As an immigrant woman of color, I wouldn’t have considered negotiating my author advance (and, indeed, didn’t in 2015, when I pitched my first book without an agent). Five years later, when I went through an auction for my second book, I was lucky to have an agent represent me. But as I reflect on the process—and talk to white author peers with similar professional backgrounds as mine—I imagine that having a young woman of color represent me could also have led me to receive a lower offer than my white peers. Many of my white peers could—and did—take years off to write their books, funded by their advances alone. I wrote my manuscript in the depths of the pandemic, while managing an out-of-school three-year-old and continuing to work on my business full-time to pay the bills.
I’ve dedicated my life to creating inclusive workplaces, so facing bias and exclusion in my own career feels particularly painful. It’s no secret that the publishing industry is very white: 85% of acquisitions editors are white and nearly 90% of books published are by white authors, according to a 2020 New York Times piece. Author advances are opaque, and publishing expert Maris Kreizman says deals are made on “mostly a gut feeling.”
How much of a gut feeling? Well, in June 2020, the viral social media campaign #PublishingPaidMe revealed just how inequitable author advances can be.
L.L. McKinney, a Black woman, urged other authors to share the sizes of their advances. The results revealed staggering disparities between the advances offered for debut books by women of color authors and those by white authors.
Two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, a Black woman, tweeted she had to “wrestle” her way to a $100,000 advance after winning awards. By contrast, Chip Cheek, a white man, tweeted he received an $800,000 advance for his debut.
Advances in publishing illustrate how, like in any industry, those who are given more money are expected to perform better; they’re given the resources to succeed. These advances reflect what sort of authors publishers think are “worth” taking chances on.
In 2022 and beyond, I imagine a better future for the industry—one that more meaningfully reflects the diversity of voices in the world and one where authors of color aren’t low-balled. But change has to begin now.
Here are four recommendations based on my experiences:
1. We urgently need more transparency about how author advances are decided. What are the metrics used to make these decisions? What if each publisher could create a range of how they’ve paid authors in the past and use this matrix (or update it) for future decisions? This would greatly help every author of color—and their agents—come in on equal footing and advocate based on a shared understanding of how decisions are made.
2. Each publisher must perform a regular review, using demographic data (on race and gender at the very least, and as much other data as is available), of authors acquired and the advances paid. The data doesn’t lie, and as many of my corporate clients have found, even well-meaning organizations that believe themselves to be progressive are shocked to see the racial disparities when comparing the data. It is only when more acquisitions editors face up to the existing challenges that they can meaningfully make progress.
3. Removing negotiations altogether would create more equity. When there’s transparency in numbers, there is a better shot at bias being removed from the equation. Don’t believe me? A study in the corporate sector found hiring managers were likely to offer Black candidates lower starting salaries if they felt they were negotiating too hard. As a woman of color, I’m often expected to be grateful for what I’m offered and have been penalized for asking for more. Negotiation as a practice favors those who are already (over)represented in the industry and workforce.
4. In the long-term, I’d like to see more hiring and retention of publishing leaders from a diversity of backgrounds. A lack of diversity among decision makers perpetuates many of the inequities that are prevalent today, even beyond the pay gap—including the continued centering of white stories and the harmful practice of white authors telling stories of underrepresented communities.
None of this is easy, nor will it happen naturally. It takes intentionality, continued awareness, and action—and most of all, the ability to confront and challenge the legacy of racism and bias. In my work, I’ve seen that the biggest barrier isn’t logistics; it’s the personal accountability that leaders struggle with. The desire to be comfortable supersedes the ability to do what’s right. And that’s a shame, because for every bestselling author of color who managed to succeed in an industry geared to make them fail, imagine how many brilliant stories remain overlooked.
Ruchika Tulshyan is the author of Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work (MIT, Mar.). She’s an inclusion strategist and speaker, and is CEO and founder of Candour, which works with organizations to create diverse teams and inclusive cultures.