On the 6th June many black authors were on Twitter discussing what they saw to be inequality within the publishing industry. They all had received relatively low advances for their first couple of books compared to white authors that they know - advances being payments that authors get prior to publication whilst they’re still working on the book. In essence, an advance is the publisher’s prediction of how well the book will sell. Predictions often do not become truth, but this is how the industry operates: comparing how books have sold and how well authors have done to speculate on future outcomes. Invariably, if you’re a black writer in a Western country your publisher will compare your book to other books written by black authors.
Author LL McKinney, who has written fantasy novels like Nubia: Real One, about a black girl with special powers, decided to take the conversation wider, coming up with the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe for authors in an often secretive industry to be transparent about the advances they had received. The revelations that came by following the hashtag were revelatory to some and not-so-shocking to others. Roxane Gay for example, who drew thousands to her event at London Southbank Centre in 2018, only got $15k for what is now arguably her most popular book Bad Feminist, and N.K. Jemisin only got a $25k advance for each of the three books of the Broken Earth series which all went on to win the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novel consecutively. Meanwhile, many comparable white authors reported getting anything from $5k to $100k more than black authors for their debut books.
As Twitter is not solely accessible to Americans, the #PublishingPaidMe tag inevitably rolled over into the UK, where authors like the South Asian-British writer Nikesh Shukla reported only getting a £3k advance on his third book and £30k for his sixth book, while white authors like Matt Haig reported receiving £50K for his third book and £600k for his tenth. Interestingly it was reported that Pippa Middleton, who arguably only got published due to her aristocratic connections, got a £800k advance and went on to sell less than 1,000 copies of her book.
Many black British authors, while not revealing what they got, remarked that they were not surprised by these disparities, but Malorie Blackman, author of globally successful Noughts & Crosses series, pleaded with aspiring authors of colour on the platform, saying: “Please don’t let #PublishingPaidMe put you off being an author and/or illustrator if that's the career you're currently pursuing. Your voice, your work, your stories matter. The situation will improve. It has to.”
The situation does have to improve, because a recent survey found out that the UK publishing industry is 90% white. This may be the reason why there is such a pay disparity between authors, who don’t realise the capacity that non-white authors have to sell. There is also a transparency issue in the publishing world, with dialogue books publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, one of the few prominent black women within the industry, arguing on Twitter that “If publishers & agents were more open with their clients & authors about numbers & included the writers in the business decisions we wouldn’t have battle that’s brewing.”
Today, in 2020, where it seems that more and more companies are releasing statements saying that they believe #BlackLivesMatter, it would be good for publishers to hire more black people in positions of power to help advocate for the many amazing books written by black authors. It is time for them to show that they actively care about uplifting black voices and perspectives instead of just writing empty platitudes in social media statements.
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However, while a seat at the table is nice, we should also #openourpurse and invest in the black publishers who have been doing this work long before it became trendy. Often black authors express dismay when publishers and literary agents try to pigeonhole their stories into certain categories. Black authors will report being pressured to have their characters undergo some sort of racial trauma in the book instead of being in love, happy and hopeful.
In 2015 writer development agency Spread the Word found that “best chance of publication” for ethnic minority writers was to write “to write literary fiction that conforms to a stereotypical view.” Therefore, supporting our own publishing houses is crucial to seeing change within the industry and allowing for a wider breadth of black stories to be told.
Jacaranda Books and Cassava Press have been around for ages, and rely on our community’s engagement. Similarly Knights Of, co-founded by a black woman, encourages us to support them in their endeavour to publish children’s books that have black and brown main characters in diverse stories. We can push for a seat at the table but we can also push to create our own tables too. As Nikesh Shukla said when opening up The Good Literary Agency, that pushes to publish British authors from underrepresented backgrounds, let’s “blow open the pipeline.”
Written by Seun Matiluko
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