Just How White Is the Book Industry?

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

The New York Times published an article explaining the lack of diversity in publishing and it's impact on the public's access to books by authors of color.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah had just turned 26 when he got the call in 2017 that Mariner Books wanted to publish his short-story collection, “Friday Black.”

Mr. Adjei-Brenyah suspected that the contract he signed — a $10,000 advance for “Friday Black” and $40,000 for an unfinished second book — wasn’t ideal. But his father had cancer and the money provided a modicum of security.

Mr. Adjei-Brenyah’s uneasiness over his book deal became more acute last summer. Using the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, writers had begun to share their advances on Twitter with the goal of exposing racial pay disparities in publishing. Some white authors disclosed that they had been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their debut books.

... As #PublishingPaidMe spread online, more than a thousand people in the publishing industry signed up for a day of action to support the Black community.

Publishing executives responded by releasing statements expressing support for racial justice, announcing antiracism training and promising to put out more books by writers of color. If they follow through, last summer’s activism could diversify the range of voices that American readers encounter for years to come.

...How many current authors are people of color? As far as we could tell, that data didn’t exist. So we set out to collect it. First, we gathered a list of English-language fiction books published between 1950 and 2018.

... Of the 7,124 books for which we identified the author’s race, 95 percent were written by white people.

Author diversity at major publishing houses has increased in recent years, but white writers still dominate. Non-Hispanic white people account for 60 percent of the U.S. population; in 2018, they wrote 89 percent of the books in our sample.

This broad imbalance is likely linked to the people who work in publishing. The heads of the “big five” publishing houses (soon, perhaps, to become the “big four”) are white. So are 85 percent of the people who acquire and edit books, according to a 2019 survey.

“There’s a correlation between the number of people of color who work in publishing and the number of books that are published by authors of color,” said Tracy Sherrod, the editorial director of Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins that is focused on Black literature.

That correlation is visible in our data, exemplified by Toni Morrison’s career as an editor at Random House from 1967 to 1983. Random House’s first female Black editor, Ms. Morrison championed writers such as Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas and Gayl Jones. During her tenure, 3.3 percent of the 806 books published by Random House in our data were written by Black authors.

The number of Black authors dropped sharply at Random House after Ms. Morrison left. Of the 512 books published by Random House between 1984 and 1990 in our data, just two were written by Black authors: Ms. Morrison’s “Beloved” (through Knopf, which was owned by Random House) and “Sarah Phillips,” by Andrea Lee.

...In 1967, the same year that Ms. Morrison joined Random House, Marie Dutton Brown started as an intern at Doubleday and eventually rose to the rank of senior editor. Now a literary agent, Ms. Brown said that she witnessed how ephemeral gains for Black writers can be.

“Black life and Black culture are rediscovered every 10 to 15 years,” said Ms. Brown. “Publishing reflects that.”

Ms. Brown attributed the fluctuation in publishers’ support for Black writers to the news cycle, which periodically directs the nation’s attention to acts of brutality against Black people. Publishers’ interest in amplifying Black voices wanes as media coverage peters out because “many white editors are not exposed to Black life beyond the headlines,” Ms. Brown said.

...Look at the books that appeared on The New York Times’s best-seller list for fiction, though, and a different picture emerges: Only 22 of the 220 books on the list this year were written by people of color.

L.L. McKinney, an author of young-adult novels who started the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag, wasn’t surprised by the statistics on how few Black authors have been published relative to white authors.

“I’ve heard things like, ‘We already have our Black girl book for the year,’” said Ms. McKinney. She also remembered comments suggesting books wouldn’t sell well if they had a Black person on the cover.

... Michael Strother, a former editor at Simon & Schuster, remembers the meeting in 2016 when he realized how limited his white colleagues’ imaginations were when it came to Black authors. Mr. Strother was trying to persuade executives to authorize a large bid for “The Hate U Give,” Angie Thomas’s young-adult novel about the fallout from a police shooting.

Co-workers in the meeting praised the book; others teared up as they discussed its importance. “It was not only a good book, but a marketable book and an important book,” Mr. Strother said. “It should have been an easy yes.”

Some of Mr. Strother’s white colleagues were hesitant, though. One asked, “Do we need Angie Thomas if we have Jason Reynolds?” (Mr. Reynolds is another Black author of young-adult novels.)

“Their books are not similar at all except they both have Black characters,” said Mr. Strother, who is now a law student at New York University.

Mr. Strother, whose account of the meeting was corroborated by one other person who was present, said he was authorized to bid far less than what he knew he would need to win the auction. Since it was published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins, in 2017, “The Hate U Give” has spent 196 weeks on the Times young-adult best-seller list.

... A few days after Mr. Adjei-Brenyah tweeted his book deal, he received a message from his agent: Mariner Books wanted to restructure his contract and pay him “a lot more” for his second book.

Mr. Adjei-Brenyah viewed his publisher’s reaction to his tweet as a small step toward dismantling decades of racism in publishing. “I’ve been growing into my courage,” he said. “Now I have to carry that energy forward.”

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