Over the weekend many authors bravely shared their book advances using the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag started by L.L. McKinney, exposing racial disparities in book advances and, as author Justina Ireland noted, showing that many authors aren’t making as much money as you think they’re making.
It’s important for people to recognize that these disparities are still happening in the publishing industry to this day. It’s equally important to recognize that advances are just the tip of the iceberg.
#PublishingPaidMe by definition only sheds light on the books that were published in the first place.
Until books like The Hate U Give and Between the World and Me became massive bestsellers, there was long a pernicious and self-fulfilling notion that books by and featuring Black people and other people of color “don’t sell.” Even right now, some publishing people talk about diverse books as if they’re a fad.
Everyone connected to the publishing industry has heard about publishers passing on a book by or featuring someone from an under-represented group because “we already have one of those.”
And even for the books that did make it across the finish line to publication, as author N. K. Jemisin notes, because of the way publishers craft offers by anchoring to comparable titles, those past self-fulfilling prophesies about books not selling ooze into the present in very harmful ways.
It affects marketing decisions. It affects the way books are packaged and the covers they receive. It affects expectations about what the authors will write about.
Heck, books by women still receive different covers and marketing than similar books by men.
Diversity in publishing is absolutely needed at every level, and the industry should be utterly ashamed at their pathetic efforts to this point. But even more than just hiring, the entire process of how books are acquired and marketed needs to be stripped of systemic bias as much as possible.
And this gets me to my second massive frustration with the traditional publishing industry’s culture: I’ve never seen an industry more reluctant to change.
Back in 2007, a lot of literary agencies still didn’t even have websites (2007!!) and people told me I was insane to start a blog that exposed me to the masses. There was a pernicious notion that “the people who need to know who we are know who we are.”
Think about what that meant. You had to know someone within an industry that was already tilted heavily by its predominantly white, suburban-raised, Ivy-league educated employees. How would someone without access to those small circles get in or get the right information to approach agents? Some people managed, but it was way too difficult.
Even some of the early publishing blogs treated authors writing bad queries with contempt rather than seeing that they just lacked the right guidance for how to go about the process. I saw an opportunity to at least try to democratize the access to information about how to go about getting published, and even still there was a lot of grumbling about what I was doing.
I don’t say the above to absolve myself of my own complicity in the system and my blind spots past and present, which I am trying to reflect on.
But damn. Politics and police aren’t the only institutions that need drastic change.
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Art: The Icebergs by Frederic Edwin Church