In the wake of the historical Black Lives Matter protests that sprung up following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, conversations about race began to take place in many industries, and publishing was not exempt.
Of the many discussions that emerged surrounding the racism that permeates the publishing industry (publishing as a whole is 76% white according to a study by Lee and Low ) was the discussion of author advances. An advance is the money that the publisher pays an author up front, before the book has sold any copies, as an advance against any royalties earned. Before an author can start receiving royalty checks, they must earn back their advance, which means that authors who receive high advances have to sell a lot more books before they start to see royalty money. Usually, advances can be seen as a mark of the publisher’s confidence in a book. A high advance indicates that the publisher is relatively certain that the book will make a substantial amount of money. Higher advances often, but not always, mean that the publisher will invest more effort in the marketing and promotion of the book.
Advances have long been a rather mysterious topic, with very little transparency regarding the specific amounts that authors can expect. Traditionally authors have been reluctant to disclose their exact amounts advance amounts, although it is relatively common to read press releases stating that so and so’s book sold at auction for “six figures.” Some authors actually have clauses worked into their contracts which state that they may not disclose the amount of their advance, whereas others simply feel uncomfortable, in a culture that treats discussion of salary as taboo (a norm that has long been used to perpetuate salary gaps in many industries), discussing their exact advance figures. However, given the current Black Lives Matter movement, many authors and allies felt like a conversation about the discrepancy in advances between Black and non-Black authors was long overdue.
Thus, author L.L. McKinney created the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe.
The purpose of the hashtag was to expose these discrepancies. McKinney emphasized that Black authors did not have to participate by disclosing their advances, but that non-Black authors should disclose their advances in order to help Black authors confront a wage gap that existed so far mostly anecdotally. The hashtag would provide actual numbers which would prove not only that the wage gap existed, but that it was pervasive. Armed with evidence of what their non-Black colleagues were being given in advance, Black writers would be in a better position to negotiate their own advances.
However, Black authors quickly began taking part, exposing massive discrepancies in advance numbers. One of the revelations that sparked the most consternation was Hugo award winning Black author N.K. Jemisin’s:
Many authors and readers found it completely unacceptable that an author of Jemisin’s caliber had received such low advances. But Jemisin wasn’t an outlier. A Google Docs spreadsheet was quickly compiled in order to create more solid and actionable data. The numbers were revealing. While genres varied, at the time of writing this, of 163 advances payments greater than or equal to $100,000, only 12 of those advances went to Black writers.
Clearly publishing, like many industries, suffers from a wage gap. Publishing seems unwilling to take the same risks on Black authors as it does on white authors. In fact, white authors are often given multiple chances and are still awarded second chances even after a first book flops, whereas Black writers often are given only one shot. As many have pointed out, this discrepancy does not fall solely at the feet of agents and editors, but is also the responsibility of sales executives and even booksellers who see books by Black authors as a poor investment, this despite the fact that college educated Black women are the demographic most likely to read books. The source of this misconception? Implicit biases among mostly white publishing professionals who assume that Black people are less likely to read books and that white readers will not pick up books featuring Black protagonists.
To show their support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the light it shed on the issues with the publishing industry, a group of more than 1000 publishing industry workers declared a day of solidarity and took a day off to protest against racial injustice and also vowed to donate a day’s pay fundraisers. In response, major publishing houses such as Penguin Random House acknowledged the problems with racism within the industry and vowed to foster more diversity within the company. They also promised anti-racist training for all staff members. Of course, only time will tell if these measures will make a difference, or if publishing houses are simply worried about the optics should they fail to make a bold statement in the midst of a global movement.
One thing is for certain, publishing has a race problem, and that problem reflects the larger culture of white supremacy that exists in all countries where the legacy of slavery and colonialism lives on. While efforts such as We Need Diverse Books and #DivPit have helped to mitigate the effects of racism upon the publishing industry, it is only through the complete eradication of white supremacist culture that the publishing industry, like all other industries and institutions in this country and others, can finally rid itself of the specter of racism. So while diversity training and education and earnest pledges to do better are a nice gestures, they will be ultimately meaningless unless white supremacist culture is dismantled once and for all.