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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And I am so, so thankful for the people like you who have taken strides to democratize the publishing industry. I look forward to the new voices that we will be blessed with because of this effort.
JOHN T. SHEA says
“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.”
Bravo Nathan! The grumbles are a sure and certain sign you’re doing the right thing. Censorship and suppression of information continues apace but the Internet remains a powerful space for voices like yours to be heard.
Ken Hughes says
According to the sage Kristine Kathryn Rusch, being biased toward “the right people” was always the point: https://kriswrites.com/2020/06/03/business-musings-book-promotion-2020/
A marginalized person says
Hey, Nathan, don’t forget to credit L. L. McKinney (@ElleOnWords) for starting the hashtag in the first place–and noting it took two women of color sharing their numbers before anyone else did.
A marginalized person says
Oh, and it’s “Jemisin.” 🙂
Nathan Bransford says
Thank you! You’re right and adjusting accordingly.
Terin Miller says
Amen, Mr. Former Agent Man.
Personally, I think the first biggest problem in the publishing industry, at least in the US, is for the most part it has become a big business, owned by conglomerates, answerable to shareholders, so that an author’s success (or lack of) is depended on to pay a lot more than the actual printing costs, marketing costs, or even author’s percentage.
Publishers aren’t publishing necessarily “good writing,” or “literature,” or certainly not “new” voices or “experimental” storytelling, because so much depends on the product – an author’s book – and so many people are depending on its success or affected by its failure.
Instead, publishers want money makers. And experimental, or new, and especially unusual or unheard voices tend not to be that until someone is willing to take a chance on it.
The prime recent example, of course, being Scholastic and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which was virtually passed up in England and looked askance at by US publishers (who are we kidding? The majority of US publishers, Simon & Schuster included, are part of “media” companies, like NewsCorp (Harper Collins) and CBS/Viacom (Simon & Schuster).
Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, so many others’ voices were considered “not mainstream” (read: hard sells) in the time when they were most needed; when Maya Angelou and Alice Walker and, before them, Alex Haley’s voices were first being heard, they were considered “niche” for expanding marketing to readers “who might like” or “identify” with their messages.
I have a friend, Roy Pickering, who wrote I swear a better, contemporary “Coming of Age” novel than “Catcher in the Rye,” that he self-published because no one would give it a look. The book, “Patches of Grey,” is probably still available on Amazon. But its characters are 80s-90s Bronx high schoolers, complete with racial conflicts and gangs etc., rather than pissed-off troubled counter-culture seeking white private Prep Schoolers. The subject matter alone should make it more marketable than “Catcher,” yet…
During a similar conservative time in publishing and writing, without the competition of the internet, some writers who later became so famous they’re taught in all the colleges relied on friends to publish their writing in short print runs.
Heck, because it originally made him no money, Ezra Pound started a “subscription” offer for his friends to contribute to get T.S. Eliot out of the bank where he was working so he could just write poetry.
And James Joyce? Published by a friend, Sylvia Beach, because his writing of Ulysses was considered “indecent.”
My point is, for too long, it seems to me, the publishing industry in the US has gotten away with the fallacy that it is an imprimatur of “good” or even “great” writing, as opposed to just another business interested in making money off of a product it knows it can sell, or it pays booksellers to sell.
At one point, it appeared to be common knowledge among writers with good agents that, if the bookbuyer for Barnes & Noble only allowed an “elevator pitch” (seconds) of description, and passed in the meeting on carrying the book, the book would NEVER be a “best-seller.”
And where is B&N now?
That’s the reason, even now, I expect we are unlikely to see any kind of reassessment of publishing, any kind of fairness in either advances or even acceptance of books by non-white, non-“traditional” authors, until those in the industry realize that literary tastes, as well as societal tastes, change and broaden with experimentation, with taking a chance, risking a print run on an unknown writer, or even a previously unwritten story – and maybe one that doesn’t fall into or fit preconceived stereo-types of what it will be or, more to the point, who will buy it.
That’s why the ideal agent, or publisher, is the one willing to take a risk on a writer because of his/her/their writing, as opposed to how to “market” it or what “market” to pigeon-hole it into.
No one in America may have ever heard of J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, or “The Sorcer’s Stone” if Scholastic had viewed the book as unmarketable to its niche middle-grade students. Do kids even read “The Chronicles of Narnia,” (C.S. Lewis) or “Alice in Wonderland” (Lewis Carroll) or “Wizard of Oz” (L. Frank Baum) in school? I doubt it.
jon shavey says
1. Authors from Strunk and White to Fifty Shades of Grey were rejected by mainstream publishers and were initially self-published. Publishers employ humans. Humans are often guilty of faulty decision-making. Life isn’t fair.
2. Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that Eric Clapton, Andres Segovia and John Prine all recorded for the same record label. Who’s sales basically financed the others? The answer should be obvious. Publishers need mass market chart busters to finance “art”. Experienced curators (or “gatekeepers”) will often roll the dice for a potentially malleable “diamond in the rough”. Most are less willing to hazard playing sorcerer attempting to transmute lead into gold. And most experienced curators are pretty good at spotting fool’s gold. (However, see #1; Life isn’t fair)
3. Catcher in the Rye is less about “coming of age” than it is about teenage angst. Regardless of setting, teen angst is a timeless, universal phenomenon.
Nathan Bransford says
On #2, I think it’s much less about commercial sales financing less commercial work but rather about who gets a shot, particularly at the marketing pushes that result in books breaking out in a bigger way.
It would be like we only heard Eric Clapton and never Jimi Hendrix because an executive somewhere heard Hendrix’s demo and “didn’t get it” and rejected it over the objections of his younger staff. That type of thing has happened over and over and over again in the publishing industry.
Music is an imperfect analog to publishing, but I would argue that a lack of diversity is not just a moral outrage, it’s also *bad for business.* ,Hollywood finally woke up to that a few years back and publishing is creeping its way there, but not fast enough.
jon shavey says
There is a somewhat timeless adage in the music business – and I stress the word “business” – that states that ten percent of the catalog supports the other ninety percent. There’s a reason for this: music, print publishing, visual art – all are “business”. The most immediately commercially viable products normally get the biggest budget and the resulting profits pay for the nurturing and development of less immediately viable products that are perceived as having future commercial potential. After all, if there is no commercial potential for a product, there are no sales and if there are no sales no one – author, agent, editor, publisher, retail seller – get paid. If no one gets paid, there is no “business”. This is precisely why there are talent scouts, agents, artist and repertory personnel, editors, curators, and gatekeepers. So when I read in #PublishingPaidMe that an author who writes “Sapphic romcoms starring qpoc set in Ireland” and bemoans a mid-four figure advance, part of me emphasizes with her plight while another part of me wonders is this is a weird sort of cosmic joke. Any business, whether conventional or “art” treads a delicate balance between the sacred and the profane – between what you’d like reality to be and what reality is. So if you are Alice Munro, who owned a bookstore and wrote short stories set in rural Ontario at her kitchen table after putting the kids to bed, and cared not so much about monetary compensation, or Annie Dillard, who taught English and wrote on the side and cared not so much about commercial success, you might just win a Nobel or a Pulitzer. But if your passion is genre fiction of whatever stripe, you need to pay more attention to the market. And for better or worse, the “market” is determined by the gatekeepers and the curators who will ultimately pick and choose who gets to pay the rent from the proceeds of their craft.
Nathan Bransford says
You are still responding to a completely different point than the one I was making, both in the post and in my reply.
Look, I was a literary agent for many years. I think I have a handle on commercial viability and the market.
I’m talking about publishers missing *commercially viable* books by under-represented authors for years and years because of systemic biases and blind spots.
” And for better or worse, the “market” is determined by the gatekeepers and the curators…”
Who are overwhelmingly white.
Were there greater diversity among those gatekeepers and curators, there would no doubt be greater diversity among those who get to “pay the rent from the proceeds of their craft.”
Peter Winkler says
Publishers like to portray themselves as incubators and curators of culture, but they’ll put anything between two covers they think will sell, and that sometimes includes literary fiction and serious nonfiction. SylviBeach published Ulysses becajse she believed tgere were people who would read it, and she was right. It was then published in the U.S. by a commercial pyblisher. e oint is is that itwas published. And so was Rowling. So she suffered a few rejections. So what? Lots of books that went on to great success were turned down by agents or publishers before finding a home. The business is very arbitrary. Oe man’s meat is another man’s poison. And the contraction of the B&N chain has nothing to do with the types of books publishers think will be bestsellers. It was caused primarily by the competitive pressure of Amazon.com’s success as an online retailer.
Thanks for weighing in on this topic. I was really stumped when I saw the hashtag. I have spent my whole life believing it’s all about the merit of the work + an agent who believes in you. Talk about rose coloured glasses. Consider me informed and ready to fight the good fight on this journey!
Neil Larkins says
Thanks, Nathan, for your refreshing, and rare candor on the industry. It’s stirred a lot of thoughtful comments and I read those as much as I read yours!
jon shavey says
I suggest that we are not talking past each other. Whether or not an author is “under-represented” is a subjective perspective. I spent at least half a career in the music/recording/entertainment business and believe me, there were numerous artists that not only I but many of my peers considered “under-represented” and others who “deserved” to be forever consigned to the lounge at the local Holiday Inn but instead enjoyed a career as a top billed stadium A-list act. As a hypothetical example, ‘Angry Red’ Weltz and his Beer City Six may be the best polka band in the country, but they will never get a major label contract because they won’t do well in major metropolitan venues, or Vegas or Texas roadhouses or the Chittlin’ circuit. So Angry Red has to be satisfied with a minor local label in the upper Midwest or print his own CDs and sell them off the bandstand. Is that “systemic bias” against polka bands or people of Polish ethnicity? The way you frame your argument is as if there is some dark conspiracy between publishers/agents/curators to purposely exclude minorities or niche market authors from the limelight they – in your opinion – so richly deserve. Artists of all stripes and abilities have labored in obscurity since art began. Some deserve obscurity, Some don’t. Some deserve their success, others do not, and it’s that way in all walks of life, love, business and the pursuit of happiness.
Nathan Bransford says
Re: “The way you frame your argument is as if there is some dark conspiracy between publishers/agents/curators to purposely exclude minorities or niche market authors from the limelight they – in your opinion – so richly deserve.”
I’m not suggesting a conspiracy. I’ve been very connected to the publishing business since 2002 and this issue isn’t an abstraction to me, I’ve seen the decisions, talked to the authors. I’ve seen all this very much up close.
Your viewpoint that the wisdom of the market is almighty and some books are just naturally going to succeed more than others is EXACTLY reflective the same pernicious viewpoint I’m talking about. You aren’t seeing the extent to which the decisions (made by un-diverse decision-makers) around whether a book is acquired in the first place, cover presentation, sales presentations, and marketing dollars all influence how well a book sells and then creates a precedent going forward that becomes “conventional wisdom.”
That is precisely how misguided ideas like “THOSE books don’t sell” come about and become acquired “wisdom.” Diverse books started lighting up the bestseller lists in the last five years because publishers began properly publishing them and putting some weight behind them.