerial and executive level.
  • Without editors, agents, and publicists who understand the breadth of authors’ stories, the books themselves can’t be edited or promoted in inclusive and sensitive ways.
  • There are many reasons for this that have to do with access to education, mainstream popular and literary culture, and representation.
  • But the real question for us as writers is: how do we navigate this space in a way that honours the diversity of our stories, voices, and identities?
  • While uplifting and making space for others who also need that support?


Ask the hard questions

  • When it comes time for you to negotiate a contract, consider an offer on your book, or appear at events to promote your work, don’t be afraid to ask questions, as many as you need to be clear that your concerns are being addressed.
  • If you are from a marginalized community, it can be hard to ask probing questions, as the pressure to be agreeable and not difficult or aggressive is heavy.
  • But you have every right to ask about how an editor will approach issues of language or race, or if a festival event you have been invited to will be accessible and inclusive, or if a publisher will help pay for a sensitivity reader.
  • It’s important too that writers with privilege ask similarly hard questions: will the event be inclusive and accessible, who else is being publishing in this issue or this season, can we share promotion resources if someone else who is marginalized needs that support.
  • Always being aware that it can be very hard for someone who is marginalized to advocate for themselves.
  • Everything that has to do with the business of writing is open for negotiation.

If in doubt, seek a second opinion

  • If you can’t come to an agreement about a contract or event, reach out to your network of
  • other writers and mentors to see what they think.
  • One thing I have learned is that writing is not a solitary activity.
  • It takes a community to care for the individual.
  • We’re fortunate to have organizations like TWUC, League of Canadian Poets, Writers’ Trust that actively try to make that community and address equity.
  • Resources that I have found helpful is the How To series published by TWUC, which includes taxes and contracts.
  • Publishing is a hard business that doesn’t offer job security or a lot of money.
  • Without each of holding each other up, none of this is possible, both in terms of business but also in terms of mental health.

Determine what you’re comfortable with

  • We all have different comfort levels for what we will write about, how we will promote our writing, and what topics we will discuss in public.
  • During the publishing process, it’s important to think about what our boundaries are.
  • For example, some of you might be comfortable talking about race in an event meant to promote inclusion in the literary world, and some of you may not.
  • As time goes on, those boundaries may change, so try to check in with yourself to reassess what you need or don’t need, and to make sure you are still staying on track with your limits.
  • This applies to burn-out and how much we work too.
  • One of the things I have noticed with emerging writers is that the industry will anoint a few new writers a year with It-person status.
  • This is particularly true if they also carry the burden of representation.
  • There is a lot pressure to keep up, to make sure you’re tweeting every day, to jump into controversial conversations that relate to your work or identity, to accept every invite.
  • But, you don’t have to.
  • My interest as a mentor or an editor is being able to help build a sustainable long term career. 
  • And that means not burning out, saying no when you have to.


  • When things are quiet and we’re getting a lot of rejections, we start to believe that we will never be able to reach our writing career goals.
  • I don’t just mean publication or the Giller Prize.
  • Stable housing, holidays, retirement funds—all of these are for people with regular jobs.
  • But it’s possible to have goals and to work toward them.
  • We just need to be organized and mindful of and engaged with our business practices, our boundaries, scheduling, and money.
  • We are at a transition point now where inclusion and payments are being openly discussed,
  • Without that, we can never move forward with enough cake for everyone.

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