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Lower financial investment remains a hurdle in publishing industry’s diversity pledges

We are in our third Black History Month since June 2020 when the Black Lives Matter movement ignited over the murder of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis by a police officer. The publishing industry responded, like many other industries, by examining the statistics of their employees as well as the contributors including the authors, illustrators, and translators.

Three years ago, publishers hired nearly 75% White employees and represented 75% White authors. Those numbers are still about the same because of money.

The percentage of White employees hasn’t changed much since publishers have revealed their diversity statistics, according to PEN America, the nonprofit dedicated to speech freedom. Its latest report finds Penguin Random House’s employees are 74% White, Macmillan’s 70.5% White, and Hachette’s 64.6% White. They lead the Big Five alongside Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins.

The nonprofit ultimately blames the historical practice of having an overwhelming White employment and how it correlates to an overwhelming amount of White authors being signed to publishing contracts. Though more Black authors are getting publishing contracts since 2020, the cracks in shattering this glass ceiling are not yet visible.

Shortly after the Black Lives Matter movement boomed in 2020, young adult author L.L. McKinney started the #PublishingPaidMe campaign that set Twitter on fire. She asked White authors to share the advances. Some Black authors shared their advances. The discrepancy in thousands of dollars surprised readers. The White authors made tons more money, even hundreds of thousands of dollars more, when Black authors who seemed as well-known as them barely received a fraction of their advances.

In the report that was released last fall, Black publishing employees and executives expressed their concerns of obtaining titles by Black authors and being pigeonholed into a marketing ploy to sell “Black books.” And sometimes those Black authors are expected to just produce books about race and ethnicity when they may have ideas outside of those subjects.

“Such typecasting is not only presumptuous but also creatively limiting,” the report reads. “What if, say, a Black editor wants to work on books about cats, or cars, or science, or electoral politics? Or a Hispanic publicist wants to promote a book about classical music?”

That means a Black author’s earning potential could be diminished over the expectation of what a publisher thinks they should write compared to what they want to write. After all, the publisher has the power to reject a project on any basis it chooses.

Every book needs money to make money. The marketing and publicity budgets are calculated based on the viability of a book’s shelf life upon release. The books that have more promise receive more money, and most of the time that means books by celebrities. They are considered an automatic cash cow, especially when they have thousands and millions of social media followers expected to buy the books.

Now that the celebrity has built-in power to sell a book, the publisher invests more to make sure even more money could be made. So, the average author at an imprint may not receive what they need for proper marketing and publicity when competing with celebrity authors. And if that author is Black, then they may be shortchanged the most.

Advances, which are payments to signed authors in advance of their books being published, are tied to the marketing and publicity budgets. An advance is paid against future royalties. That means for every dollar an author receives in an advance, they must earn a dollar from book sales before they receive any additional royalties. Black authors could take longer to earn out their advances. If it takes too long, then their chances of being published again could be impacted.

“A budget is a moral document… When we talk about diversity, we need to understand what that means financially and in terms of decision-making power,” says Elizabeth MĂ©ndez Berry, vice president and executive editor at One World, in the report.

In the last year, we saw a cyberattack cripple Macmillan’s ability to sell books and a still-unresolved union strike rock HarperCollins. The authors who didn’t have the best resources in place are suffering the most with these unfortunate events in publishing. HarperCollins’ union is striking over alleged failure by the publisher to pay cost-of-living salaries and focus on diversity and inclusion. They are fighting for investment in their talents as well as in the talents of authors of color and LGBTQIA+ authors.

This Black History Month we must examine and appreciate Black literature but also think about the literature we’re missing because the publishing industry is early in the process of dismantling its historical structure to mainly uplift and invest in the literary talents of White people.

shelit.com blogger Kibby Araya.
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What we’re highlighting

Penguin Random House U.S. CEO steps down

After the failed attempt to acquire competitor Simon & Schuster for $2 billion last year, Madeline McIntosh plans to leave her position as the U.S. chief executive of Penguin Random House. She served in the position at the largest U.S. publisher since 2018. A departure date was not shared.

Her former boss and global Penguin Random House CEO, Markus Dohle, left the publisher in December. Nihar Malaviya has since assumed the position of interim global CEO.

HarperCollins announces layoffs amid union strike

The largest unionized book publisher will lay off 5% of its staff in North America by June, according to HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray. Some workers were laid off this week as well as last fall. Since November, the HarperCollins Union has been on strike, taking to social media and to the streets of New York to protest mostly low wages.

The publisher started mediation with the union this week after the announcement of the rolling layoffs.

Phenomenal Media partners with Hachette to diversify books

A year after launching its book club, Phenomenal Media recently announced its partnership with Hachette Book Group to create Phenomenal Media Books. The partnership will contribute to the development and acquisition of literary works written by underrepresented authors in the nonfiction and fiction genres.

The media company that started as a political and cultural merch brand by Meena Harris, the niece of Vice President Kamala Harris, will have its book division publish works across Hachette imprints Grand Central Publishing and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

“We were thrilled to see the positive reaction to our launch of Phenomenal Book Club — clearly people are looking for more stories from authors who, too often, do not receive the spotlight from the publishing industry,” said Meena, Phenomenal’s founder and CEO. “Phenomenal Media Books will provide new avenues for discovering those authors and positioning their works for success.”

New York town seeks to be a literary destination spot

Hobart, New York has eight indie bookstores on its Main Street and hosts several book festivals a year, according to a story by The New York Times. One of those bookstores is unstaffed and depends on the honor system for cash from customers. With a population of 400, the town in the Catskills of upstate New York has been known as Hobart Book Village since 2005. Beside book festivals, the town also holds semiannual book sale events each year, making it a place perfect for literary tourists.

February book club selections illuminate Black stories

What we’re reviewing

Brandy and Maya Angelou in Moesha.
The Vanishing Act by Brit Bennett

What we’re watching

The 1619 Project on Hulu

The 1619 Project on Hulu

The award-winning literary journalism project brought to us by Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times is a must-see docuseries on Hulu. The 1619 Project has six episodes with four streaming available now. Oprah Winfrey also serves as an executive producer.

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