clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How a year of publishing protests rocked the industry

Publishing began 2020 with an explosion and ended with a contraction.

The book display at the Librairie des Abbesses bookstore in the Montmartre district in Paris on November 2, 2020.
Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP 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.

For the publishing industry, 2020 began with an explosion and ended with a contraction.

In January, a book positioned to be the first big release of the year found itself embroiled in controversy as soon as it hit shelves. American Dirt, about a Mexican mother and son struggling to make it to the US border, sold at auction for a reported seven figures and arrived with glowing blurbs from luminaries like Stephen King. But it was greeted by furious reviews and an unexpected media narrative.

American Dirt, the story went, was a poorly written book by an author with no real connection to Mexico, and it failed to understand the people whose story it was telling. (Jeanine Cummins, the author in question, has sometimes identified as white and sometimes as Puerto Rican.) And yet the publishing industry had chosen this particular tale of Mexican migration to champion rather than one of the many books on the subject written by Chicano novelists. Moreover, it chose to champion American Dirt in some spectacularly ill-advised ways, including a launch event that featured centerpieces decorated with barbed wire.

And all of these failures, critics of American Dirt argued, illustrated one of the deep problems with publishing: It is an overwhelmingly white industry, and it overwhelmingly publishes books by white people, for white people.

Over the course of this year, critics of publishing extrapolated the argument of the American Dirt controversy a step further. Publishing, they argued, tends to disproportionately protect the powerful at the expense of the disenfranchised. It’s a liberal industry staffed by liberal workers — but in its business practices, it generally works to preserve the status quo. Its money and resources go toward enriching the already wealthy.

As 2020 wore on, more and more workers within the industry voiced their general disenchantment with its inequitable truths. Staffers walked out of the publishing house Hachette Book Group after it announced it would be publishing Woody Allen’s memoir. Black authors started the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe to draw attention to the disparities between advances received by white authors and those received by authors of color. An ensuing #BlackoutTheBestSellers campaign sought to bring attention to the vast purchasing power Black audiences offer despite the fact that publishing tends to underserve them. Publishing’s Day of Action became an industry-wide walkout. A private Slack group emerged as a place for labor organizing.

Meanwhile, just weeks into all these efforts that would unfold across the year, the US went into lockdown.

And at the end of the year, the great contraction came. Penguin Random House, the largest book publisher in the US, submitted the winning bid to purchase Simon & Schuster, another major publishing house. Together, they’ll form a megapublisher, and they’ll turn what used to be called the Big Five of publishing into the Big Four.

These seismic industry shifts might seem as if they are separate from the year’s protests, but the two are intimately connected. Because 2020’s protests all revolve around the same question.

Book publishing has limited resources. Now, the pandemic and the ongoing consolidation of the industry have restricted those resources even further. So who gets to reap their benefit?

Put more simply: Publishing is a business that makes its money by delivering stories to the public. Whose stories will it invest in telling — and who will it exploit in the process?

Well before the pandemic hit, book workers were getting loud and angry

The indelible moment of 2020 in publishing came when New York locked down in March, and the editors of the Big Five presses moved out of their Manhattan offices. But well before that day came, the discontent presaged by the American Dirt controversy swelled.

One of the first concrete outcomes was the development of the literary political group Dignidad Literaria. Created by the writer and teacher Roberto Lovato in partnership with the writers David Bowles and Myriam Gurba, Dignidad Literaria advocates for greater representation for Latinx authors, editors, and executives in US publishing.

There are not very many Latinx people working in publishing. There are not many people of color working in publishing at all. A 2019 survey by Lee & Low Books found that 76 percent of the people who work in publishing are white. Only 6 percent of the people working in publishing are Latinx.

Dignidad Literaria argued the American Dirt debacle proved publishing’s overwhelming whiteness to be a liability. The industry had tried to tell the story of Mexican migrants, and it had failed. In the process, it showered money and resources on a non-Chicana author, all the while ignoring the Chicano authors telling stronger, more authentic versions of the same story. More Latinx workers, the group said, would have made such a failure less likely.

American Dirt publishing imprint Flatiron Books and its parent company Macmillan sat down with Dignidad Literaria in January and committed to making an action plan to improve its Latinx representation. And it has in fact stood by some of its commitments.

“Flatiron has kept their promise to acquire more representative titles and to hire a more diverse staff,” Myriam Gurba told me over the phone. “They did follow through with some aspects of their promise. But I would rather the transformation have been much more expansive. To me the changes they made, while meaningful, are still superficial.”

Dignidad Literaria succeeded in setting a narrative about publishing. Publishing companies, the group argued, have ethical responsibilities to the audiences they serve and to their authors. It is on publishers to take seriously their responsibility to tell stories well and to use their resources wisely.

That sort-of narrative is attractive to a lot of publishing staffers, who tend to be idealists that strongly believe in the power of books. But it’s also the sort of narrative that New York trade publishing, with its flinty-eyed focus on the bottom line, beats out of its workers fast. When I attended the Columbia Publishing Course, a kind of networking camp/finishing school for publishing, we were all instructed to never say in a job interview that we were motivated by a belief in the power of books to change the world. Everyone who applies to work in publishing says that, we were told, and it makes you sound like a romantic fool.

But publishing workers have been increasingly disenchanted by the profit-driven ethos of trade publishing and the way it consistently prioritizes selling books that make the world a worse place. The events of 2020 made that especially clear. “RT if you really miss the ambience of a bookstore,” wrote one anonymous Twitter account early on in the pandemic. “The smell of the pages, the hushed conversations, browsing the tables and seeing that big 5 publishers routinely give six figure book deals to fascists.”

In March, the labor organizer and grad student Amy Wilson set up a new Slack-based community called Book Worker Power where those who work with books can organize to change the industry. (It is not, pointedly, a union organization.) Wilson doesn’t think there’s any mystery as to why publishing workers joined in droves: “Publishing jobs have gotten worse, and it’s a natural reaction,” she says. “When working conditions get worse, people get organized.”

Even before Book Worker Power, publishing staffers were starting to get interested in organizing.

Early this spring, before the lockdown, Grand Central Publishing announced that it would be publishing Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing. A few years ago, a memoir by a filmmaking icon like Allen would have been a coup of an acquisition. But in a post-Me Too world, Allen, whose daughter Dylan Farrow has accused him of molesting her when she was a child, has come to be considered largely untouchable by the media.

Grand Central is an imprint of the Big Five publisher Hachette, which was clearly aware of the potential for backlash in the acquisition. Hachette bought the memoir in 2019 but didn’t announce the sale until 2020, just a month away from publication. Multiple high-level editors at the company were blindsided.

And the backlash against Hachette’s decision did come swift and furious. Especially furious was Ronan Farrow, Dylan’s brother. Ronan Farrow wrote a book Catch and Kill about his work as an investigative reporter on sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein. In 2019, his book was one of the biggest titles of the year — and it was published by Hachette imprint Little, Brown.

“As you and I worked on Catch and Kill … in part about the damage Woody Allen did to my family … you were secretly planning to publish a book by the person who committed those acts of sexual abuse,” Farrow wrote in an email to Hachette. He concluded, “Obviously I can’t in good conscience work with you any more. Imagine this were your sister.”

Three days later, Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch scheduled a town hall so he could address any concerns that his staffers might hold over the acquisition. But instead of attending, staffers walked out.

“We want the book to be canceled,” one staffer told Slate anonymously. “It’s going to be expensive, but it’s the right thing to do. We want a public apology from the CEO. This has ruined a really amazing relationship that Little Brown had with Ronan Farrow, who’s been in touch with us and sent us support. The least they can do is cancel the book.”

The next day, Hachette announced that it was indeed canceling Allen’s memoir.

A brief sidebar on the free speech issue

Critics of both the Hachette walkout and the American Dirt controversy felt that both were acts of censorship. Who were these authors and publishers, they demanded, to silence other authors? What happened to freedom of speech?

But both the workers behind the Hachette walkout and Dignidad Literaria maintain that they don’t have any objections to the rights of books like American Dirt and Apropos of Nothing to exist. On the contrary, when Macmillan canceled a planned book tour for American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins, Dignidad Literaria issued a statement defending Cummins’s right to free speech and a safe book tour — while simultaneously defending its own rights to critique her speech.

And both American Dirt and Apropos of Nothing manifestly do continue to exist. American Dirt spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Apropos of Nothing went to the independent publisher Skyhorse, which published it in the end of March.

What is really at stake in these debates is not so much freedom of speech as it is the allocation of resources. No one has the free speech right to a major book deal, after all, so big publishers like Hachette and Macmillan don’t publish every book submitted to them. In fact, they reject most of the books that are submitted to them.

So when a publisher chooses to publish a book, it is choosing to invest its capital and the labor of its workers in amplifying and promoting that book. And participants in the Hachette walkout and Dignidad Literaria’s advocacy were arguing that publishers have an ethical responsibility not to spend their resources uplifting the voices of the powerful over the voices of the disenfranchised.

Book workers have known about publishing’s structural problems for a while now

Authors and other interested observers had already been talking about the industry’s power inequalities and campaigning for change for quite a while when the American Dirt controversy hit. And much of this conversation began in the YA world.

In 2014, children’s book authors of color began using the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks to argue for more diversity in children’s literature. Within months, a core group of organizers had started a We Need Diverse Books nonprofit advocacy group. In 2015, the YA author Corinne Duyvis started the hashtag #ownvoices to identify and advocate for books written about a person from a marginalized identity group by an author who is part of that identity group.

Conversations among publishing staffers about issues of inequality in the industry have tended to be more internal and less public facing. But even before 2020 began, those conversations were starting to leak into public view. In November of 2019, book publicist Rachel Molland started a Google spreadsheet where publishing workers could anonymously share their salaries.

“I just felt like wage transparency is necessary in this industry, and I think people kind of screwed around on the issue,” Molland told Vox. “I’ve always been 100 percent about telling people, ‘Oh, I make this. What do you make?’ Because I think it helps your coworkers. So I wanted a broader option, so you could look and see what an editorial assistant is making at Simon & Schuster or Hachette or an indie. Compare based on years of experience, how many internships you did, where you work, and see if you’re getting a fair wage.”

The spreadsheet did suggest a striking disparity in the kind of salary that publishing employees can expect over time. Assistants at some of the independent houses started at salaries as low as $28,000 per year and are expected to live in New York City on that salary. Even in the Big Five houses, wages started as low as $35,000 per year, well below the $40,000 experts suggest you need to survive in New York.

In contrast, executives at the Big Five reported six-figure salaries, with annual bonuses. And notably, all those executives with six-figure salaries self-identified as white. Executives on the spreadsheet who self-identified as people of color tended to see their salaries top out around $90,000.

For many critics, these salaries seemed to explain a great deal about why publishing is so overwhelmingly white despite the acclaim with which it has greeted both the We Need Diverse Books and the #OwnVoices campaigns. If publishing’s entry-level workers don’t earn a living wage, then the only people who work in publishing will be those who can afford to do so, most of whom will be disproportionately white and from wealthy families. And if those people of color who do get far enough into the system to reach the executive tier find their salaries capped well below the levels of their white peers, that suggests a level of ambient racism that would also serve to discourage people of color from pursuing a career in publishing.

It’s as though, on some strange structural level, publishing understands itself to be an industry where nice white Seven Sisters girls who don’t really need a salary go to make their contribution to society. But publishing is no longer that industry, if it ever was. It’s staffed now by hungry young people who are angry at the inequalities they see in the world — and as they watch their generation try to reshape the rest of society, they’re eager to bring the same energy to publishing.

This summer’s publishing industry activism strove to illustrate that authors of color deserve more money than publishing gives them

As the George Floyd protests took off across the country, Americans increasingly turned to books about systemic racism to try to make sense of the moment. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility shot up bestseller lists, and it became a meme for white readers to remind each other to buy their copies of White Fragility from Black-owned bookstores.

But as the country reminded itself repeatedly that it would be a good idea to buy some books by Black authors right now (despite the fact that DiAngelo is white), Black authors began noting that they weren’t getting paid the way their white counterparts were.

The YA author L.L. McKinney started the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe in June as a place to make that disparity clear. A counterpart of sorts to Molland’s salary spreadsheet, the hashtag was a place where authors of all races could publicly share their advances, and confirm what had long been rumored: Authors of color were getting smaller advances than their white peers.

“Black authors had been having this conversation for a while,” McKinney says. “It was a secret, but it wasn’t a secret.”

The hashtag revealed that famous and bestselling authors of color were getting conservative advances, the kind of advances publishers pay an author they’re not totally certain they know how to sell. A number of comparatively obscure white mid-list authors, meanwhile, reported receiving six- and- seven-figure advances, the kind that publishers splash out on when they think they have the chance to really make a new name.

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.

These low advances can sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies. A high advance typically comes with a high marketing and publicity budget and vice versa for a low advance. So a book that doesn’t net a high advance often won’t have the resources to find its audience, regardless of its quality.

And books written by authors of color for audiences of color are already at a disadvantage because publishing is historically very bad at meeting audiences of color where they are. “It’s very clear how certain books are treated because people don’t know how to market to the groups that these books are about,” says McKinney. “They haven’t had to do that before. There’s no insight within publishing.”

“Black books are channeled through the same marketing as all books,” says Tracy Sherrod, the editorial director of Amistad, an imprint at HarperCollins that specializes in books by and for Black people. “And those media venues are not necessarily what the majority of people of color follow and get their information from. There needs to be change there, which we are working on.”

Shortly after McKinney’s #PublishingPaidMe hashtag took off, Sherrod launched a hashtag of her own. Under #BlackoutBestsellerList, Sherrod called for participants to purchase two books by Black authors in a single week, with the goal of having Black authors take over the bestseller lists and show off their industry clout.

“It seemed that people were questioning the value and how large the market would be for Black voices, for literature,” Sherrod says. “And I thought it might be an important time to let the industry know that lots of people enjoy reading books by people of color.”

When the campaign took off, the bestseller lists were already fairly blacked out: 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. Regardless, Sherrod thinks the campaign was successful. “I don’t know if it was a direct result of the hashtag, but book sales increased 10 percent industry-wide for the month of July,” she said.

Book sales in general were fairly healthy during this pandemic-dominated year. During the initial lockdown, there was a dramatic plunge, but as the year went on, people locked in their houses seemed to decide they wanted books. Industry tracker NPD Bookscan found that book sales went up by 5 percent in 2020 compared to 2019.

And as the industry found its financial footing, the protests continued.

L.L. McKinney launched the Juneteenth Book Fest in partnership with Saraciea Fennell, founder of the Bronx is Reading Festival, to uplift Black stories.

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 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.”

Officially, publishing houses welcomed all these campaigns and pledged to do better. Unofficially, protesters had their doubts about publishing’s commitment to its allegedly progressive politics — especially as controversial figures continue to get major publishing deals.

In November, Penguin Random House Canada announced it would be publishing a new book by the reactionary Canadian author Jordan Peterson. At the ensuing town hall company meeting, Vice News reported, staffers wept as they talked about family members Peterson had radicalized.

“The company since June has been doing all these anti-racist and allyship things and them publishing Peterson’s book completely goes against this. It just makes all of their previous efforts seem completely performative,” one employee told Vice.

That problem is one of the issues that nearly everyone I spoke to for this article returned to over and over: Publishing is very good at talking the talk about the importance of anti-racism and progressive politics. But will it ever actually commit to making a meaningful change?

The major publishers have committed to a few big policy changes this year

This fall, four of the Big Five publishers and a number of independent presses increased their starting salaries, so that entry-level editorial assistants can now expect an annual salary of at least $40,000. Ironically, the lone holdout, HarperCollins, is also the only union shop in the Big Five.

“On the one hand, I was, you know, happy to make more money,” says Molland. “On the other hand, it felt like a really long time coming, and it felt like something that we had to push for. It was brought up over and over again in different [diversity and inclusion] meetings, even before the pandemic or anything happened. I’m happy corporate finally did it. I kind of wish that it had come earlier and more organically.”

That was a recurring theme in my reporting for this story: that whatever changes publishing is trying to make, they may well be too little, too late.

“It seems there were a lot of initiatives this year that were about making people look good rather than actually doing good,” says McKinney. She points to a rapidly canceled Barnes & Noble initiative this February that saw children’s classics rebound with new covers depicting their white protagonists as people of color: a Black Dorothy with long braids and red sneakers, an Asian Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. “It’s clear that someone somewhere thought this was a really good idea,” McKinney said, “when in actuality it doesn’t do anything for anyone.”

McKinney notes that she and her fellow authors of color have been talking about these issues for a while. She thinks it took a pandemic-driven lockdown for the frustration to simmer over. “Ain’t nobody going nowhere,” she says. “In the throes of the world somewhat being on fire and quarantine, it was a perfect storm of nothing to do, nowhere to be, and frustration.”

“Oddly enough, the pandemic created circumstances that have enabled online activism to proliferate,” says Gurba. “And because people are in isolation, they’re really hungry for different kinds of entertainment, including book consumption. People in the book world might feel a sense of empowerment because there’s a demand for entertainment, films, TV, and books with which to occupy one’s time. And that has inspired a wave of activists to shape the publishing industry, and entertainment, and the arts in general.”

Gurba theorizes that the energy and strategies of movements like Me Too have also emboldened publishing workers to take more action. “That confessional strategy, where people have told personal stories and exposed racial dynamics in their workplaces, parallels Me Too,” she says. “There’s been a scaffolding in terms of social movements.”

“Every 15 years publishing wakes up and attempts to become more diverse,” Sherrod notes. But she’s hopeful that this time, the attempt might stick. “Black publishing is in its infancy, and there is huge growth potential in this marketplace,” she says. “Publishers have seen that by the strong sales of books like Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and Ibram Kendi’s How to Be Be an Anti-Racist. Those books have sold phenomenal numbers. And you can’t ignore that.”

The Penguin Random House-Simon & Schuster merger is most likely to be a force for maintaining the status quo

In a way, publishing did change this year, in a way that is going to be permanent: It got smaller. Two of the biggest trade publishing houses in the industry are combining.

As reported by CNBC, Penguin Random House accounted for around 25 percent of all print books sold in the US this year. Simon & Schuster accounted for about 9.1 percent. Together, their market share would reach around 34 percent, meaning that about one in every three print books sold in the US will be published by the same company. That’s how big the merged publisher is going to be.

This development, says publishing consultant Thad McIlroy, was “all but inevitable.”

“I first wrote maybe eight, 10 years ago that Simon & Schuster would get bought,” he says. “It’s just the very nature of corporate concentration.”

Book publishing has been steadily consolidating now since the 1960s along with the rest of the American economy, and McIlroy argues that this new merger is just the latest example of the trend. “Random House bought Penguin seven years ago, and the Big Six went to the Big Five. Now we’re going from the Big Five to the Big Four,” he says. “You go back 25 years and we had the Dirty Dozen, you know?”

It’s unlikely that the merger will seriously affect editorial decisions, says publishing consultant Joe Esposito. “The books aren’t going to change. They’re not going to fire editors or publish fewer books,” he says. He does think that major advances might decrease a bit, as it becomes harder for literary agents to get different houses to bid against each other for the same title.

What we know for sure, though, is that the merger is a way for publishing to consolidate its power at the corporate level. And that power move is coming just as the authors and workers who make up publishing are speaking up about challenging that power. “When an industry strengthens its status quo,” says Gurba, “it strengthens whiteness.”

Meanwhile, publishing’s status quo continues on. Rumors swirl of a book deal for Donald Trump. American Dirt was recently a finalist for the Goodreads Choice Awards.

And in December, the New York Times published a new study that tried to work out in a new way exactly how white publishing’s status quo is.

It’s clear by now that publishing is bad at hiring staffers of color and also bad at paying authors of color. The new study, from Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek, confirmed that publishing is also extraordinarily bad at publishing authors of color, full stop.

Of the 7,124 books in So and Wezerek’s sample set — all published by the Big Five between 1950 and 2018 — 95 percent were written by white people. In 2018, that percentage was 89 percent.

We don’t have to look hard to find an explanation for those staggeringly awful numbers. Everything that publishing workers have been protesting all year explains it: the ostensibly liberal politics that mask a polite racism, the culture of casually exploiting employee labor, the overwhelmingly white workforce, the inability to market to readers of color, the refusal to invest in books by authors of color. It all results in a marketplace flooded with books by and for white people — so all of those starry-eyed ideas about the life-changing power of books are reserved for white people too.

“Publishing is not a competitive industry,” says Gurba. “It’s more an oligopoly, as far as its business organization.”

“I hope for change, but I’m not going to hold my breath,” says McKinney. “Publishing has shown how it talks a good game multiple times. You’ll get a touch of striving for better for awhile.

“And then the minute the pressure’s off, people ease back into their usual ways.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Saraciea Fennell was the founder of the Bronx’s only bookstore. She is the founder of the Bronx Is Reading festival, and Noelle Santos is the founder of the Bronx bookstore The Lit. Bar.