Book Authors Are Getting Real About How Much They Are Paid
June 10, 2020 7:08 AM   Subscribe

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

The numbers are about advances, which aren't the whole picture, but as N.K. Jemisin (the first person to win three Best Novel Hugos in a row) pointed out, "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."
posted by Etrigan (16 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wonder how advances compare to the reportedly predatory singing of bands to a record contract. Also "hollywood accounting"? And are there any big payouts from poetry journals, or is it all in academic brownie points?

There should be some kind of new deal style overall funding for the arts. (which would lead to a cottage industry of consultants helping to tune grant proposals and help jump ahead in the funding lottery)

FALGSC NOW
posted by sammyo at 8:13 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


And are there any big payouts from poetry journals

There are not. I'm sure The New Yorker pays more, but Poetry, for instance, pays $10/line, with a minimum payment of $300. Ploughshares pays $45/page to a maximum of $450. It only drops off from there.

The same system of advances applies to poetry collections, the numbers are just smaller.
posted by wreckingball at 8:29 AM on June 10 [5 favorites]


And are there any big payouts from poetry journals

Award-winning poet Danez Smith weighs in [twitter]
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:46 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]


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."
As someone pointed out, publishers' confidence also tends to be, at least to some extent, a self-fulfilling prophecy, because publishers tend to put a lot of promotional muscle behind books that they think will do well and in which they've already invested a significant advance. Since those books get publicity and marketing support, they are more likely to do well, and then the publishers can turn around and say that they were right, and they're only giving white authors bigger advances because those white authors sell better. And the truth is that lots of authors might sell just as well if they were given the same resources and support.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:58 AM on June 10 [27 favorites]


Yeah, hearing some of the (slightly) older execs - solid liberals! would have voted for Obama if they hadn't been British! - in the industry justify never paying for say a black sportsman's autobiography because "they just don't sell" has been a ride every time it's come up...
posted by ominous_paws at 11:38 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]


This is part of why self-publishing is so popular.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:52 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


I'm not justifying anything any of these publishers say, but I can't help but feel responsible, and also feel the need to hold other white people complicit, because the fact of the matter is - we just don't consume black media. "It doesn't sell", however bastardous an excuse it is, is true. I consume more black media than any other white people I know, and it's still not enough. White people can, and do, spend millions of dollars relating to aliens or dwarves or ninjas, but they'll (we'll) be damned if we try to relate to an American black woman.
posted by FirstMateKate at 1:03 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


To expound on that: publishing is rife with lots of bullshit, all of it enabled by the artificial scarcity model of publishing. Racism, sexism, a general belief that authors don't really need to be paid. Lots of people opt out of that. I'd like to see how self-publishing treats black writers, but the article doesn't go into it.
posted by schadenfrau at 1:04 PM on June 10 [4 favorites]


As someone pointed out, publishers' confidence also tends to be, at least to some extent, a self-fulfilling prophecy, because publishers tend to put a lot of promotional muscle behind books that they think will do well and in which they've already invested a significant advance.

There's also just the straight up racism of what they believe is marketable or a good story. Remember that book that was about a dystopian future where brown people were put in concentration camps, and the book was about the young white woman savior's journey to being a white savior? Like that's who you think has the most interesting story in this world?

I know they make an argument about marketability -- like, for the same reason that they tell women to use their initials so men will still buy their books, they believe that white people aren't going to buy books by black people -- but 1) that's a self-fulfilling prophecy, as ArbitraryandCapricious pointed out, and 2) if there's a medium that isn't beholden to what the author looks like, it's freaking books.

I think there is a larger problem, in that white people tend to prefer stories that make them feel better, and those tend to be racist trash stories written by other white people. But that is ripe for change among significant portions of the market, and you don't need to chase racist dollars. Christ.
posted by schadenfrau at 1:14 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


I don't follow publishing. But just $60k for N.K. Jemisin's most recent book? She's won the Hugo THREE times in a row. I'm not even following contemporary SFF that closely, but I know when a Jemisin book is coming out, and how very, very long I'll have to wait if I want to borrow it from the library.
posted by jb at 1:28 PM on June 10 [14 favorites]


All of these things are true:

- Greater transparency around every aspect of what authors are paid is a good thing. (A wonderful earlier effort, focused on short form writing, was Scratch, a similar spreadsheet/web site that grew into a book.)

- Book advances are non-refundable advances against total eventual royalties, not a flat fee for writing.

- Roughly 80% of books don't earn more their initial advance.

- Publishers look to prior sales of comparable books when assessing how big an advance they are willing to offer a first-time author.

- Assessing what books are appropriate comparables is an imprecise art, to put it charitably.

- Different genres (literary vs. science fiction/fantasy, for example) have different sizes of core audience and thus a different range of sales expectations (and advances) for a first-time novelist.

- Publishers act as if they don't understand the "sunk cost fallacy," and thus the larger the advance they paid, the more they will also usually invest in a book's eventual publicity and marketing.

- Among the several hundred thousand books released by publishing companies each year in the United States, there are very few "make books," where the company aggressively mounts a major publicity and marketing campaign.

- For the vast majority of books, including those released by a major corporate publisher, the vast majority of publicity and marketing efforts come from the author.

- As William Goldman famously said about Hollywood, and which applies to all the culture businesses, "Nobody knows anything."

- Publishers are commercial, profit-seeking entities that are desperate to attract the greatest number of readers.

- Despite all the fancy spreadsheets, publishers' business decisions on advances, marketing, etc. are based on subjective personal judgments.

- All subjective personal judgments are affected by the existing systems of patriarchy and white supremacy. (Another wonderful example of calling attention to biases that affect writers' opportunities is the Vida Count.)

- Publishers need to do much more to acknowledge these systems and of patriarchy and white supremacy and work to overcome them.

- The #PublishingPaysMe campaign is a wonderful effort.
posted by PhineasGage at 1:57 PM on June 10 [7 favorites]


There's a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy in these decisions: "Books by black authors don't sell" -> books by black authors don't get marketing pushes, aren't aggressively pushed by sales reps, aren't set up to be successful -> "Oh, we were right, books by black authors don't sell."

(And from Jennifer Laughran on Twitter, an agent and part-time bookseller:
As a bookstore buyer I would hear things like “you don’t need [insert BIPOC-authored book] in the store” and “[BIPOC] books don’t sell” from certain Sales reps. Selling their OWN LIST. Like... that was ten years ago, maybe they don’t SAY IT ALOUD anymore, but...To be crystal clear: their job was to sell me vast quantities of wonderful books, my job was to eagerly buy them to display in the bookstore. But some would... routinely discourage accounts from buying in certain of their own books. Can you guess why?
)
posted by Jeanne at 3:44 PM on June 10 [11 favorites]


Thanks for sharing this. I had no idea and found this really surprising. In my mind, most of those black authors are really famous and write great books. I've recommended Jesmyn Ward, Roxanne Gay and Nnedi Okorafor to multiple people; I was just telling my mom a few weeks ago that I think Jesmyn Ward is one of the most interesting novelists to follow these days. The only one of the white authors I've even heard of Emily St. John Mandel (I did really like Station Eleven). A $15,000 advance for Bad Feminist seems insane! Maybe this is a case of it being so hard for black authors to get published that the ones who do are often really good. I'm not really sure what to do with this information other than keep recommending these books, buying them as gifts and requesting my small town library purchase them.
posted by carolr at 9:54 PM on June 10


I wonder how advances compare to the reportedly predatory singing of bands to a record contract.

From reading Charlie Stross’ articles (see his blog) on the publishing industry & how it functions, book contracts are wildly different than record company contracts.

I doubt you can show me a record company contract that contains reversion rights as a standard clause for example.
posted by pharm at 3:37 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


Transparency can be so powerful, because discrimination is helped by secrecy. If no one knows what other people are earning, it is easier for a company to, say, pay women or people of color lower salaries without fear of consequences.

And this is so angering, to see writers I like and respect getting so little reward and respect for their efforts. They deserve so much better.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:49 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


Sammyo:

"I wonder how advances compare to the reportedly predatory singing of bands to a record contract."

Not very much at all because unlike record contracts, nothing about the production or marketing process is charged back to the author (whereas in record contacts that's a frequent occurrence). Likewise, profits from a single book are not amortized across all a publisher's projects, i.e., "Hollywood Accounting." The closest publishing usually comes to this is "basketing," in which the advances of a two (or more) books are contractually bound together so one doesn't see royalties on any book until all the books are earned out. But that practice can usually be punted or at least trimmed back by a good agent.

It's not to say that publisher contracts are going to favor the writer -- lol no they are not, get yourself an agent and possibly a lawyer -- but as a rule they are far less egregious than the contracts in other entertainment fields.

Several years ago when I was president of SFWA, Random House tried to launch an ebook-only imprint with contract terms that very much replicated all the bad features of music contracts and Hollywood accounting. We stomped on that shit hard, and Random House quickly backtracked. That imprint doesn't exist anymore, I'm happy to say.
posted by jscalzi at 7:44 AM on June 11 [12 favorites]


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