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Comping White

28 January 2019

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

On November 9, Publishers Weeklybroke the news that the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white — 86 percent white, to be exact.

Every year, Publishers Weekly (PW) releases its annual Salary Survey. Since 1994, the Survey has been circulated among industry professionals, who are asked to respond to demographic and opinion-based questions about their experience in publishing. True to its name, the Salary Survey reports on trends in compensation, wage gaps, and promotions. Since 2014, the Survey has focused on one particular problem: the staggering lack of diversity in the ranks of New York houses. The numbers are bleak, and suggest little change.

2014: 89 percent white
2015: 89 percent white
2016: 88 percent white
2017: 87 percent white
2018: 86 percent white

To their credit, PW acknowledges that the problem of representation in the workplace is also a literary problem. PW explained the connection in 2014: “The dearth of minority employees directly affects the types of books that are published, industry members agreed, and for this issue to be addressed, there needs to be more advocates for books involving people of color throughout the business.” Quite right. Yet, the problem is far more complicated, and far more entrenched, than the PW Salary Survey suggests. To be sure, these numbers are bad. But they are only one part of a large, institutional problem — a by-product of an industry that is discriminatory by design.

People of color are not only underrepresented on the payroll of publishing houses; they’re underrepresented throughout the literary world. And while the fact of their discrimination has been accepted anecdotally, it has yet to be thoroughly accounted for. In 2012, Roxane Gay responded to the annual VIDA “count” of Women in Media in an essay called “Where Things Stand”, arguing, “Race often gets lost in the gender conversation as if it’s an issue we’ll get to later. I’ve wondered about where race fits into the conversation and who will take up that issue with the same zeal VIDA has approached gender.” To date, no group or individual has taken up her challenge.

. . . .

At the Stanford University Literary Lab, we use computational methods to study literary history on a large scale. I’m also writing a book that considers how the business practices of the Big Five have shaped contemporary fiction. All this is to say: The question of counting, and who counts, in literature is an important one to me.

. . . .

One editor explained, “You get into the type of author that somebody is, and the type of audience that they’re reaching more than you do content. And that is very voice-driven. […] There’s a limited number of readers for a book like that, and you kind of know who they are and what books those people are responding to.” The writer’s identity — their voice — matters significantly to editors because it needs to align with a particular audience. Comps are proof of that author-audience alignment.

And if there’s no comp to be found? If a book hasn’t ever “worked” because it hasn’t ever happened? If the target audience for a book isn’t considered big or significant enough to warrant the investment? “If you can’t find any comps,” one editor explained, grimacing, “It’s not a good sign.” While intended to be an instructive description (“this book is like that book”), some editors suggested that comps have become prescriptive (“this book should be like that book”) and restrictive (“…or we can’t publish it”).

. . . .

Comps perpetuate the status quo, creating a rigid process of acquisition without much room for individual choice or advocacy. One problem with the PW Salary Survey is the tacit assumption that People = Publications. If there were more people of color working behind the scenes, the thinking goes, then there would be more books by and about people of color published. But this assumption reduces a systemic problem to an individual problem. It assumes that “minority employees,” or, more broadly, “advocates for books involving people of color” might simply choose to acquire, market, and sell more diverse books. And, quite simply, acquisitions don’t work this way. The system, more than any individual, reinforces discrimination.

Comp title data don’t show us the output of this system — they show us the system itself. Comps are the books that most frequently influence editors’ decisions about what to acquire, the books to which new titles are often compared, the books whose effects the industry longs to reproduce. In other words, comps are evidence of what the publishing industry values.

It turns out the industry values whiteness.

From 2013 to 2019, publishers identified 31,876 comps — about three comp titles for every new title published. I wanted to know which comps get cited most frequently (and, by extension, communicate high value), so I winnowed the list of 30,000-plus comp titles down to the top 50 most frequently used comps. Because many books have been cited as comps the same number of times, this list is actually comprised of 225 titles. I then worked with my undergraduate research assistant, Jonathan Morales, to research the race of each of the authors whose books are listed here.

The majority of these comps — these books used to justify decisions about who gets published — have been written by white authors. Nine books by people of color appear on this list, including N. K. Jemisin’s A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, We the Animals by Justin Torres, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Just nine out of 225 books.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG notes that KDP doesn’t care about comps.

Big Publishing

43 Comments to “Comping White”

  1. No one reading my books seems to care about my Hispanic cred, either! Which is fine, because neither do I. 🙂

    • The only thing I really wanted to know about you was: did you ever drink kumiss? What was the occasion? 🙂

      • I haven’t, no! But it’s on my bucket list. 😀

        • It’s on mine, too, thanks to you 😀

          • If you get to it before I do, tell me what it’s like! 😀

            • Tell all of us, please.

              I treat things like this the same way that I treat “adventures.” Much better to read about exciting things happening to other people as far away from myself as possible.

              • I understand! Kumiss fits into the type of adventure I’m willing to have. I don’t eat sushi — no raw fish or meat for me — and I won’t eat carnivorous animals — not willing to risk cannibalism by proxy if they’ve eaten people — but wine made out of something fairly innocuous I would try. The taste/appearance are sensory details that could add flavor if I ever have a Genghis Khan-type of character 🙂

    • I now feel guilty that I’ve never read the About the Author bit at the back of your books (or have forgotten it) so I didn’t even realise you had Hispanic cred for me not to care about. Still I did know that you are a woman, though I’m not sure how I came by this knowledge.

      Now I want to know why your bucket list includes drinking kumiss. Asian nomad’s fermented mare’s or camel’s milk doesn’t seem to relate to a Hispanic ethnicity.

      • I am 100% bonafide Hispanic, through Cuba to Spain. (And thanks to Cuba, I am also 13% Native American and Nigerian… there’s a local saying that everyone has a little ‘black and crazy’ in them, and apparently I am not exempt, lol).

        Anyway, the kumiss is because I wrote a book on a planet full of horse-breeders and they drink horse alcohol, naturally. I read a lot about what it’s supposed to taste like, but I never managed to get any. 😀

  2. “If you keep on doing what you always did, you’ll keep on getting what you always got.”

    Corporate publishing is handcuffed by their institutional culture and processes. There’s dozens of theoretical changes they could easily do–changing recruiting practices alone would solve half their “concerns”–but the very concept of change isn’t part of their culture. They are what they are and they aren’t going to change themselves.

    • changing recruiting practices alone would solve half their “concerns”

      Correct. But they’re not going to. Mediabistro.com is a very NYC-centric job board for media professionals. You can see the tradpub want-ads there. The pay range they offer for editors means a middle class lifestyle is right out … unless you come from money or have married into it. The unpaid internships, same thing. You better already be in NYC; otherwise, you better have money.

      Tradpub recruits a very narrow slice of white women to begin with: the poor Ozark girl Jennifer Lawrence played in “Winter’s Bone” would be facing an uphill battle, both ways, in the snow, if she aimed for those positions. But I never got the impression that they (tradpub) believe that people outside their bubble can walk and chew gum at the same time, so I don’t see them casting a wider net** any time soon.

      **If they’re not trying to solve the “problem,” then it’s not a problem. It’s just a topic of conversation. I award them no woke points, and may God have mercy on their souls 😉

      • They’re not trying to fix the real problem because they don’t see it as a problem. They see nothing wrong in keeping on doing the same thing while still expecting a different outcome. 🙂

        • Do we have any reason to think they expect a different outcome? I doubt they care about these concerns.

          Anyone know how KDP breaks down by race, sex, gender, age, pigmentation, ethnicity, sexual preference, weight, height, hair color, religion, health, politics, education, ancestors native language, cleanliness, speech cadence, or trousers crease?

        • I agree with Terrence here. It’s somebody at PW that cares.

          • They’re all part of the same monoculture.

            • Also, don’t forget that there’s a difference between the top level execs and their overseas overlords and the low level grunts drinking the establishment Kool-aid.

              The big guys only care about the quarterlies but at least some of the grunts actually buy the whole “guardians of culture” narrative. After all, why else would they put up with the low pay (if any) and the regular pink slip drills.

              Some of them might even be honestly concerned about “diversity”. Stranger things have happened.

              Tunnel vision takes many forms.

  3. Am I mistaken, but IIRC the large majority of editors etc are white women. Or am I missing something here? If employees equated to authors then surely most writer would be white women.

    Or perhaps what is sold is what sells? But if so then surely romance is the most purchased genre, which again IIRC is mostly written by women.

    I’m confused. Well not really. It seems to me that people who want to write will, and those who want to read will buy.

    • You’re asking liberals to be Progressives 🙂

      I’ve read interviews before where those women say the same thing time in and again. They will find a great book by a woman or a POC and their boss, usually a man, will say “NO” I don’t want to read that.

      He isn’t saying that because he’s white or a man, I’d like to point out. He’s saying it because he’s an idiot. Idiocy is the least racist, sexist thing in the world. It hits everyone equally.

      • W should be able to test that by looking at periods where large publishing firms were run by women.

    • It’s a bit subtler than just “what is sold is what sells”.
      Rewind things a bit and you get to “what is sold is what is published”. And in their world what gets published is what *they* think will sell. So you get a self-fulfilling prophesy where as they themselves say:

      “You get into the type of author that somebody is, and the type of audience that they’re reaching more than you do content.”

      The story itself doesn’t much matter to them.
      They just care about whether it will sell fast enough to look good in the quarterlies.

      Their mantra is “Just like so-and-so but different”. They won’t publish what is truly different. Too much risk in going off the beaten path so they stick to “known good” tropes. Once in a while, somebody takes a small risk and gets a big payoff and opens a new path that everybody rushes to trample over.

      (Think of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, which was notable in fanfic circles before a small press bet on it and already succeeding before Random House bought it.)

      Before something can sell, it has to be available for purchase. And in the old days it was the risk-adverse establishment that decided what was available.

      Which is where Indie books come into play.
      The establishment still uses the old guidelines but Indies don’t. Indies tell whatever story they want to tell, for whatever reason they might have. They can stay within the old paths or boldly go where none have gone before, just to see who, if anybody, likes it.

      The final decision now rests with the consumer not the acquisitions editor.

      • The establishment still uses the old guidelines but Indies don’t. Indies tell whatever story they want to tell, for whatever reason they might have.

        Independents can indeed tell whatever story they want. But do we have much reason to think they have departed much from the path publishers have taken?

        Suppose we took the 100 top selling independent books of 2018, and the top 100 from the Big Five. Mix them up, strip off author names and publisher. Print them on the same plain white paper.

        Could we sort them by Independent and Big Five? Could we easily see the mark of independents stamped on cutting edge stories the Big Five avoids?

        Do independents really offer something different, or just more of the same cheaper?

        Or do we find the independent cutting edge stuff way down the sales list because they cater to a niche? And if it is just a niche, then that’s also a pretty good reason why the Big Five don’t want them. Don’t sell enough.

        • It depends on where you look.

          If you look carefully you’ll find Indies doing Superhero fantasies by the dozen, where the establishment used to do maybe one per decade. You’ll find a huge explosion of erotica. You’ll find tons of urban black litfic.

          And even in the mainstream you’ll find stories that go places the establishment wouldn’t necessarily approve. And author releases on schedules no tradpub would allow.

          Sure, a lot of Indie output is rereleased tradpub, occasionally restored to author specs as “autgor preferred editions” or with butchering undone. But that comes from tradpub refugees. It’s early in the game. Give it time for Indies to discover what the lack of gatekeepers really means.

          Freedom is a subtle thing.

          • It depends on where you look.

            If we look at publishers, it’s perfectly reasonable that they don’t publish low-selling niche books when they can publish moderately-selling stuff we have seen forever.

            Any niche author can write for any group he wants, and make his book available to zillions of people all over the world.

            The market has evolved and provided opportunity. However, every outlet doesn’t provide every opportunity. Collectively, they do.

            These complaints all follow the same pattern. They want someone else to invest their money to further sales of some author’s book. Nobody has that obligation.

            • You assume without evidence that if publishers are not doing X, it must be a niche market that is not sufficiently profitable for them. Usually they are not doing X because nobody else in their narrow circle is doing X, they consider it uncool, and wouldn’t be caught dead doing the market research necessary to find out if it would be profitable. (Not only is X uncool, so is the concept of market research per se. You, Sir, continually impute competence to an industry that stubbornly refuses to find out any useful information about what its customers buy and why.)

  4. “You get into the type of author that somebody is, and the type of audience that they’re reaching more than you do content. And that is very voice-driven. […] There’s a limited number of readers for a book like that, and you kind of know who they are and what books those people are responding to.”

    That’s because the only books written by minorities are teh books about the PAIN and SUFFERING caused by white people to the minorities, you know, instead of actual books.

    Two words that invalidate your entire argument.


    A movie with a mostly black cast that has nothing to do with the PAIN of being black. It’s just a movie. 1 billion dollars at the box office tells me that maybe the audience isn’t as limited as some might think.

    • Over the last few years I’ve read quite a few complaints by minority authors – mostly women IIRC – that publishers would not let them write (or anyway would not buy their books) unless that adhered to the downtrodden and mistreated trope. Quite often they ended up writing about white characters simply because this is what they could sell without having to write in a genre they disliked.

      I wish I could quote example but they are randomly scattered across the web and not easily tracked down (plus I’m a bit lazy).

      • This is not a new complaint. Back in the 90s, a lot of black authors (men and women) simply indie published because they kept running into that kind of editor. I saw it come up in interviews in Essence and Ebony and so on. I avoided the “downtrodden and mistreated” trope as a reader; I’d much rather read Sweet Valley High and Kinsey Millhone — is it weird that I read both at the same time?

        That’s why Amazon’s KDP / CreateSpace is so wonderful: no one has to care about getting through the thick skulls of the comatose “woke” editors any more. You want to write about a girl who solves mysteries, and the story is about the mystery, and not being “downtrodden” because she’s black? Go for it! It’s wonderful.

        • is it weird that I read both at the same time?

          This was probably a rhetorical question but I’ll answer anyway and say, not to me. They are both writing in at least somewhat associated genres so why should it be weird when it’s quite normal to read multiple genres?

          Of course, there could be something in your background to make it weird but we’d only know this if you choose to tell us (and it would be impolite for us to ask). To me Jamie is first and foremost an adolescent white male Scottish Dr Who companion though I’ve got it into my mind that you are not actually adolescent, Scottish or male (haven’t thought and don’t care about skin colour).

          • Oh, I just meant weird in terms of:

            1) Sweet Valley High is a YA series about the adventures of a pair of 16-year-old twin girls in a bucolic California town,

            2) Kinsey is an adult series about the dark underbelly of life that leads to murders.

            I was reading both in middle school, but they don’t technically go together 🙂 But then, I’m waiting for a marketing team that notices that a person who watches “When Calls the Heart” and “Dark Matter” might actually exist in the same body 🙂 What ad “persona” do they come up with to target such a person? The ones I usually hear about tend to think it’s one or the other.

    • Uh, the core motivation of KILLMONGER in BLACK PANTHER is the pain and suffering of minorities the world over and his fury that Wakanda had the power to ameliorate it and did nothing.

      Add in the premise that without “colonialist” intervention, african peoples would have themselves a near utopia and it’s not all that different from other ethnically-focused fantasies. It’s just this one had Disney behind it; slick and glossy with top-notch CGI and good actors.

      Same trope, though.

      (BTW, note that the person who actually stopped Killmonger’s planes was the white dude.)

      • Here’s the thing, though–Killmonger is the villain. That changes things a bit.

        • He is the primary driver of the story, though.
          More than villain he is antagonist. Notice how the movie starts and how the movie ends.
          He may be “dead” but he did change the status quo so he didn’t totally fail.
          It’s a good story but the tropes are the same old ones the establishment is comfortable with. The “bad” radical failed and the “good” incrementalist won.

          Same as with XMEN: Magneto loses and Xavier wins. And very little changes.

      • Add in the premise that without “colonialist” intervention, african peoples would have themselves a near utopia and it’s not all that different from other ethnically-focused fantasies.

        I always chuckle at that part, since Ethiopia is such a shining example.

        • I have no trouble with fantasies that stay in fantasyland, like BLACK PANTHER.

          But when people try to peddle fantasy as fact–like the BLACK ATHENA scam of the 90’s and the conflation of ancient Egypt with Nubia–it gets more than a bit annoying. The truth about the ancient realms is more amazing than the eternal victimhood myth.

  5. As a reader I want to read a good story. I don’t care to be told that the writer feels their people suffered/are suffering. I don’t care their beliefs, it’s not what I picked up/downloaded the book for.

    The book’s characters can have those problems if it has something to do with the story itself, something they’ve dug their way out of / something they’re fighting / the reason they’re about to do something, but there has to be a ‘reason’ the story brings these things up.

    An interesting title or cover has made me ‘check out’ many a book, never has the name (unless it was one I already knew I liked) nor a back picture as I seldom get that far.

    If someone thinks they’re being ‘rejected’ because of their sex or color I suggest they send it in under a pen name and see what happens.

    Or just set it up on Amazon and the like and see if it sells. If it does indeed sell not only can you prove the agents/publishers wrong, but you will make more that you would have through them.

    • This was what gave me pause hearing N.K. Jemisin’s acceptance speech for her Hugo. She spoke angrily about “rejected projects” and the openly stated reason for their rejection was race. She mentioned no other factor.

      Not quality. Only race. What non-POC writer hasn’t been rejected at least once? Does that have to do with their skin color? Could she not at least pay lip service to the possibility that the project in question wasn’t publication-ready?

      • Ah, but simple bad writing doesn’t send the message they want sent. “We are being ignored/abused by white males in publishing!” Ignores the oh-so minor fact that many a white male has gotten their share of rejection slips from publishers too.

        Which is why I like ebooks and Amazon, the only rejection I need to fear is from my readers if I get too crazy – or too late on my next offering (which my other system is chugging through my latest cover idea. 😉 )

        I would suggest those that think of themselves as downtrodden package and sell their wares on Amazon and the like, but I know they won’t because if they did and their amazing offerings didn’t sell they’d have no one else but themselves to blame …

      • Her writing is so uninspired and just OK, that the only possible reason she could have for winning is the color of her skin. I don’t know why people are okay with that. I wouldn’t be.

        • “I don’t know why people are okay with that. I wouldn’t be.”

          Which is why most of us ignore the Hugo and the rest of it, they no longer have anything to do about the writing but are all about signalling.

          Which might be why she’s still so upset. All she won was the equivalent of a ‘Special Olympics’ award that no one else actually cares about. Publishers still won’t beat a path to her door.

  6. Most in publishing, particularly those in editorial, are paid little, are brutally overworked, and are the first to go when financial belts are tightened. Why would any sane person of any color put up with that when they can get better jobs? I’ve always thought that the lack of minorities in publishing showed how smart most are to avoid these jobs. They also avoided the nonsense spouted by liberal colleges that publishing is a noble profession about the “arts.”

    • Qualified whites take low-paying jobs. Qualified blacks take higher-paying jobs.
      Follow the money.

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