If you were on Twitter this weekend (and are reading this) you probably came across the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag, a place for writers to reveal what they were paid by publishers for their books. Started by author LL McKinney, #PublishingPaidMe is in some ways a response to the now ubiquitous corporate declarations of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement (some of these are substantive, most are not), and is—as an exercise in financial transparency—an important way of putting a number on the systemic racism that undergirds American society, including publishing.
Aside from the stark difference in payment between white writers and writers of color, many things jump out from a quick tour through the hashtag—disparities between genres, the willingness to gamble on debuts, the degree to which most casual readers don’t get the function of an advance—but by far the most troubling revelation was from two-time National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward, who was paid an advance of only $100K for Sing, Unburied, Sing, even after having won an NBA for Salvage the Bones:
The novel that earned me my first 100k advance? Sing, Unburied, Sing.
— Jesmyn Ward (@jesmimi) June 8, 2020
It will make sense to a lot of people within publishing to fall back on sales numbers as a way to justify these seemingly baffling decisions, but that reliance on data fails to account for the way in which entire communities are dismissed as potential audiences, which in turn effects the way a book is marketed and sold. In this way (and apologies for quoting myself from Twitter):
Publishing is a pretty tidy microcosm of the way capitalism reinforces and expands racist power structures; so many decisions justified by “the invisible hand of the market” when that hand is white. And like “C” capitalism it distributes and dilutes moral decision-making across a chain of interests, from writer to agent to editor and on up, making systemic change seem impossible.
This is why financial transparency is important, and is a step toward change.
I’ll leave the last word to bestselling author N.K. Jemisin, who has also been dramatically underpaid:
OK folks. Getting lots of questions about #PublishingPaidMe, and need to clear up misconceptions. A lot of people are treating advances like the earnings for a book, and… no. Basically advances indicate what the publishing industry *thinks* readers will like in the future.
— N. K. Jemisin (@nkjemisin) June 7, 2020