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 Méndez 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.