A viral hashtag encouraged black and nonblack book authors to compare their pay. Publishers pledged to improve their diversity efforts.
June 8, 2020
Authors and book publishing employees are speaking out against the homogeneity of their industry and how much writers of color are paid, issues that are gaining urgency as protests against systemic racism continue around the U.S.
Hand-wringing over diversity is nothing new in publishing — its work force is more than three-quarters white, according to a survey released earlier this year by the children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books — but over the weekend, conversations that have been occurring for years took a turn into public protest.
Using a hashtag, #PublishingPaidMe, that quickly began trending on Twitter, authors shared their advances, which is the amount of money they receive for their books before any royalties, typically based on copies sold, start coming in. The young adult author L.L. McKinney, who is black, started the hashtag on Saturday, hoping to highlight the pay inequality between black and nonblack writers.
“These are conversations black authors have been having with each other and trying to get the industry engaged on for a long time,” she said. While she wasn’t surprised by the disparities that were revealed, she was hurt, she said, by “how deep it went.”
Jesmyn Ward, a critically acclaimed novelist, said on Twitter that she “fought and fought” for her first $100,000 advance, even after her book “Salvage the Bones,” for which she said she received around $20,000, won a National Book Award in 2011. After switching publishers, she was able to negotiate a higher advance for “Sing, Unburied, Sing” — for which she won a second National Book Award, in 2017 — but, she said, “it was still barely equal to some of my writer friends’ debut novel advances.”
A spokeswoman for Bloomsbury Publishing, which published “Salvage the Bones” and Ms. Ward’s memoir “Men We Reaped,” said that the company does not comment on advances paid to authors, but that it was honored to have published her books.
Image Penguin Random House said that it would host a companywide reading assignment of Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist.”Credit…Emma Howells for The New York Times
Outcry over the #PublishingPaidMe tweets continued through the weekend, and on Monday, a different sort of protest was under way. Five employees at Farrar, Straus and Giroux organized a “day of action,” in which those in media and publishing would spend the day working on books by black authors, phone banking or donating their day’s pay. At least 1,300 workers signed up to participate, many of them updating their out-of-office email messages to say “We protest our industry’s role in systemic racism” and listing organizations devoted to “serving the Black community, Grieving Families and Protesters” that they encouraged others to support.
A Google spreadsheet that collected the advances of authors also went viral, amassing nearly 1,200 entries by midday Monday. Its contents were self-reported and could not be independently verified, but many entries were detailed with the genre of book, the race, gender and sexual orientation of the author, as well as what the authors were paid. Of the 122 writers who said they earned at least $100,000, 78 of them identified as white, seven as black and two said they were Latin American.
Penguin Random House, the largest publisher in the book industry, attempted to address the concerns that were being raised.
In an email to employees on Monday, the company said it would share statistics on the demographics of its work force, commit to increasing the number of books it publishes by people of color, mandate antiracist training among its staff, and host a companywide reading assignment of a recent best seller: “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi.
Michael Pietsch, the chief executive of Hachette Book Group, said in an interview that his company was going to create diversity targets for its staff and authors, and planned to start sharing demographic information it’s been collecting with its staff.
He did not fault the protests of his industry; in fact, quite the opposite.
“The general feeling is one of great support,” Mr. Pietsch said of his publishing house. “They are protesting something legitimate and needed, and it’s right to hold us accountable for not achieving the goals we’ve stated publicly we’re working toward.”
For those contributing to and reading the #PublishingPaidMe discussion, the rare disclosure of writers’ pay — and in some cases, how low it was considering their success — came as a surprise.
“Jesmyn’s tweets just shocked me,” said the writer Kiese Laymon, who most recently published the memoir “Heavy.” For Ms. Ward to struggle to get a significant advance, Mr. Laymon said, “it really just seems like you almost have to beg to get merely valued. That really put a lot into perspective for me.”
“You almost have to beg to get merely valued,” said Kiese Laymon, the author of “Heavy.”Credit…Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press
John Scalzi, who writes science fiction and has spoken openly about what he makes for years, shared his advances for more than a dozen books, showing a mostly upward, incremental progression until he got “The Deal”: $3.4 million for 13 books over 10 years. “I think it’s a very bad idea for what people make to be a secret,” he said.
“It doesn’t hurt me to share information,” he added, saying that as a white man, he feels insulated from retaliation for sharing publicly. “It never turns out that I end up making less — it’s that other people end up getting paid more fairly for what they’re doing.”
His pay was compared with another science fiction writer, N.K. Jemisin, who tweeted that she received $25,000 for each book in her Broken Earth trilogy. Ms. Jemisin, who is black, won the Hugo Award, which recognizes excellence in science fiction and fantasy, three years in a row, for each book in the trilogy.
Lydia Kiesling, who is white, shared that she received $200,000 for her debut literary novel, “The Golden State.” She wrote on Twitter that she “shared it because I know for a fact that writers of color who sell more books than I do have gotten less of an investment up front.”
In an email, she called publishing “a very opaque business,” adding that “opacity allows inequity to flourish, as I think the numbers make clear.”
This isn’t the first time that anger erupted over pay disparities in the industry. Earlier this year, the publication of “American Dirt,” a novel about Mexican migrants, raised questions over the seven-figure advance paid to its author, Jeanine Cummins, who is not Mexican. The book became a best seller, but gained at least as much attention for sparking discussion around how poorly writers of color are compensated for their stories compared with white writers.
But several of the people involved in the efforts of the past 72 hours expressed a feeling that something was different this time.
“I don’t think that diversity initiatives and fancy lip service is going to be the only thing that happens after this,” said Saraciea Fennell, a book publicist who participated in Monday’s day of action and is involved in other industry diversification efforts like Latinx in Publishing.
Ms. McKinney, the author who kicked off the #PublishingPaidMe conversation, said she would be “hurt and mad and angry” if in two weeks, the efforts had all died down.
“If come Juneteenth, we’re still doing this, we’re still talking about this, black people and black stories and black voices are still important, I would be pleasantly surprised,” she said. “Please keep it going.”