On Publishing and Racism; How Hashtag Publishing Paid Me Revealed Huge Pay Gaps

A social media campaign tagged #PublishingPaidMe was created on June 6, 2020 by urban fantasy writer L.L. Mckinney as part of the ongoing conversation on racism in the United States.

The campaign questioned the disparity in book advances between black authors and their white peers. Mckinney tweeted that #PublishingPaidMe was intended ‘‘to highlight the disparity between what non-Black authors make vs Black authors.’’

Many writers revealed how much they were paid for book advances and from these responses, it became clear that black writers are paid far less than what nonblack writers are paid. The realization had writers accuse publishing houses, editors, and marketers of discrimination.

Alyssa Cole, author of A Princess in Theory commenting on the #PublishingPaidMe highlighted the crux of the conversation. “Many publishers clearly have the funds to pay Black authors more money, so they should pay Black authors more money,” she said.

…it became clear that black writers are paid far less than what nonblack writers are paid

Brook Sherman, a New York literary agent, spoke about the concept of ‘‘tokenization’’. He tweeted that ‘‘there have been so many instances of a publisher turning down a ‘diverse’ book because they ‘already’ have a (black/Latinx/Queer/ #Metoo) book on their list, so they don’t need another. I’ve encountered this response from publishers. No one can be a monolith for an entire identity or experience. And to use that as the sole reason to reject a project is appalling and small-minded.”

Beyond the disparity in payments of advance, many Black authors noted that, black authors aren’t allowed to fail while white authors still got higher advances on their second books even when their debuts failed to do well.

A widely shared online article by John the Correlator on the New York Times Bestseller List titled We need to talk about the list created further conversation.

Any book that appeared on the New York Times Bestseller list, the article says, was bound to increase in sales by 13 per cent to 14 per cent. For debut authors, being on the NYT Bestseller list increased sales by 57 per cent. However, the question of who appeared more on the list became a point of discussion. The data used was from the 24th of December 2017 to June 8, 2020 and showed that 69 per cent of the bestseller titles were from white authors while 9 per cent were from black authors. The data shines a light on just how white the publishing industry in America is.

there have been so many instances of a publisher turning down a ‘diverse’ book because they ‘already’ have a (black/Latinx/Queer/ #Metoo) book on their list

An advance is a payment given to authors while they are still writing their book. It is based on the projected book sales. Why then does the American publishing industry imagine that books by black authors won’t sell as well as those by their white peers? How is it that an ‘obscure’ white writer is more likely to get a bigger advance that a black writer when statistics show that black women and girls are America’s largest reading demographic?

By Monday June 8, the #PublishingPaidMe campaign took an interesting turn with five employees of the publishing company Farrar, Straus and Giroux organized a ‘day of action’ in which those in media and publishing spent the day working on books by black authors. One of the ‘Big Five’ publishing houses in the world, Penguin Random House also spoke about the concerns being raised. In an email to its employees on Monday, the company promised to share the statistics on the demographics of its workforce. It also committed to increasing the number of books it publishes by people of color.

Furthermore, Penguin Random House will host antiracist training among its staff and a companywide reading assignment of the book ‘How to Be an Antiracist’’ by the American author and scholar Ibram X. Kendi.

Other players in the industry have joined the conversation with more literary agents opening to submissions from black and minority writers. However, one can’t help but wonder about the ‘tokenization’ issue raised by Sherman and how it will affect acquisition of the books once the agent start pitching to publishers.

It is hoped that these ‘reforms’ aren’t just kneejerk reactions that are meant to silence the black community until the hashtags disappear but are part of more sustainable and inclusive policies that will ensure equity and equality across the publishing industry.

Why then does the American publishing industry imagine that books by black authors won’t sell as well as those by their white peers?

Nigerian-Tamal writer Akwaeke Emezi is the first African writer to join the #PublishingPaidMe conversation by disclosing that they received $10,000 for Freshwater, $40,000 for PET and six figures for every subsequent book after that.

The first known African writer to receive a million-dollar advance was the American-based Cameroonian writer Imbolo Mbue, who in 2014, got a $1,000,000 advance from Random House for her first book, ‘‘Behold the Dreamers’’. Zimbabwe’s Petinah Gappah also got a ‘significant’ deal in 2018 on her latest book, ‘‘Out of Darkness, Shining Light’’ which tells the real-life story of how the body of explorer David Livingstone was transported by his African companions from Zambia to Zanzibar.

Disconcertingly, publishing houses across Africa cannot afford to pay advances to writers. Those that do, give very little money. This results in renown African writers ‘running’ to the west whenever they get opportunities to create literary careers. It also forces many, more writers on the continent to turn to literary competitions and prizes like the Short Story Day Africa, Writivism, Commonwealth and AKO-Caine for money. These prizes are, unfortunately, very few and far between, only rewarding one or two writers every year.

As far as advances go, The Morland Foundation Writing Scholarship, given by the UK-based Miles Morland Foundation is the closest many writers on the continent will get to receiving advances. Awarded annually, the scholarship is given to four or five African writers in order to allow the scholars time to produce first drafts of completed novels.

Were African philanthropists and corporates willing to also get involved in sponsoring and funding literary prizes and scholarships, more African writers would be able to afford to write.

It isn’t all doom and gloom in the Kenyan publishing scene though. ‘‘Some local publishers do pay advances. I have been involved with Moran Publishers and Storymoja and received advances from both publishers. Moreover, Storymoja holds an annual royalty party during which they issue cheques to their authors.’’ Says Alice Gichuru, Burt Award winner and author of many titles.

Disconcertingly, publishing houses across Africa cannot afford to pay advances to writers. Those that do, give very little money.

Speaking about the # PublishingPaidMe debate, Kenyan editor Otieno Owino had this to say. ‘‘I am not at all surprised by the campaign. After all, a lot of studies are carried out every year in the UK and USA on the payment disparities, race and even the number of black characters in books. The results are always damning, very damning. #PublishingPaidMe has just brought these conversations to the general public.’’

Owino’s statement highlights another loophole in the publishing industry on the continent: The lack of accurate and up-to-date information on issues such as gender and minority group representation and royalty payment. Too add to this, the lack of literary agents on the continent means that authors are forced to take responsibility for everything that concerns them in the publishing process right from negotiating royalty percentages to interrogating royalty statement and even signing contracts that unfortunately, haven’t passed through the thorough eyes of industry professionals.

There is also the burden of marketing which is increasingly falling on the shoulders of writers. Banker and writer Kinyanjui Kombani believes that writers need to take ownership of their own sales and even co-create marketing plans with the publisher.

‘‘That’s why I am always making noise online, I build my brand so that when my book is out, I can sell at least a few thousand copies. I also work with the sales team in the publishing houses and have befriended the attendants at Text Book Centre so that when people come to the bookshop and ask for a book recommendation, the attendants will likely say my name. You want your name to be on top of their mind.’’ Says Kombani who made a trailer for his book, ‘‘Of Pawns and Players’’ and ended up selling more than 3,000 copies in one week.

Kombani also urges writers to consider other revenue streams to compliment royalties. ‘‘Book sales, appearance fees, coaching other writers, book reviews and ghost writing are great ways to supplement royalties,’’ he concludes.

Oxford Press East Africa MD John Mwazemba believe that the problem is deeper than marketing. ‘‘In Kenya, if a writer of fiction sells 3,000 copies of a books, he has done very well. That same title would sell 400,000 copies if recommended as a set text for literature by KICD. Why the disparity? How hungry are Kenyans for Kenyan fiction?

This article was first published in Print by Kenya’s Nation newspaper.

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