clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Black authors are on all the bestseller lists right now. But publishing doesn’t pay them enough.

A social media campaign shows whose stories publishers value — and whose they’re willing to pay for.

Stacks of new books in a bookstore with the sign “Best books” above them.
The Best Books promotional table at Books-a-Million.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

From June 14 through June 20, black publishers and authors are urging readers to buy books by black authors under the social media hashtag #BlackoutBestsellerList. The goal is for black authors to take over the bestseller lists and show off their industry clout. And it comes at a moment in which it is clearer than ever how central black authors and other authors of color are to American publishing, and how systemically undervalued they are.

Even without the #BlackoutBestsellerList campaign, the bestseller lists are pretty Blacked Out. Last week, all 10 slots on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list were taken up by titles about anti-racism, most of them by black authors. The fiction list was topped by The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, who is black. And industry tracker NPD BookScan reports that political science civil rights titles saw a sales jump of 330 percent from the week of May 17 to the week of May 23, while books about discrimination saw a sales jump of 245 percent in the same time.

So it’s clear that in the wake of the George Floyd protests, Americans are overwhelmingly turning to books by black authors. But another recent social media action showed that black authors don’t always receive support from publishers that matches the appetite readers are showing for their work.

Close to 1,500 publishing industry workers declared June 8 a day of action for publishing. In a now-inaccessible Google Doc addressed to the CEOs of the so-called Big Five trade publishers, they issued a statement pledging to donate their salaries for the day to organizations that work for justice for black people, and they called on the industry to reform.

“We want more books by Black authors,” the document said. “Too often, the books acquired from Black authors are ‘trauma stories.’ There are other stories that Black authors want to tell and we want publishing to amplify narratives that don’t rest on the trauma of living in a Black body. We want more Black coworkers and more Black coworkers in leadership positions. The voices of junior staff, often more diverse than senior staff, are too easily excluded from decision-making processes.”

Meanwhile, as publishing staffers asked the industry to reform from within, authors were already using social media to demand reform from without. On June 6, the YA author L.L. McKinney, who is black, started the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, calling for authors to transparently share the advances they received for their books. And the numbers immediately began to clarify things.

“We expected there to be disparities,” McKinney said over the phone to Vox. “We did not expect them to be as wide as they were.”

What the #PublishingPaidMe campaign showed is that publishing’s systemic biases spread all the way down to the numbers. These biases affect which books publishers choose to invest in, and that, in turn, affects which books end up succeeding. And while black authors have always known the biases were there, #PublishingPaidMe showed just how dramatic their effects could be.

“Y’all been doing us wrong, but y’all doing us real wrong. Okay.”

McKinney says she started the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag without a plan. She was looking at the responses to a tweet by her fellow black YA author Tochi Onyebuchi, who was suggesting that white authors should reveal their advances publicly in the name of industry transparency. “You’ve got to get ready to have some real uncomfortable convos about how much you’ve been paid for your books,” Onyebuchi wrote.

“People were responding to it like, ‘Yeah, I’m down, I’m ready, let’s do this,’ but for a few days, nobody actually put any numbers up. So I got annoyed!” McKinney says. “Finally I’m like, “Do you guys need a hashtag? #PublishingPaidMe! There you go!”

McKinney says she and her peers had thought for a while that the industry needed to reckon with the way it treats black authors. “What they’re paid. What the marketing is. How their books are treated. How one black book not reaching its parameters casts a shadow on all black books and all black authors, and that’s not the same for our white counterparts.”

She says she always knew there was a gap between what she made and what her white peers made. She just needed the numbers to prove it.

The disparity #PublishingPaidMe documented is indeed shockingly widespread. The hashtag is not the same thing as a database — although it has generated an anonymous spreadsheet where authors are documenting their advances — and it’s not comprehensive. But enough successful black authors and enough less-well-known white authors participated to make the industry’s trend lines clear.

The trend shows that beloved black authors with well-established fanbases earn comparatively small advances that grow only slowly and over time. Virtually unknown white authors, meanwhile, report getting astronomical advances on debut novels, with no track record to speak of.

Jesmyn Ward, who is black and also the first woman ever to win two National Book Awards for fiction, tweeted that after she won her first National Book Award in 2011, she had to “wrestle” her way to a $100,000 advance. N.K. Jemisin, who is black and the only person ever to win three Hugo Awards in a row for her Broken Earth trilogy, got an advance of $25,000 for each volume in the series. Her follow-up trilogy, Great Cities, netted her an advance of $60,000 per volume.

#PublishingPaidMe an $800k advance for my debut, which changed my life. I’m still in shock about it,” tweeted Chip Cheek, a white man and the author of 2019’s Cape May. “But I’m more shocked to see the numbers from writers of color like the extraordinary Jesmyn Ward. I hope this movement begins to change things.”

“I, a totally unknown white woman with one viral article, got an advance that was more than double what Roxane Gay got for her highest advance,” noted the creative writing professor Mandy Len Catron. Catron says she got a $400,000 advance for her book How to Fall in Love with Anyone. Gay, whose 2013 essay collection Bad Feminist went as viral as any essay collection can, tweeted that she received $150,000 for her forthcoming book The Year I Learned Everything. For Bad Feminist itself she received $15,000.

What the PublishingPaidMe campaign shows is that when publishers decide to give authors splashy six-figure advances on their debut novels, they give those advances to white authors. Black authors and other authors of color, meanwhile, must slowly and painfully work their way up to those levels over a long, long time.

This campaign comes after a series of controversies earlier in the year about how publishers seem to consistently pay white authors more for their stories than they do authors of color. In January, a scandal developed around the border-crossing novel American Dirt, whose white author received a seven-figure advance. In February, a similar scandal developed around the debut novel My Dark Vanessa, which earned its white author a seven-figure advance while a memoir on a similar topic by a Latina author was shunted to a small press with a minimal budget.

“I only know one writer of color who got a six-figure advance and that was in the ’90s,” the author Porochista Khakpour commented to Vox in January.

“These are things that we know,” McKinney says. “But just seeing how often and how wide, it wasn’t a shock, but it just poured salt in the wound. Y’all been doing us wrong, but y’all doing us real wrong. Okay.”

“What you have to remember is that the P&L is fictional”

Let’s have an interlude here to discuss how book advances work. I’ve been in the publishing explainer business for a while now, so I am going to recycle my 2017 explanation of what an advance is wholesale. Keep in mind that this explanation is streamlined and the numbers are all imaginary:

Imagine you’re an acquiring editor who wants to publish a new book. Based on the sales history of other, similar books, you feel confident that you can sell 10,000 copies of the new book. You figure you can set the price at $20, and you’re offering the author royalties of 10 percent of the book’s list price, so the author will receive $2 for every book sold.

That means it’s safe for you to offer the author an advance of $20,000 when you acquire the book. The author receives that money upfront, and nothing else until the book has sold more than 10,000 copies, at which point the author has “earned out.” The remaining $18 for every book sold are split between the publisher and the distributors to cover their own costs and contribute to their profit margin.

But an advance doesn’t just determine how much money an author is getting for a book up front. It also reflects how much money the publisher plans to invest into the book elsewhere, again based on how well they believe it will sell. A book that is projected to sell 100,000 copies gets its author a higher advance than a book that is projected to sell 10,000 copies, and it also gets a higher budget for marketing and publicity.

So in the end, an advance becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When publishers are confident enough in a book to pay the author a healthy advance, they are also going to be putting significant money into the book’s marketing budget, which generally means the book is more likely to sell well. When publishers think a book is likely to have soft sales, they’ll pay the author a small advance and put less money into publicizing it — which, in turn, means fewer readers will ever hear about the book and it’s less likely to sell.

But here’s the thing about all of these sales projections and advances and budgets: They are basically just made up.

Publishers work out the projected budget for each book they acquire in a spreadsheet called a profit and loss statement, or P&L. I spent about five years working in different entry-level positions in publishing, which means I spent a lot of time sitting down with various editors at different houses to put together a P&L for them. And every time I did so, the editor would lean in close and whisper, as though they were about to let me in on a conspiracy, “What you have to remember is that the P&L is fictional.”

Sales projections are based on real numbers, like the sales history of comparative titles. But publishers decide which books are similar to which, and hence which monumental successes should be taken into account and which failures should be ignored, through hunches and guesswork and educated bullshitting.

A lot of this guesswork is based on some amount of genuine expertise. Editors watch their fields closely and track what sells and what doesn’t, so their guesses are better than what the average layperson can put together. But each P&L is also necessarily filtered through the lens of each editor’s personal taste and biases. And then it has to be approved by the management structure above each editor, inflected by the personal tastes and biases of the top brass of the publishing house. The higher the advance, the more involved upper management will be in signing off on it.

Publishing is also, per publisher Lee & Low’s 2019 survey, 76 percent white. Which means the people making guesses about which books will appeal to which readers and how much they will sell for — the people deciding how much each book is worth and paying the authors accordingly and setting the marketing budget accordingly — are overwhelmingly likely to be white.

Publishing’s whiteness is not a grand mystery. It’s easily explained. This industry has punishingly low salaries that start in the $30,000 range at entry level, and workers are required to live in New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the world. Often, they’re expected to have worked unpaid internships before they land an entry-level assistant job. The people who work in publishing are the people who can afford to work in publishing, and mostly they are white people.

And the numbers revealed by PublishingPaidMe suggest that publishing’s monolithic whiteness has leaked out into the way it chooses which data to pay attention to and which to ignore, which books get compared to which, and which books are worth spending money on. Which means that ostensibly hard-headed business decisions about whose books will sell and thus are worth investing in are based on deeply entrenched biases and prejudices.

“We have been here before. We demand change.”

What remains to be seen is how the machine of publishing — in which power is concentrated in five enormous corporations — will respond to the PublishingPaidMe campaign and other recent pushes to amplify more diverse voices. In general, publishing has been slow to respond to calls for systemic change, especially changes in the diversity of its staff.

After January’s American Dirt scandal and under pressure from the Latinx publishing and activism organization Dignidad Literaria, American Dirt publisher Macmillan pledged to create an action plan within 90 days for increasing Latinx representation at every level of the company. But after the coronavirus pandemic hit, says Dignidad Literaria’s Myriam Gurba, all such plans vanished. “Macmillan used the pandemic as an excuse to backpedal and avoid followthrough,” Gurba says. (Macmillan declined Vox’s request for comment.)

Dignidad Literaria has also begun liaising with government officials, and on June 11, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with representatives from the American Association of Publishers to discuss publishing’s whiteness.

“I challenged the publishers to imagine what it’s like to be an 8-year-old Latina and never to read about someone who looks like you, who comes from your community, who contributed to our nation’s success,” said Caucus chair Joaquin Castro in a statement. “I asked them to imagine what that feels like for nearly one-in-five Americans.”

The caucus says that publishers have committed to increasing the transparency of their demographic data. Castro adds, “We appreciate the open conversation and listening, but more importantly, we are awaiting action because we have been here before. We demand change.”

“Every time this happens, people pay lip service,” McKinney says. “We’re certainly happy that people are here, supporting black authors and so forth and so on. But it shouldn’t have to take people dead and dying in the streets for that to happen.”

McKinney has concrete ideas of how she would like to see publishing evolve. “I want black authors to be paid what they’re worth,” she says. “I want publishing to shift its idea of what a universal story is. White stories are seen as universal. Black stories are seen as niche. Why is that?”

Probably, she says, it’s because publishing is so very, very white. “I’m hoping publishing takes a hard look at its practices,” she says. “Whether they intend for them to be so racially disparitive or not, the fact is that they are.” McKinney wants publishing to hire more black people and other people of color “within the machine itself at every level: the acquiring level, the marketing level, the senior level.” She also thinks an authors union would be an interesting idea.

“But the immediate thing I want,” she concludes, “is for black authors to be treated fairly and equally by the industry.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Lee & Low’s survey found publishing was 79% white. The 2019 survey found that it was 76% white.

Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.