Do book consumers discriminate against Black, female, or young authors?

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From PLOS1:

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 [89] 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.

21 thoughts on “Do book consumers discriminate against Black, female, or young authors?”

  1. Who is the guy here who says ‘headline is a question, answer is no?’ I’m channeling him.

    If you aren’t hunting for the info, or the author/publisher isn’t marketing based on … let’s say, non-writing characteristics… all you know is the book, the blurb and word of mouth, or whatever brought the book to your attention. There’s no way to discriminate other than taste and good luck changing the taste of readers to what you’d rather they read.

  2. I’m sitting here looking at this and I either I have no words or I have too many. Consumers naturally discriminate because consumes *choose*. Careful and selective purchasers are often praised as being “discriminating consumers.” The answer to the headline is not “no”, but is in fact “yes, and so what’s it to you.”

    Given this screed from two professors from city college of new york, if I won’t buy someones book I am being “discriminatory” and am in the wrong, and something must be done about my behavior. It is to laugh.

    Bonus points – visit the OP and click on each authors name.

    • But people are reading the wrong books and we must do something about it …

      To be serious for a second, I admit that I do discriminate when buying romance titles: I don’t buy books by men. Not that I’ve got anything against male writers of romance, but I assume that – absent a female pen name – they are either ignorant of or reject the rules of the genre. I also don’t buy MM romances – just one of the many genres that don’t interest me – so I may be (inadvertently) discriminating against LGBT+ authors (though the authors mostly use female names and I’ve no idea of their sexual orientation, so maybe I don’t – or is the discrimination in not wanting to read the books?)

      My default position is that authors write fiction and that we should expect that this will extend to the name they write under, their author biography and indeed any picture they might release. I assume that I really know nothing about the authors of the books I’m buying, and I rather hope that the “male” authors being selected by the “old men” in your quotation are actually getting women in disguise.

    • The simple answer is I do discriminate.

      I discriminate on price,
      I discriminate based on the past behaviour of the author.
      I discriminate based on the previous books published by that author.
      I discriminate based on the previous books published by the publisher,(overlaps with price).
      I discriminate based of the culture of the author, if your trying to write to a certain authentic culture. I am probably not part of that culture and will probably not decide to put in the effort to mentally translate it into Australian English

      But if your talking about tradpub the first hurdle they need to clear is the publisher not the consumer.

  3. As it happens, if you go to the article, you’ll find that the answer the authors found is actually “no, consumers don’t discriminate on the basis of age, race, or sex,” though the authors spend enough time caveating that conclusion that one almost gets the sense that it was one they didn’t want to reach.

  4. 1- How would you know? Do book buyers tell B&M cashiers why tbey didn’t buy XYZ book? Do they leave reviews on Amazon?

    2- One of the talking points of diversity peddlers is that it is important for content (books, movies, tv, etc) to reflect the ethnicity of the population. Tosee characters and stories tbat look like them. Fine and dandy. But if ethnicity is to be the basis for content consumption, then minority content will always be minority. (Think BET or UNIVISION viewership.) Because two thirds of tbe population isn’t one of the desigated ethnicities to be protected and if tbey too buy content that fits their ethnicity then they won’t be buying minority content. That argument runs both ways, after all.

    In fact, right now there is a lot of handwringing over the (very) low viewership of DISNEY’S latest streaming show. By far the lowest of any of tbeir Marvel efforts to date.

    Two problems:

    First the character (a fairly recent and obscure one by comics standards) as *promoted* in the trailers is nothing like the shape-shifter in the comics (more like a bargain basement teenaged girl GREEN LANTERN, in fact. And DC already has one such and yes, she too is a minority.)

    Second, all the promotion is around the fact tbat the character is Marvel’s first muslim hero to get their own series (comics or tv). And in fact, the series, to date, leans heavy on pakistani-american customs and terms. A lot of people tuning in will find themselves watching obscure (to them) stuff that goes unexplained for most of tbe first episode. By all reports, those same people are just passing on the show. In the meantime, the people making the show do belong to the muslim american community are preening all over about how they finally have a Marvel character that “speaks” to them. Which is great for them but not for the folks the show doesn’t speak to.

    Now, demographics being irrefutable, the outcome is tiny viewership. Made even smaller by the video version bearing no resemblance to the (actually pretty good) comics version. And yet, they wonder why nobody is watching…

    Economics is a harsh discipline and if you actually want to make money in business you have to go where the money is. I expect the show will do fine in Pakistan. Maybe. If Pakistani antiamericanism doesn’t get in the way.

    • If it is anything like the comic (which I have only seen when it was up for a Hugo) – the majority of Pakistanis won’t like it, either. The “heroine” would have already been turned in to the authorities for her immorality – running all over town, at night, and without the accompaniment of a related male?!?

      (If it is the same one. I could be mistaken, there, but it still would definitely not “speak” to the sensibilities of a mainstream Muslim.)

        • By contrast the licensed video game storytellers did a good job of capturing the comics character.

          And her powers are natural, not from a magical bangle.

          A recent report I found had total viewers after two weeks at 750K, less than half of HAWKEYE. Also less than a typical CW show.

        • Good riddance, then. As I’ve remarked before: Have you ever seen what does actually, literally, play/get published “in Peoria”? Antebellum Charleston† would have been viewed as unduly tolerant.

          No one city/area/region should be allowed to set “acceptability” for the nation. Just ask Harry Reems…

          † “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum” — James L. Petigru, then a Senator from and formerly a Governor of that state

          • Demographic profiling has long used towns in the midwest as the baseline of what entertainment content will be most *profitable*. They can’t use NYC because its long been known tht NYC is in no way representative of anything but NYC. Ditto for California and Texas.


            Peoria itself stopped being the baseline in the 50’s and by the 80’s it was Dayton. Haven’t heard if that is still true but I expect it still is somewhere in Ohio, contrary to what many think. (Again, look at TOP GUN MAVERICK and its box and demographics. Hollywood is.)

            Just consider that Disney Marvel shows cost nine figures (about as much as their lightshow blockbuster movies) each season (regardless of episode count) which is a lot of money to bet on a demographic that runs low single figures of the 330M in the US and the 100M subscribers of Disney Plus.

            Disney gets a lot of flack for tbeir lowest common denominator programming but those budgets aren’t supportable by anything less.

  5. Case in point:

    Mystery and thriller novels are the store’s biggest sellers, and despite the mutual success of bestselling authors such as James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell, The Book Rack organizes the section by gender.

    “A lot of older men will not read books written by women authors and will specifically say ‘I don’t want a woman author,'” Escobedo said.

    • If somebody says, “I want a black author,” would that be another case in point?

      How about, I want a woman author?

  6. I discriminate based on what I like. How is that wrong?

    If I see a book with an intriguing title, I’ll pick it up and read either the back cover or inside the cover.
    If I like what I read, I’ll open to a random page and start reading.
    If I like what I read, I’ll pick up the book (hardcore library patron here w/o a lot of disposable income) and take it home.

    Granted, there are certain genres that I will not read, and romance is one that I just recently dipped my toes in, and in my opinion, all of the ones that I’ve read so far have been written by
    people who are decidedly non-Caucasian and are decidedly better writers.

  7. “Antiracism” is a discriminatory idealogy that enshrines blacks and other minorities as perpetual victims and non-blacks/non-minorities as perpetual oppressors, a viewpoint so abhorrent to me that I refuse to purchase or read books (whatever the subject) written by antiracist advocates. I guess that makes me bigoted, but no more so than those advocates.

    • To a large extent a lot of businesses are responding to the noise in the media. Thinking that reflects the new normal.
      That may or not be true but the market isn’t living up to their expectations.
      In video in particular the biggest audiences are going to products that conform to the old paradigms.
      For 2022 the biggest grossing film is and likely will remain TOP GUN; MAVERICK which is coasting with massive viewership in theaters and attendance demographics that actually match the census. And it is unabashedly an 80’s action flick.

      Likewise the only new Star Trek series to come even close to the success of ENTERPRISE is also structured along old school lines. The old models survived as long as they did because they worked. And for all that Trek always leaned liberal and anticapitalist (laughably so at times) it always was story first, second, and last. Politicking and sledgehammer “deconstruction” was never a part of the mythos.

      By contrast Disney’s franchises have frittered away their brand loyalty in service to “changing society”. Which is showing its interest in their “message” by voting with their feet. And their wallet.

      Tenured academics can afford to spend their time promoting ideology without impacting their paychecks but in for-profit businesses you make your money by giving the market something it willingly pays for. And no amount of griping over discrimination is going to force people to pay for stuff they don’t want.

      There really is a limited market for narratives rehashing over and over the same themes of coming of age in a closet or living in an evil “patriarchal” society. In contrast to, say, a tough guy action thriller, a romcom, or a police procedural which sell by the million without having to browbeat the masses, who by and large buy their entertainment to leave behind the ugliness and pain of the outside world.

      If what you want is money you’ll find it peddling escapism in any of its myriad forms, not proselytizing dubious political theories.

    • We hear over and over that more densely pigmented authors are paid lower than the less densely pigmented. So, the pigmented want more money. But the problem is their pay is tied to what consumers buy, and expectations of what consumers buy. If consumers buy their books, they get paid more.

      But, what if consumers don’t buy their books? Then they don’t get as much money. Their solution is to get as much as they can in the advance. Then sales don’t matter.

      If consumers don’t like a book, they aren’t going to buy it to level the literary pigmentation index. Nobody really cares enough. Money talks, virtue walks. Write a book consumers like.

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