Over a week ago as Black Lives Matters protests began to fill city streets all over the world sparked by the callous killing of George Floyd, corporations began promoting their messages of support on social media message boards. Within the publishing industry, the biggest companies began expressing their solidarity with Black people and proclaimed their outright rejection of racism. For many Black, Indigenous and Authors of Colour, however, there was too large a gulf between what these publishing houses were now saying about racism and what they have historically done about it.
For the last decade or so, those of us who work in and around publishing, especially in the US, the UK and Australia have been aware of an increasingly public discussion about race, racial identity and publishing. For the past four years US company Lee & Low books has undertaken a Diversity Survey of those who work within the publishing industry and found that 76 per cent of people who work within the publishing industry self-identify as white. In 2017 in the UK, the Jhalak Prize for the best book by a BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writer was established, in America the We Need Diverse Books began in 2014 and the VIDA Count widened its scope to capture, among other things, race and ethnicity. In Australia, Voices from the Intersection which championed Own Voices writing gained traction and the Stella Count also incorporated diversity measures in its 2015 count.
These movements began because of an awareness of the racial inequalities and biases that have persisted within the publishing industry. They have alluded to the fact that Black, Indigenous and Writers of Colour are not published as widely, reviewed as well or promoted as vociferously as their white counterparts. They have also railed at the way Black, Indigenous and Characters of Colour are treated by white authors, and the way they take up the industry’s quota for stories of non-white people. To be fair, this is not just the fault of the publishing industries –literary awards, festivals, and educational institutions such as universities – have also contributed to the conflation of whiteness and great writing and have centred white stories, authors and characters for far too long.
But money has never been mentioned before now, and that’s because money is one of the publishing industries best kept secrets. Yet, the question of book advances (i.e. how much a publishing house offers you based on how they think the book will sell) and how much they can vary was dragged out into full view last weekend when Black writers, tired of the easy words and shallow sentiments of the publishing industry dragged the subject out for all to see.
Despite the eye-watering advances in the US (compared to Australia, which of course, is a much smaller market), the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag (created by LL McKinney and Tochi Onyebuchi to highlight he disparity between Black and non-Black authors) has proven what writers have suspected for a long time – that Black, Indigenous and Writers of Colour have been chronically underpaid when compared to their white peers. In one of the most poignant examples, N.K. Jemisin who is the only author to ever win the prestigious Hugo Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy was paid advances between $25,000 and $40,000 for each of her books, while Laura Sebastian who writes in the same genre was paid advances between $125,000 to $200,000 for each of her books. #PublishingPaidMe has been used widely by Black writers and quite a few white female authors have also used the hashtag but the uptake by white (cis) male authors remains paltry, which keeps their advances hidden.
This laying bare of pay discrepancies within publishing is important. Writing is hard work, and as Australian authors, who make an average of $12,000 per year, will tell you, it is no way to make a living. One of the troubling things about small advances is how difficult they make writing and how quickly they could encourage writers to stop writing altogether. For Black, Indigenous and Writers of Colour (who are already over-represented in working-class and poor communities) who don’t receive enough of an income to write, then writing becomes an impossibility, no matter the urgency and importance of the stories they need to tell. Alexis Wright states that in Australia ‘Aboriginal people have not been in charge of the stories other people tell about us’ and she demonstrates how these stories continue to have real, often traumatic implications for First Nations people.
The dearth of these voices means that the stories we tell continue to be one-sided, expanding the humanity of a portion of the population while reducing the humanity of another. It reaffirms whose lives we are supposed to consider first, and whose should come last. This is manifest everywhere we look and does real damage. And we should not stop until this has changed.
Dr Natalie Kon-Yu is a writer, academic and editor whose work has been published nationally and internationally.