I am new to the publishing world, my debut novel, The Talking Drum was published at the end of May, and I didn’t have a sense of the publishing landscape in terms of the value placed on works by black versus non-black authors. That is, until the arrival of the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe. The hashtag was created by the fantasy novelist L.L. McKinney to highlight the disparities.
I now know that black authors have been having these conversations for quite some time. The conversations picked up speed and drew more attention from the public in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests throughout the United States and other parts of the world regarding police brutality and racial injustice in general.
As an author who is African American, the threads of conversation under the hashtag drew my interest. I followed the tweets closely. Black and non-black authors disclosed the amounts paid for their book advances. The disparities were stunning.
I researched further and came across the Lee & Low Books Diversity Baseline Survey. Lee & Low is the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States. Their 2019 survey—an update and expansion from the 2015 survey—captured information from a large segment of the publishing landscape with all Big 5 publishers participating, all major review journals, and academic presses and literary agencies.
The survey found that overall, the publishing industry is 76% white, 5% black, 6% Latinx, and 7% Asian. Editorial staffs are 85% white, 1% black, 2% Latinx, and 5% Asian. Marketing and publicity departments are 74% white, 4% black, 5% Latinx, and 8% Asian.
I was particularly interested in the findings about book reviewers, being a book reviewer myself and having had my book reviewed by upwards of 40 reviewers during my book launch. I know the impact reviews can have on book sales and publicity. The survey found that among book reviewers 80% are white, 4% black, 3% Latinx, and 4% Asian.
Needless to say, the people behind the books serve as gatekeepers, who can make a huge difference in determining which stories are amplified and which are shut out. If the people who work in publishing are not a diverse group, how can diverse voices truly be represented in its books? The survey found that 71 % of African American fiction is sold by indie and self-published authors. Sales figures show that these books are selling, there is a market for them, but the Big 5 publishers—Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan—largely ignore them.
It took me 10 years to get my novel published. I have no idea if biases or prejudice had anything to do with the length of my journey. Along the way I got great feedback from literary agents and editors who helped me make the novel better. When I finally got a contract, it was from a small press in Toronto, a women’s press that has the mission of publishing women of all backgrounds.
I wonder if I’ll face similar challenges with my second novel. If I acquire a literary agent, will the agent be unable to sell my book to a major publisher? Will I be shut out because of race?
In this era in which reading lists are popping up on the internet urging the public to read black authors, buy black books, and support black-owned and operated bookstores, there also needs to be an outcry over the lack of diversity in the publishing world and the pay disparities between black authors and white authors and between black authors and other authors of color. Unless the publishing industry is held accountable, improvements will not be made.