White writers report large advances and ad dollars
In the last two weeks, there have been so many call-outs, resignations, and solidarity efforts in the publishing industry that I can’t possibly name them all. Agents from Red Sofa and Corvisiero resigned, leadership at Bon Appetit and the Poetry Foundation have stepped down, the New York Times’ magic algorithm for determining best sellers might be racist, J.K. Rowling is a TERF, and industry staffers organized a day of action under the hashtag #PubWorkers4BlackLives. Staff at Refinery29 dedicated a day in solidarity with their Black coworkers, who only make up 18% of the media outlet’s staff.
For the last week or so, many in the book world have united around the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, where writers are disclosing their publishing advances. One brave data-driven soul has organized the responses into a spreadsheet for easier viewing. (As a note here: there is a distinction between advances, royalties, and “earning out,” helpfully explained by writer N.K. Jemisin.)
Following the same trend that American Dirt brought up what feels like decades ago, white writers with limited publishing bona fides are reporting huge advances, while many well-known Black and Brown authors of award-winning books have shared their meagre payouts.
“I wrote Salvage the Bones without an advance…Even after Salvage the Bones won the NBA, my publishing company did not want to give me 100k for my next novel. My agent and I fought and fought before we wrestled our way to that number,” wrote author Jesmyn Ward, who won the National Book Award for fiction in 2011 for Salvage the Bones and in 2017 for Sing, Unburied Sing. “So when I do interviews and tell people that I love my characters, that I tell the stories I do because I feel a responsibility to write about my people, to amplify the voices of those of us who have been erased or flattened, to complicate us, I ain’t lying.”
“It’s pretty well known but $12,500 for An Untamed State, $15,000 for Bad Feminist, $100k for Hunger, $150k for Year I Learned Everything and a significant jump for my next 2 nonfiction books,” wrote Roxane Gay. “The discrepancy along racial lines is very real. Keep your day job.”
In response to Gay’s tweets, author Mandy Len Catron tweeted, “I, a totally unknown white woman with one viral article, got an advance that was more than double what @rgay got for her highest advance. #publishingpaidme $400,000 for How to Fall in Love with Anyone.”
Another white debut author Chip Cheek shared his publishing deal in the same vein of transparency, tweeting, “#PublishingPaidMe an $800k advance for my debut, which changed my life. I’m still in shock about it. But I’m more shocked to see the numbers from writers of color like the extraordinary Jesmyn Ward. I hope this movement begins to change things.”
Cheek has, unfortunately, become the butt of many jokes, but his exorbitant advance has been a sticking point in the conversation around whose voices get industry dollars. Writers and publishing insiders alike have reported the reasons Black authors have been rejected from top publishers, like, “Black people don’t read.” To which writer Angie Thomas replied, “The Hate U Give has sold millions of copies!”
“Not one bit surprised about the $800k deal. There’s an agent who broke down all the points: ‘part of a literary community,’ ‘published … stories in the right places,’ ‘gone to the right writer’s workshops,’” tweeted writer Emily X.R. Pan in a very thorough thread. “All of the above ‘pros’ funnel down from systemic racism.”
“Your ‘readers need to buy more Black books so we can acquire more!!!’ arguments are falling apart right in front of my eyes,” wrote publicist Cristina Arreola.