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Book Authors Are Getting Real About How Much They Are Paid

The hashtag #PublishingPaidMe has reignited a conversation about the disparities between how much Black authors and non-Black authors make.

Posted on June 8, 2020, at 4:59 p.m. ET

Frazer Harrison / Getty Images, Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images

Roxane Gay and Jesmyn Ward.

Today, many publishing houses are participating in a day of solidarity, pausing their work and donating to organizations that support the Black Lives Matter movement. But some Black authors are calling out publishing houses for the glaring disparities in how much Black and non-Black authors are paid for their book advances.

This past weekend, two Black YA authors, Tochi Onyebuchi and L.L. McKinney, began a Twitter campaign to prompt the publishing industry to reckon with this gap. “Publishing houses, y'all BLM statements are cute but I'ma need that SAME energy when we start talking Black writers and book advances. If y'all think the receipts are bad now, it's about to be CVS on this website, and y'all don't want that,” Onyebuchi tweeted on Friday. McKinney picked up the momentum, tweeting on Saturday: “Do y'all need a hashtag? #PublishingPaidMe. There you go.”

The hashtag soon took off as prominent authors, such as Roxane Gay, Jesmyn Ward, Shea Serrano, N.K. Jemisin, and Kiese Laymon, were frank about the money (or lack thereof) they received for writing their bestselling, critically acclaimed books.

Ward, a two-time National Book Award winner for 2011’s Salvage the Bones and 2017’s Sing, Unburied Sing, tweeted that even after she won the award for the former book, she had to fight for a $100,000 advance for her next book deal. In contrast, white literary fiction author Lydia Kiesling sold her debut novel, The Golden State, for $200,000; a year and a half after publication, she tweeted, she is still “very far from selling that many books”. Gay received a $15,000 advance for her 2014 New York Times bestselling essay collection, Bad Feminist. In comparison, white author Lacy Johnson tweeted that her 2018 essay collection, The Reckonings, sold for $215,000.

“I think one of the most surprising things is how far [the hashtag] actually went,” McKinney said in a phone interview on Monday. “Like, I expected maybe a few people, the usual good eggs, to be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll say something.’ I did not expect it to reach the likes of Roxane Gay and people outside the YA sphere, because that’s the circle that I usually travel within on social media.”

Gay received a $15,000 advance for her 2014 New York Times bestselling essay collection, Bad Feminist. White author Lacy Johnson tweeted that her 2018 essay collection, The Reckonings, sold for $215,000.

A note on how payments work: An advance — which most of these tweets are referencing — is the amount a publisher pays for a book ahead of its publication; it’s an advance on the royalties the author could receive from book sales, so it is theoretically a projection of those sales. In most cases, the advance is broken up into three installments, paid upon signing of the contract, filing the full manuscript, and the date of publication. The payments are pretax, so money has to be set aside for that; there’s also the agent’s cut, usually 10%–20%. If you are writing nonfiction and you would like to have it fact-checked, you have to personally pay for that, too. Suddenly that $100,000 advance, spread over the course of a year (which would be an incredibly fast turnaround for publishing a book, but let’s go with it) becomes around $60,000 — a decent salary as long as you don’t live in a major city.

Now imagine that same process with an advance of $60,000, which is what New York Times bestselling author N.K. Jemisin received for her most recent book, The City We Became, which came out in March. As Jemisin noted on Twitter, “Advances aren't an indicator of earnings and they aren't an indicator of book quality. … What, then, do they indicate? Let's call them an indicator of ‘consumer confidence.’ Specifically, the publisher's confidence in consumers. And *yeah,* racism has an impact on that confidence. In a racist industry trying to sell books to a racist public within a racist society? Come on. Implicit bias alone will make negotiations harder. There are overtly biased gatekeepers, too.”

Contrast Jesmyn Ward’s trajectory with Emily St. John Mandel’s: In 2014, Mandel published her breakout novel, Station Eleven, a finalist for a National Book Award, for which, according to her, she received a $210,000 advance. The advance she received for her next book, The Glass Hotel, was subsequently much higher, at $800,000 for US rights only, which means she likely received even more with foreign rights sales. The point here isn’t to claim that Mandel is not deserving of this money, but merely to once again highlight the disparities between what Black and non-Black authors are paid.

“I hope that [the publishing industry] stops treating Black authors and Black stories like they’re there just to shut us up.” 

The size of an advance can be the determining factor in who can afford to be a writer and who can’t — or who is paid enough to be able to spend two years writing, editing, and then promoting a book and who has to make time for that while working a second, or even multiple, jobs. It’s worth noting that some authors who get paid low advances are able to “earn out” their advance, which means that their books sell enough for publishers to recoup so the author can start receiving royalty payments, which usually starts at 10% of the retail price of each book sold. Some authors, like fantasy writer Nnedi Okorafor, prefer this route. “Note: I took no advance and a higher royalty percentage for Binti. Great decision,” she tweeted.

But there’s no question that a disparity exists.

For McKinney, she hopes the hashtag and the conversation it provokes is the beginning of concrete change. And she urges publishing houses to actually support Black authors whose books they acquire. “I hope that [the publishing industry] stops treating Black authors and Black stories like they’re there just to shut us up. It almost feels like at times, like, ‘Here, there are some Black stories coming out this year, now shut up and let us go back to doing what we do’ — because those Black stories don’t get a marketing push, they don’t get the budget that you see these other authors get.”

“The bottom line of the #PublishingPaidMe conversation is that many publishers clearly have the funds to pay Black authors more money, so they should pay Black authors more money,” romance writer Alyssa Cole tweeted. “The end.” ●

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