#PublishingPaidMe Hashtag Exposes Racist Practices in Publishing
By Lauren Hutton
In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests erupting globally after the police murder of George Floyd, many individuals are turning to books by Black authors to not only learn more about systemic racism and the realities of Black experiences but also to support Black authors. What is disappointing, but not surprising, to learn is that supporting Black authors isn’t as simple as buying their books — they have been undervalued by the publishing industry long before their words reach your shelves. Publishing is a notoriously white-washed industry: white executives hire white editors, agents, and marketers who buy and promote books by white authors to tell stories relatable to white audiences. According to a major survey by Multicultural children’s publisher Lee & Low Books in 2019, the publishing sector was 76 percent white. Aside from this refusal to promote and support Black voices within the industry itself, accepted books from Black authors are often paid far lower advances — a long known truth quantitatively proven with this week’s popular #PublishingPaidMe hashtag.
On June 6, urban fantasy author L.L. Mckinney created the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag to highlight the disparity between what Black and white authors are paid for their book advances. She encouraged white and Black authors to Tweet the advances for their debut novels or entire publishing history. Over the past few days, hundreds of authors have tweeted their advances, including the likes of Roxane Gay and V.E. Schwab. When comparing authors with similarly popular books in the same genres, the difference in advance size is glaring. For instance, white author Laura Sebastian published her earnings for two fantasy trilogies and a standalone novel. Each book in the Ash Princess trilogy earned her $185 thousand, and each book in the Castles in Their Bones trilogy earned her $200 thousand. Her fantasy standalone also received an advance of $125 thousand. Black Science fiction and fantasy author N.K. Jemisin earned just $40 thousand per book in her Inheritance trilogy, $25 thousand per book in her Dreamblood trilogy, and $25 thousand per book in her Broken Earth Trilogy. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy won the Hugo Award, an annual literary award for the best science fiction or fantasy work, three years in a row — the only trilogy to win back-to-back awards for each book in a trilogy in the award’s 65-year history. Despite her reputation and established record in book sales, Jemisin’s advances were dwarfed by first-time author Sebastian’s. In the words of young adult author Karen Strong, “non Black writers with no previous writing credits get paid substantially more than Black writers who are critically acclaimed.” These figures support Strong’s claim, but they are just one example in a wider-scale and undeniable trend.
An advance is what publishers pay authors before a book is finished, as opposed to royalties which reflect an amount of money the author receives for each copy of their book sold. That part’s important; the differences between these figures don’t reflect a difference in the success of a given novel, they reflect a difference in expectation and support from the publishers. Many authors complain the resulting success of a given book is also rigged, claiming white authors are supported more in the marketing phase of publishing. With increased resources devoted to marketing white stories, they may well do better than unsupported books with less funding devoted to their marketing campaigns. As young adult author Lamar Giles said, “Books sell more when they’re promoted. So if, say, you don’t think Black books sell, why might that be?”
Jemisin also addressed how demographics play into book marketability in a Twitter thread earlier this week. One element she claims publishers examine when deciding how much to offer an author in an advance is “how much [that author] literally resembles other popular authors in the field,” which allows for the perpetuation of already supported white authors to echo in new generations of supposedly similar white authors. The point of this thread was to expose how Black authors routinely end up low-balled on advances: it’s not necessarily an active choice to discriminate against authors of color, but a series of decisions that work against Black authors’ success. Jemisin went on to cite “what are [that author’s] characters going to look like on the book cover, and who’ll buy a book with that character on it,” as a place where publishers see Black authors as a hindrance to successful sales. Writer Lola Adesione reiterated this point in an opinion piece for The Guardian, stating that she has been “privy to a few conversations involving author friends who have recounted their battles with major publishing houses who refuse to put images of black people or to use overtly black references on the cover of their books, particularly if it's a book that they want to be a mainstream success.” What is perhaps most disappointing, however, is that these decisions not to market to Black readers aren’t based in fact.
In arguing about the importance of the hashtag in exposing “system issues in publishing that Black people face,” McKinney cited how black women and girls are a significant reading demographic in the U.S. despite Black authors being “frequently told that no wants ‘wants’ to read their books and they don’t sell well.” According to a 2019 survey, 65 percent of Black folks had read a book in the last 12 months and, according to The Atlantic, the most likely person to read a book overall is a college-educated Black woman. A study conducted by Pew Research also noted that “The difference between black and white readers isn't large enough to be statistically significant.” Given that data, having Black characters on book covers and Black authors at public events should speak to one of the biggest demographics of readers, but publishers seem to systematically ignore those statistics. Clearly, the dialogue surrounding potential readership and marketability is coming from a place of ignorance on publishers' part; and given that their job is to know what will sell and who reads, this ignorance reads a lot like racism.
There are definitely exceptions to the rule and there are some white authors using the hashtag who received relatively low advances from major publishers and there were Black authors who received high advances. Author of “The Hate U Give” Angie Thomas Tweeted that she wouldn’t be sharing her numbers because she is “the exception, not the rule,” and emphasized that “the rules have to change.” The number one rule currently seems to state that a Black author should automatically be paid a lower advance than a white author, regardless of genre, history, awards, following, etc. Award-winning romance writer Alyssa Cole summed up her takeaway from the hashtag: “Publishers clearly have the funds to pay Black authors more money, so they should pay Black authors more money.”
Brazilian content strategist Bruna Miranda and illustrator Grace P. Fong have since created spreadsheets, now merged into one, where authors can contribute their numbers and race anonymously so as to potentially protect them from backlash from publishers. While this data collection serves an important role, it also speaks to a system of silencing. Authors are scared of posting their numbers for fear of industry backlash or severing ties with publishers. Some are also up against nondisclosure agreements which work to enforce this ambiguity surrounding payouts, effectively making speaking out illegal. Black authors, in particular, are scared to lose their shockingly low numbers to no numbers at all if the publishing industry discriminates against them further, thus making it difficult to do anything other than simply accept unjust advances. Jemisin Tweeted, “There are risks that white authors can take, that BIPOC and especially black authors sometimes can’t.” However, if enough authors, particularly white authors, expose the industry biases for what they are, publishing will truly have to change the rules rather than letting a few controversial players get kicked out of a rigged game.
As readers continue to look for books by Black authors to educate themselves and appreciate Black stories, consider books from the following Black-owned publishers who not only support authors of color but who also play an essential role in diversifying publishing at large.