Just How White Is the Book Industry?

This content has been archived. It may no longer be relevant

From The New York Times:

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah had just turned 26 when he got the call in 2017 that Mariner Books wanted to publish his short-story collection, “Friday Black.”
Mr. Adjei-Brenyah suspected that the contract he signed — a $10,000 advance for “Friday Black” and $40,000 for an unfinished second book — wasn’t ideal. But his father had cancer and the money provided a modicum of security.

Mr. Adjei-Brenyah’s uneasiness over his book deal became more acute last summer. Using the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, writers had begun to share their advances on Twitter with the goal of exposing racial pay disparities in publishing. Some white authors disclosed that they had been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their debut books.

. . . .

Mr. Adjei-Brenyah wanted to share his contract. But he knew that doing so could make his publisher look bad and hurt his career. “It’s scary when it’s your life,” he said.

. . . .

As #PublishingPaidMe spread online, more than a thousand people in the publishing industry signed up for a day of action to support the Black community.
Publishing executives responded by releasing statements expressing support for racial justice, announcing antiracism training and promising to put out more books by writers of color. If they follow through, last summer’s activism could diversify the range of voices that American readers encounter for years to come.

. . . .

How many current authors are people of color? As far as we could tell, that data didn’t exist.

So we set out to collect it. First, we gathered a list of English-language fiction books published between 1950 and 2018. 

. . . .

We also constrained our search to books released by some of the most prolific publishing houses during the period of our analysis: Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Doubleday (a major publisher before it merged with Random House in 1998), HarperCollins and Macmillan. After all that we were left with a dataset containing 8,004 books, written by 4,010 authors.

To identify those authors’ races and ethnicities, we worked alongside three research assistants, reading through biographies, interviews and social media posts. Each author was reviewed independently by two researchers. If the team couldn’t come to an agreement about an author’s race, or there simply wasn’t enough information to feel confident, we omitted those authors’ books from our analysis. By the end, we had identified the race or ethnicity of 3,471 authors.

We guessed that most of the authors would be white, but we were shocked by the extent of the inequality once we analyzed the data. Of the 7,124 books for which we identified the author’s race, 95 percent were written by white people.

Author diversity at major publishing houses has increased in recent years, but white writers still dominate. Non-Hispanic white people account for 60 percent of the U.S. population; in 2018, they wrote 89 percent of the books in our sample.

. . . .

This broad imbalance is likely linked to the people who work in publishing. The heads of the “big five” publishing houses (soon, perhaps, to become the “big four”) are white. So are 85 percent of the people who acquire and edit books, according to a 2019 survey.

“There’s a correlation between the number of people of color who work in publishing and the number of books that are published by authors of color,” said Tracy Sherrod, the editorial director of Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins that is focused on Black literature.

That correlation is visible in our data, exemplified by Toni Morrison’s career as an editor at Random House from 1967 to 1983. Random House’s first female Black editor, Ms. Morrison championed writers such as Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas and Gayl Jones. During her tenure, 3.3 percent of the 806 books published by Random House in our data were written by Black authors.

The number of Black authors dropped sharply at Random House after Ms. Morrison left. Of the 512 books published by Random House between 1984 and 1990 in our data, just two were written by Black authors: Ms. Morrison’s “Beloved” (through Knopf, which was owned by Random House) and “Sarah Phillips,” by Andrea Lee.

. . . .

In 1967, the same year that Ms. Morrison joined Random House, Marie Dutton Brown started as an intern at Doubleday and eventually rose to the rank of senior editor. Now a literary agent, Ms. Brown said that she witnessed how ephemeral gains for Black writers can be.

“Black life and Black culture are rediscovered every 10 to 15 years,” said Ms. Brown. “Publishing reflects that.”

. . . .

Ms. Brown attributed the fluctuation in publishers’ support for Black writers to the news cycle, which periodically directs the nation’s attention to acts of brutality against Black people. Publishers’ interest in amplifying Black voices wanes as media coverage peters out because “many white editors are not exposed to Black life beyond the headlines,” Ms. Brown said.

The lack of diversity among authors might be obscured by a small number of high-profile nonfiction books written by athletes, celebrities and politicians of color, according to Ms. Brown. “It gives the appearance that there are a lot of Black books published,” while publishers’ less famous “mid-list” authors are overwhelmingly white, she said.

. . . .

Look at the books that appeared on The New York Times’s best-seller list for fiction, though, and a different picture emerges: Only 22 of the 220 books on the list this year were written by people of color.

L.L. McKinney, an author of young-adult novels who started the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag, wasn’t surprised by the statistics on how few Black authors have been published relative to white authors.

“I’ve heard things like, ‘We already have our Black girl book for the year,’” said Ms. McKinney. She also remembered comments suggesting books wouldn’t sell well if they had a Black person on the cover.

In a 1950 essay titled “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” Zora Neale Hurston identified the chicken-or-egg dilemma at the heart of publishers’ conservatism. White people, she wrote, cannot conceive of Black people outside of racial stereotypes. And because publishers want to sell books, they publish stories that conform to those stereotypes, reinforcing white readers’ expectations and appetites.

“It’s amusing to me when publishers say that they follow the market,” said Ms. McKinney. “They’re doing it because of tradition. And the tradition is racism.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

For those visitors to TPV from outside the United States, as indicated, this story is from The New York Times, in the Opinion section.

Every major US publisher is located in New York City. The number of management personnel in Big Publishing that read a newspaper other than The New York Times on a regular basis could likely be counted on one hand.

The New York Times Best-Seller list is regarded as the gold standard by traditional publishing rates a book’s performance regardless of how much the NYT bestsellers diverge from Amazon bestseller lists.

Speaking of Amazon, the next time a traditionally-published author or agent talks about Amazon ruining the book business, some might be tempted to say that the New York book business deserves to be ruined.

PG has mentioned previously that the major US publishers are all owned by large international media conglomerates. PG was going to spend some time checking to see if he could determine whether the top management or boards of directors of those conglomerates included anyone other than purely white individuals, but realized that it would be a waste of time because he already knew the answer to that question.

24 thoughts on “Just How White Is the Book Industry?”

  1. White people, she wrote, cannot conceive of Black people outside of racial stereotypes.

    How can she possible know that. She’s not white.

    • Maybe it’s a black person’s racial stereotype? Or hers anyway, we should not assume it to be a general belief of Black people. In fact maybe we could even start to think of people as individuals instead of assigning them to a racial grouping?

      As for the OP, I’ve not read the whole article – the NYT wanted me to log in to read it – and I don’t particularly doubt its statistics, but the number of books in their samples seem to be remarkably low for the number of years covered. Indeed the whole period seems far too long to say very much about what is happening in recent years.

      As for the complaints about advances – which is yesterdays news anyway – compared to the advances that the majority of authors are getting those quoted do not sound low to me. Plus, unless the book is never going to earn out – meaning the author was overpaid – this is just a matter of timing and any race based investigations should be looking for disparities in royalty rates.

      • The numbers are low, probably because they didn’t look at genre titles or even midlist.
        (Random House only published 500 books between ’84 and ’90? Yeah, right.)
        In 2017 alone, the randy Penguin put out over 15,000 books.
        In 2013, the US published 305,000 books and digitization was barely started. Looking just at Trade Books there were over 100k of those. So the numbers don’t hold water.

        There’s also the matter of the hidden assumptions, like that every segment of society puts out the same kinds of books targetted at the same audiences.

        The sampling methodology doesn’t pass muster.

        • You’ve fleshed out the methodological problems my comment hinted at. It leaves my wondering whether I should question my gut feeling that the conclusions are not unreasonable: that publishers (in the UK as well as the USA) tending to put out books by “people like us”, which in context meant White. Genre writers would not, of course, be “people like us” in some respects, but could still be “White people we can feel superior to” and who will make us money.

          • Glass tower traditional publishing does have a problem but it’s not the problem the OP pretends to demonstrate.
            It’s a problem of class, not of race specifically.

            Tradpub’s acquisition managers’ criteria is whether or not *they* know how to sell a book. If it is “the same but different” as a big seller or if it comes from the third cousin of one of their fraternity/sorority friends, then it gets a big advance and lots of payola support. If they pick it up as a slot filler, it might get a listing in a trade publication.

            It’s not that they look down on any specific race; it’s that they look down on everybody outside their social circle of Ivy League/OxCam graduates. And tbat includes the entrepreneurial rich and melanin-deficient as much as the working poor. Equal opportunity condescension.

            As to the OP’s numbers, my best guess is the books they tallied are solely non-commercial fiction. No genre allowed.

            • Bingo. I have been saying for years that the great American disease is to pretend that issues of class are actually issues of race.

              • The only people who don’t know this arethose that don’t want to know it. It’s just like the pretense that there’s only three classes instead of seven. (Or more,by now.)

              • Well. if you look at the foundation document of the concept of White Privilege, Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” it is very clear that this – white and highly privileged – woman was totally unable to distinguish between the benefits accruing from her skin colour and those from her wealth and class: almost all the contents of her knapsack are advantages due to wealth.

                What I am not sure of is whether you should be speaking of classism or wealthism? In Victorian England or Gilded Age New York only old money had class – and in the UK sometimes had class even though very little money remained – but are these days not gone?

                • I see it as a class issue because the issues are as much cultural as economic.

                  The failing of traditional liberalism to address the “race issue” is precisely because it refuses to address the cultural aspects among those it seeks to “help”.

                  Money solves nothing for any group of any race.

                  Look up the history of terms like “oreo”, “banana”, etc, or “Uncle Tom”, “acting white”, the impact of single parent families and “player culture”, the continuing denial of back on black violence. And above all, the refusal to accept that the principles of mainstream culture (study, work hard, self-reliance, plan for the future) are mainstream because they work and attempts to void them are never going to succeed at anytging but making a few politicians rich.

                  Racism is real but it’s not the answer to everything. Making it the handy-dandy answer to everything is counterproductive and eventually self-destructive. (Do the activists even understand they are actually asking for “separate but equal”?)

                  And as for “white privilege” look to the masses of poor whites and see how “privileged” they really are.

                • The class of people whose parents finished high school, got jobs, and married before having children has an overwhelming advantage over those without such parents. Add bonus points for the peope whose parents remained married until the kids were grown.

                  And following that path also gives a huge advantage to the parents themselves. This path is available to everyone regardless of color, sex, or pigmentation.

                • Alas, that is on paper.
                  The reality the pols and activists wish to paper over is that different demographics have up to 75% single parent households and are three generations deep without involved fathers and living off the dole.
                  During the 90’s “full employment” boom it was discovered that the bottom 3% of the work force is literally unemployable. They weren’t born that way.
                  Not new info, but it is easier to cry wolf than try to address 50 years of counterproductive policies.

  2. Of course tradpub are white, black ink on white paper… Sorry, I couldn’t resist the joke.

    Seriously, $10,000 advance for a first book sounds generous to me, as it’s more than the going rate for SF genre first books. But what do I know?

    • Not just SF.
      Today’s tradpub advances these days barely hit 4- figures for anybody but proven top sellers.

    • Beyond that, most folks don’t seem to get that this is an ADVANCE on anticipated sales. It’s not like you get the advance and then continue to make oodles of bucks off of sales. Until you earn out your advance, you have to make due with what they gave you. Many books don’t earn out their advance, and like Felix said, unless you’re a proven seller with some cache, you’re not going to get the top advance figures, no matter what you look like. Publishers, for all their wokeness(or supposed racism in this case), are not going to lose money just to be seen as socially aware.

      • Exactly.
        Advances are effectively payday loans.
        And the reason they’re getting smaller is they’re sized to make sure the publisher makes a profit during the launch window even if the book doesn’t earn out.
        Which by their own words, 90% don’t.
        It’s all about the money, which mostly comes from genre; no genre, no Manhattan glass towers.

        • The “90% don’t earn out” is a lie. It is based upon equal-per-title marketing, overhead, and (partially) fulfillment “budgeting” that then gets hard-coded against the title upon publication.

          Consider, for example, S&S right now. Do you really, really think that Kwame Newauthor’s “share” of this year’s non-title-specific marketing budget, overhead (including rent on that NYC skyscraper), anticipated express shipping, etc., etc., etc. is equal to the same items for Stephen King?

          But that’s what the cost-sales projections (also, and inaccurately but widely, called profit-loss sheets) say. That’s what becomes hardcoded in the asset-depreciation schedules used for tax reporting on the day Kwame’s book is published <sarcasm> and we know that if it’s in the tax records it must be true and irrefutable, right? </sarcasm> And more to the point, that’s what this entire meme is based upon.

          Back in the mid-oughts, I broke down all of these numbers for one NYC commercial publisher in preparation for Fun Litigation. (Don’t bother looking for it — I was an “outside consultant” and the matter settled confidentially. There aren’t any public footprints.) Looking at the records that publisher provided its bank when seeking revolving operating fund approval, and reverse-engineering those numbers based on my knowledge of generally how they’re arrived at (from having been in-house), demonstrated that for a noncelebrity first book the publisher’s breakeven would be around 65-70% of the advance. That is, the publisher is in the black but for the accounting chicanery when sales of the book would have resulted in a royalty payment equal to 65-70% of the advance, if no advance had actually been paid. Since, in this low-interest environment, the time-value of money remains relatively similar for several years after publication, that should tell you all you need to know about the credibility of any claim that “90% don’t earn back the full advance therefore are losing money.”

          • I said they make a profit even if the book doesn’t earn out the advance and that they say 90% don’t. I didn’t say I believed them.

            Thanks for detailing their breed of hollywood accounting.

  3. My initial reaction to reading the article was that the “research” they presented is a classic example of “Survivorship Bias”. When the author explained how they went about selecting books / authors for their research, and concentrated solely on the racial make up of those books that were published, they clearly demonstrated their flawed logic.

    Survivorship Bias illustrates a bias toward those that succeed, in this case, those authors that actually had their books published. The end result is meaningless if not based on how many attempted to be published.

    The article posits, “How many current authors are people of color? As far as we could tell, that data didn’t exist.” Well, in my opinion, the more appropriate question to ask would be, “how many people of color have tried to get their work published, and what percentage have succeeded / failed?” This same question could be asked for white people.

    Only focusing on the successes, clearly overlooks the larger picture. Is it possible that every person of color that attempts to get published succeeds? The answer is certainly no, not quite. but at the same time, perhaps the answer is 50% of all people of color that try to get published succeed. Now, is it possible that every white person that attempts to get published succeeds? The answer is again, certainly not quite. But what are the success rates of white people to get published?

    I have never liked the idea of concentrating on race, for any reason at all. However, I think a more appropriate question would be, does that success / failure rate hold consistent among all racial categories? I believe once you can honestly answer that question, then, and only then, can we explore the reasons why there is, or is not, any disparity in the numbers.

    Your thoughts?

    • You are correct in that there is no telling the ratios of submissions vs acceptance by ethnicity.
      And it is a near certainty that the ratios of submissions per capita by ethnicity are *not* identical.
      Those numbers do not exist but a good proxy can be found in college admissions and graduations for STEM professions, which require a similar passion for the fields as creative writing. And those numbers do exist.


      They are not pretty despite decades of attempts to entice minorities into STEM.

      My personal experience in trying to recruit urban minorities for *paid* high school internships was total failure. By that age the die is cast. The educational system needs to be reconfigured from an earlier age, before it beats the sense of wonder out of kids. After several years I opted out of tbe volunteer project. Those that followed were no more successful. Mind you, there were ample candidates for the opportunities–of all ethnicities– just not the urban residents.

      There are similar numbers for big city library usage: those that would most benefit from using them, don’t.

    • How do publishers or consumers know the race of an author? There are certainly some ways, but what percentage of authors present the necessary data?

  4. I have more than a few nits to pick with the article… which, ironically, betrays the same problem through its own publisher as it is implicitly diagnosing in commercial publishing. In no particular order (but numbered for ease of reference if anyone wants to deal with a particular point later):

    (1) Race and class are inextricably intertwined in American history… for bizarre values of “race” and “class.” They are not, however, congruent, and the outliers can really distort perceptions. There’s also the “marrying into” problem which is most apparent among those whose names are not at the forefront; consider one of the spouses of the controlling shareholder of the corporation that owns HarperCollins, for example. That the preceding statement is that elliptical is rather the point.

    Until some time in the mid-1980s, “race” was so close to a proxy for “not upper class” that the conversation remained reasonably on-point when they got interchanged. Those in my generation have that as a blind spot: That’s our experience, and so we think that’s the way things are now. Except, perhaps, for those of us who went to those Ivy-League-grade schools as undergraduates and actually mingled with the non-White upper classes… in my case, in a city undergoing forced busing.* (Not forced bussing, fortunately, although “sexual harassment” wasn’t in the vocabulary at the time!)

    So this is an awareness-of-current-circumstances problem that is exacerbated by the elderliness (although they’re still spry!) of the Sulzberger family, and its influence on the makeup of the NYT editorial board and structure. It’s actually worse — much worse — over at Sauron’s WSJ and at PW. Seriously: Please identify a non-white individual on the PW masthead who isn’t there due to sales-and-marketing stuff.

    tl;dr version: Fox, meet henhouse.

    (2) There’s also a strong regionalism/old money component to this problem. In most of the rest of the country (well, except for San Francisco, which in so many ways is Boston-on-the-Left-Coast — Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? was and remains an all-too-accurate reflection of the reality of personal belief; and I say that having lived there for a while), it’s just fine to be nouveacu riche, to have earned or at least obtained one’s wealth by a means other than marrying it or inheriting it. East of the Hudson, though, there remains substantial social suspicion of the first-generation upper class in the arts; they’ll take the money, but grant any influence? Never! <sarcasm> One simply must have some decades-long connection to the movers and shakers in the worlds of the arts to be allowed any influence, dahling! </sarcasm>

    And if you still don’t think this has an effect on who works in publishing, ask yourself this: Who can afford to be start out as an unpaid or poverty-level-paid Editorial Assistant at NYC prices?

    (3) Further proof that it’s inherited-wealth-presumptions behind things: The royalty-payment schedule. What single source of income payments has historically paid semiannually in the United States… and who could, let alone did, own that source, and how much spare cash lying around did it take to own that source?

    OK, I’ll save you a trip to paper records not ordinarily available in public libraries outside of top-25-population areas (and locked down due to the pandemic right now anyway). The answer is “corporate and utility bonds,” owned by the upper classes… in round lots with face values of (on average) five years of poverty-level income since the 1880s. (The numbers, etc. are complicated.) And typically, these were owned in more than minimum lots from more than one issuer… and kept for thirty years at a time (the ordinary maturity), then rolled over into the next issue from the same company.

    So what this means is that the payment schedule that American publishing has imposed on authors for over a century implies and presumes that the authors are sufficiently like the upper classes to tolerate an “income schedule” just like that of the upper classes. That they owned their dwellings free and clear, with no monthly mortgage payments. That they needed to pay for coal to heat those dwellings in October or November every year (does the actual payment date for those semiannual payments begin to become more understandable?), and any income tax payments six months after that (remember, historically — since the permanent income tax became lawful about a century ago — passive income like the rich have hasn’t had withholding, not until the late 1980s). Even the scheduling of PBS beg-a-thons begins to become understandable… as does the choice of 01 October for the beginning of the federal fiscal year.

    This is not determinative. It influenced choices made, though. And continues to influence choices made. (So does the pre-Green-Revolution harvest cycle, which is why our elections are in early November.)

    (4) Perhaps most egregiously, the OP is flat wrong on what “publishing” is. Consider, for example, the location of the book-publishing arm of the WSJ (hint: it ain’t NYC). Consider, for example, where most textbooks and non-textbook academic/scientific/engineering/other professional books have been centered for at least 90 years (hint: it ain’t NYC). Consider, for example, what proportion of book publishing consists of trade books (depending on exactly how one counts and whether one is measuring units or dollars, between 20 and 25%). Consider, for example, where the largest publisher of nonperiodical material has been located since 1937 (hint: it’s between the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, not between the Hudson and East, and we all “own” it — the Government Printing Office). This is the egocentrism of the Manhattan echobox at work; damn the facts, full speed ahead!

    But the ownership and management of much of non-trade publishing has not historically been of the same social class as the ownership and management of trade publishing (especially considering the marrying/inheriting wealth division), and therefore hasn’t been taken seriously when it takes time away from actually publishing to bloviate on publishing culture. Draw your own conclusion…

    * I was “on scholarship,” but that’s a long and largely irrelevant story indeed. Let’s just say that a good friend’s father allowed a couple dozen of us to attend World Series games in his private box while the father was out of town… and that wasn’t that unusual, as we saw another group of friends doing the same thing in a different box. I hate baseball, but the hockey season hadn’t started up yet and I plead stir-crazy.

    • The evolution and diversification of social classes in the US over the past 70 years is a seriously underreported phenomenon. By the time the body public catches on (10 years, maybe. Probably longer.) it will be too late to protect what class mobility remains.

      Pretty soon it won’t be the snotty old money types living and dying by classism.

  5. Aren’t publishing deals brought to the publisher by literary agents? If this were a real problem, wouldn’t said literary agents be sounding the alarm? Or, are the literary agents to blame for not bringing more books to publisher by people of color?

    My sarcasm is weak, but I also find this: “To identify those authors’ races and ethnicities…) something many of those targeted authors would find offensive.

Comments are closed.