The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 called attention to systemic racism in American society. In the #PublishingPaidMe protest on Twitter, authors shared the amount of their advances and in so doing revealed the pay discrimination for Black authors, who tend to receive lower advances on their books than their White counterparts. Close scrutiny of the industry highlighted its whiteness, not only in terms of authors and who receives recognition but also in terms of editors and decision-makers . These trends have deep historical roots, but little if anything had previously been accomplished in addressing these trends in recent years . However, following the BLM protests and #PublishingPaidMe, over a thousand people in the publishing industry signed up for a day of action to support Black authors, and publishers made statements of support for racial justice, announced antiracism workforce training, and pledged to publish more books by writers of color . These conversations in publishing echo ongoing discussions about gender inequality in the industry, which similarly point to disparities in who gets published, who gets reviewed in prestigious outlets, and how much authors are paid for their work (see for example the annual VIDA counts and their publications ). Despite the attention these conversations got alongside #MeToo, particularly in 2018, it is unclear that these conversations have spurred any meaningful or lasting change.
An historic cultural gatekeeper, publishing has become increasingly profit-focused . While editors purportedly used to call the shots based on taste and cultural importance, acquisition decisions and investments in particular book projects have increasingly become the purview of marketing departments. Decisions about advances, advertising budgets, and other decisions about book production and distribution are based on expectations of a book’s or an author’s performance in the market. Such organizational logics have historically been used to justify the lower pay and book prices for women compared to men. However, publishers have also played an active role in creating and cultivating markets and crafting their expectations about book pricing, as in the structure of the female dominated romance market which focuses on mass market production of inexpensive books by women for women. In attempts to diversify the racial and ethnic diversity of their offerings, publishers have tended to create specific and typically niche imprints for these works. Perhaps publishers have thus created their own self-fulfilling prophecies about anticipated performance and market behavior by marketing to specific and limited audiences and by making investment choices that both signal a lower investment in these works and give them less opportunity for discovery by a broader public.
However, publishers, for all of their shortcomings, are not the only potential source of discrimination in the book industry. With the closing of brick-and-mortar chains and independent bookstores as well as the shift in the product offerings within these venues, traditional publishing has become increasingly platform-based in its sales. Etailers like Amazon dominate the sales market both for digital and physical books. Unlike brick and mortar stores which have limited shelf space, online retailers can carry an almost unlimited number of titles. Whether those titles come from traditional publishers or from self-published authors, also known as “indie authors”, the etailers’ platform algorithms play a dominant role in product visibility. To the extent that these ranking and visibility algorithms incorporate consumer ratings and purchases, these algorithms may also be influenced by consumers’ discriminatory behavior and preferences. Yet consumer ratings are currently exempt from regulation and protection against discrimination [8, 9] and immune to publishers’ antiracist institutional practices. Moreover, to the extent that publishers use these ratings and algorithmic visibility in decision-making about which authors to publish in the future and how much to invest in their titles, such external evaluations provide a ready way to “launder” discrimination.
We further see the potential for discrimination from sources other than publishers when we consider the case of indie (self) publishing. Indie publishing has removed the gatekeeping and curation function played by publishers. An example of the gig economy or platform-based economy, indie publishing enables authors to market directly to consumers without the mediation of a publisher. On the one hand, this arrangement has the potential to remove the unconscious biases and prejudices of publishers that contribute to systemic racism or sexism in their acquisitions, production, distribution, and promotion of their catalogs. On the other hand, the consumer-facing gig economy offers no protections to authors from the potential discrimination by consumers and the potential ripple effect of that discrimination in the rating and visibility of their titles. Thus, the gig economy may prove more egalitarian given the removal of barriers to entering the market, but it may also heighten discrimination in ways that exacerbate inequality.
In short, in order to understand discrimination in the book industry, we must consider not only the behavior of publishers but also the behavior and preferences of consumers. This study uses a large-scale, randomized field experiment of over nine thousand subjects to examine the effects of author race, alongside gender and age, on consumers’ stated interest in a given book, their evaluation of an author’s credentials, and the prices consumers report they are willing to pay for books in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres.
Link to the rest at PLOS1 and thanks to P. for the tip.
PG says if lots of book sales are important to you (nothing wrong with that), but you think your race/gender/age may impair your book sales, pen names and massaged or manufactured biographies have a long history of use in the book world.
Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss, George Orwell, George Eliot, Richard Bachman, J.K. Rowling, Robert Galbraith, J.D. Robb, E L James, Lemony Snicket, Victoria Lucas, Flora Fairfield and A.M. Barnard were/are pen names used by very successful authors for one reason or another.
An accompanying author’s bio can also be sufficiently vague to not disclose race/gender/age:
“Pen Name attended Princeton University and currently lives and writes in South Florida with a dog and two neurotic parakeets.”
As to the question about the biases of traditional publishers, PG says if you decide to run with a bad crowd, you’ll just have to deal with the consequences.