Author L.L. McKinney described her creation of #PublishingPaidMe as an outgrowth of a long-standing conversation she’s had with friends about Black authors being historically underpaid and underappreciated by a white publishing industry. The hashtag began trending on Twitter early last month after McKinney, who is Black and writes YA books, responded to a comment from fellow YA author Tochi Onyebuchi about his feelings of ambivalence regarding publishers suddenly championing books by Black authors as the Black Lives Matter movement came to global prominence.
McKinney said the callouts from publishers to buy books by Black authors, following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers, were “bittersweet” and reminded her that “we don’t get that support until we start dying in the streets.” The hashtag, which she said was intended to start “an uncomfortable discussion of what [non-Black authors] make compared to us,” inspired a number of prominent authors to share the sizes of their advances. It also led to the creation of a Google doc featuring submissions from more than 2,000 authors (many of them white).
Some publishing insiders quickly responded that the Google doc was a narrow sample, and that an advance is but one aspect of a publishing deal. Others, however, expressed shock at two things the Google doc highlighted. The first is how small the advances were for early books by a number of now-famous Black authors. The second is how few authors of color have landed big advances for debut titles relative to white authors. Among the notable authors who shared details of their early advances, Roxane Gay said she received $12,500 for her second novel, An Untamed State, and $15,000 for her first book of nonfiction, Bad Feminist. N.K. Jemisin, a bestselling science fiction author, revealed she had been paid $40,000 for each book in her 2010–2011 Inheritance trilogy; $25,000 for each entry in her 2012 Dreamblood duology; and $25,000 for each book of the 2015–2017 Broken Earth trilogy. Jemisin’s numbers struck some as a particularly galling example of a writer whose sales and acclaim seem out of sync with her paycheck. (She was nominated for Hugo Awards—arguably the top literary honor for science fiction in the U.S.—in 2010 and 2011. She won Hugos in 2016, 2017, and 2018, becoming the first African American woman to win the award.)
So has #PublishingPaidMe revealed an inequity the industry needs to address? PW reached out to dozens of literary agents, authors, and editors to ask. While all the editors contacted declined to respond, many agents and authors were willing to speak on the condition of anonymity and had differing views on whether there’s a problem and how dire it is.
“I think [the hashtag] started a good conversation,” said one literary agent of color. But the complexities of publishing deals, the agent added, make it difficult to prove what many in the industry believe to be true: that authors of color are paid less than their white counterparts. “I think authors of color have less of a chance of getting acquired, and less of a chance of getting a favorable advance. But it’s hard to draw conclusions without all the data, and that’s what concerns me.”
Data, in an opaque industry like publishing, is hard to come by. There is precious little of it available on the number of books the major houses publish, the number of copies of each book they sell, or what they pay for each book.
Yes, there are some numbers. BookScan, for example, tracks roughly 80% of print sales. But it does not comprehensively track digital sales and is only accessible to publishers who pay for the service.
Arguably, the most elusive data in publishing relates to advances. Corporate gag rules and personal preferences keep these numbers largely hidden. Most major publishers have company policies that bar employees from discussing advances, and authors (either out of embarrassment at paltry sums or fear of inciting jealousy at larger ones) are often loath to discuss them.
Onyebuchi hopes #PublishingPaidMe spurs publishers to share more data. He admitted that comparing advances is an imperfect way to expose imbalances in the way authors are treated, but he feels it is the quickest and easiest route into a conversation about the issue. “It’s a specific number,” he noted, “and it encapsulates, basically, the bet a publisher is willing to make on an author.” If publishers consistently make smaller bets on specific types of authors, it’s likely because they assume those authors are less desirable and marketable.
To compel publishers to provide more data, Onyebuchi has started a group called the Transparency Project—made up of people in publishing and tangential to it—that is working to create a “best practices” report based on the information he’s collected through the hashtag. “This is an opportunity to hold publishers accountable,” he said.
Of course, not everyone agrees that more transparency will change anything. And some sources said that because publishing is an inequitable system by nature and authors are underpaid across the board, it’s hard to push the case that one group is treated unfairly.
“I do not get astronomic offers on most of my white authors’ books,” said one white literary agent. “But I would be shocked if Black writers whose books are powerful and find a real audience are not treated with great respect and paid very handsomely.”
Another white agent said the industry’s interest in publishing books by authors of color has increased dramatically. “It’s been getting better since Trump got elected,” he noted. “Ten years ago, people would say to me, ‘Black people don’t buy books.’ ”
And another white agent, when asked if #PublishingPaidMe proved that authors of color are paid less than white authors, said, “I think it’s very difficult to suggest generalizations about advances period. There is so much variability, and there are so many other factors to look at [in publishing deals].”
But Black authors and literary agents of color said these types of comments—that all authors are underpaid, that the advance is only one element in a book deal, that publishing isn’t as racist as it was five, 10, or 15 years ago—are a big part of the problem. And intentionally or not, they cover up systemic racism that makes it harder for Black authors to overcome the same hurdles that white authors face. Some authors and agents of color said that responses like these are similar to the evocation of the phrase “all lives matter” as a retort to the Black Live Matter slogan and campaign.
Dhonielle Clayton, a Black author and the cofounder of the packaging firm Cake Literary, has been an outspoken critic of the industry’s failings on the issue of diversity. “I truly believe we are underpaid and discounted,” she said when asked what she thinks of #PublishingPaidMe. She believes the industry has a penchant for touting the handful of successful authors of color it publishes in an attempt to cover up systemic racism. “It works like any system that churns on white supremacy: you anoint one or two [bestselling Black authors] and say you’ve solved the problem.”
Another author of color, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that, in addition to having to accept lower advances, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) authors have to deal with the fact that their work is often marginalized. She said that the prevailing approach at the major houses is, “We have our Black fantasy author, or we have our East Asian author, so we’re set.” This author added that the industry sees authors of color as having a more limited reach than white authors and that she’s repeatedly heard from publishers that authors of color “don’t do well in foreign markets, or film and television.”
Onyebuchi, Clayton, and numerous other sources, all people of color, also pointed to intractable issues that follow from lower advances. A lower advance leads to a smaller marketing budget. A smaller marketing budget gives a book less of a chance to succeed. If it then fails, the failure is held up as proof that books by authors of color can’t find a market. Perhaps most insidiously, what the numbers on advances don’t show, all of these sources noted, is how many books by authors of color never make it past the most important hurdle: getting acquired.
“In publishing, decisions are made on how ‘mainstream’ editors consider a book to be,” said one agent of color. “There are no scientific ways decisions are made. And in publishing, mainstream means white.” She added that because the majority of the industry is white—with white people composing 76% of the workforce, according to Lee & Low’s 2019 Baseline Diversity Survey—“whenever they are assessing the saleability of a book by an author of color, they think it’s less mainstream, or has a smaller audience, or is more niche.”
This agent, like almost all of the people of color interviewed for this story, said more transparency from publishers would benefit authors of color. The industry, she noted, “thrives on a lack of transparency, and not sharing information,” and if publishers were required to “actually explain why they’re paying what they’re paying, it would be really good in encouraging them to reflect on their own process.”
Another agent of color said #PublishingPaidMe was particularly deflating because it laid bare what she has known about the industry for decades. She added that the problem goes beyond Black authors, as some of her projects that have been rejected were later acquired when submitted by white agents. “I think there needs to be a wholesale discussion about how advances are established from author to author,” she explained. “One of the things my colleagues and I have been talking about is for publishers to keep records of advances paid to people of color, and then report it.” She added that authors’ names need not be included in such a report, to keep their advances private.
“The conversation on advances feels like the tip of the iceberg to me, in terms of systemic racism within the industry,” said one white agent. “To add to that, publishers seem to fall back on the fact that they don’t know how to market to certain communities of color, yet with a few notable exceptions, they keep following the same formula for publicity and marketing. Oftentimes they comp books by BIPOC authors to other books by BIPOC authors, almost positioning the books for a niche audience.”
So is there any hope that publishers might audit themselves and offer numbers showing what almost all sources interviewed say is likely true—that they are publishing fewer books by people of color, and paying them less, on average, than their white counterparts? So far, two Big Five Publishers—Hachette Book Group and Penguin Random House—have publicly committed to an audit that will help them determine the number of titles they publish by people of color. (The announcements came after employees across the industry staged a walkout, early last month, calling for the industry to collectively address racism within its ranks.) Macmillan, when contacted about the topic, also said that it had started a title audit five months ago. But what these audits will track, and who will have access to their results, remains to be seen.
Some sources remain skeptical about the possibility of change. One agent of color said it’s unlikely that publishers will ever lift the veil on their business practices in any meaningful or helpful way. “When it comes time to take action and make change, it requires spending money and making people uncomfortable,” she explained. “And most people in the business don’t want to do that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story did not include the fact that Macmillan had begun a title audit.