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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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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.