How to Close the Racial Pay Gap in Publishing

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From Publishers Weekly:

As an immigrant woman of color, I wouldn’t have considered negotiating my author advance (and, indeed, didn’t in 2015, when I pitched my first book without an agent). Five years later, when I went through an auction for my second book, I was lucky to have an agent represent me. But as I reflect on the process—and talk to white author peers with similar professional backgrounds as mine—I imagine that having a young woman of color represent me could also have led me to receive a lower offer than my white peers. Many of my white peers could—and did—take years off to write their books, funded by their advances alone. I wrote my manuscript in the depths of the pandemic, while managing an out-of-school three-year-old and continuing to work on my business full-time to pay the bills.

I’ve dedicated my life to creating inclusive workplaces, so facing bias and exclusion in my own career feels particularly painful. It’s no secret that the publishing industry is very white: 85% of acquisitions editors are white and nearly 90% of books published are by white authors, according to a 2020 New York Times piece. Author advances are opaque, and publishing expert Maris Kreizman says deals are made on “mostly a gut feeling.”

How much of a gut feeling? Well, in June 2020, the viral social media campaign #PublishingPaidMe revealed just how inequitable author advances can be.

L.L. McKinney, a Black woman, urged other authors to share the sizes of their advances. The results revealed staggering disparities between the advances offered for debut books by women of color authors and those by white authors.

Two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, a Black woman, tweeted she had to “wrestle” her way to a $100,000 advance after winning awards. By contrast, Chip Cheek, a white man, tweeted he received an $800,000 advance for his debut.

Advances in publishing illustrate how, like in any industry, those who are given more money are expected to perform better; they’re given the resources to succeed. These advances reflect what sort of authors publishers think are “worth” taking chances on.

. . . .

  1. We urgently need more transparency about how author advances are decided. What are the metrics used to make these decisions? What if each publisher could create a range of how they’ve paid authors in the past and use this matrix (or update it) for future decisions? This would greatly help every author of color—and their agents—come in on equal footing and advocate based on a shared understanding of how decisions are made.
  2. Each publisher must perform a regular review, using demographic data (on race and gender at the very least, and as much other data as is available), of authors acquired and the advances paid. The data doesn’t lie, and as many of my corporate clients have found, even well-meaning organizations that believe themselves to be progressive are shocked to see the racial disparities when comparing the data. It is only when more acquisitions editors face up to the existing challenges that they can meaningfully make progress.
  3. Removing negotiations altogether would create more equity. When there’s transparency in numbers, there is a better shot at bias being removed from the equation. Don’t believe me? A study in the corporate sector found hiring managers were likely to offer Black candidates lower starting salaries if they felt they were negotiating too hard. As a woman of color, I’m often expected to be grateful for what I’m offered and have been penalized for asking for more. Negotiation as a practice favors those who are already (over)represented in the industry and workforce.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Yet more evidence that traditional publishing is a racist, sexist mire that all decent people should avoid like the plague or toxic effluent or pimples or Covid.

11 thoughts on “How to Close the Racial Pay Gap in Publishing”

    • This is actually my question. To be honest, I thought the OP was going to be about the staff at the publishing companies, because they would actually be seen before being hired.

      The tradpub authors I knew said they didn’t submit photos until after their books were ready to go to print, when the publisher was deciding whether to include their photos on the jackets of their books. One black author said her publisher decided to put her picture on the book jacket because they thought she was attractive. In response, a white author chortled that his lack of attractiveness may be why his publisher had him photographed with half his face hidden by a book he’s reading in the photo.

      Perhaps publishers and literary agents are now behaving similar to acting or modeling agencies, where clients have to submit a headshot? Before Kindle came along, I’d read about publishers wanting authors to have a marketing plan and other stuff you’d think the marketing teams would handle instead of the author.

      So, maybe publishers want authors to submit social media links before agreeing to publish them? All along I’ve been assuming that commercial viability or a strong marketing hook was the factor in advances, absent the money laundering schemes Writing Observer mentions above.

      It would be cool if publishers did reveal their metrics for advances, though. Even indies may get some use out of that.

    • Darren, it’s all too often much uglier than that.

      They assume. And they do (as a group) look for signs that “reveal” ethnicity — a quick search for a social-media page, a name that is “obviously” one that would only be from a given background (“Jiro Watanabe,” “Ahmed Almajehdin,” and “Cristina Rosa del Canto” are all suggestive). So does an author mentioning that he/she/they went to an HBCU or a yeshiva. You can guess the assumptions that will be made about a “male name” whose cover letter is on lilac-scented stationery… or, these days, whose signature block includes a rainbow icon.

      None of these are definitive, of course, but the quick lazy assumption is the default. (Even an overt statement isn’t definitive; remember Rachel Dolezal?) It’s particularly pernicious in publishing, but far from unique to publishing or the entertainment industry. It’s a very human thing, and almost a reflex. I have less-than-fond memories from the 1980s of some officers meeting newcomers and lookng for the academy ring and the “right kind” of wings or specialty badge to make an initial judgment on competence. And immediately dismissing any female officer as an obvious second-rater who got there only due to quotas.

  1. Methinks PG was too gentle, and genteel, in his evaluation of the power structures and predispositions of commercial publishing. But then… I know them.

    And I must disagree with one aspect of Writing Observer’s comment; it was a “hard-nosed and smart business decision about the relative expected sales” if — and only if — one also presumes nontailored, “traditional” sales efforts and the complete absence of any media engagement or rights sales to make matters more interesting. That presumption is, in my understanding, entirely correct as to these two books; but it need not be.

      • Consider the poor white author who got the same advance as LL McKinney. He didn’t get that advance because of race. I wonder whatever could be the reason.

        • Or the typical tradpub advance to any author, whatever their chromosomes. Knock at least one zero off, more likely two.

          Of course, six figures is peanuts compared to the campaign contributions advances paid to politicians.

  2. If I’m looking at the right things – the one and only novel by Chip Cheek, and the second novel by Jesmyn Ward – they are two very different things.

    While Ward’s dramatic novel about a family in the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina is undoubtedly better literature and socially valuable than Cheek’s soft-bordering-on-hard porn – this would actually be a hard nosed and smart business decision about the relative expected sales.

    My verdict on the publisher’s decision process here would be “large reasonable doubt, defendant is innocent of -ism.”

  3. And, yet again, the problem is less “publishers are racist” and more “a lower percentage of black people are independently wealthy than white people.”

    About the only actually meaningful reform here is the first one, and that wouldn’t just help “authors of color”–it would help authors, period. Naturally, it’s going to be the one that publishers will never adopt. The second is window dressing, and the third is going to redound to the publishers’ benefit. Naturally, those will be the ones that publishers will go with.

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