Why is the publishing industry still so white?
Learn how to break down barriers for writers of color.
In recent years, we’ve seen the need for increased representation in media gain more traction. But despite appearances toward progress, the publishing industry is still woefully behind. According to a New York Times study, out of the thousands of English language books published between 1950 and 2018, only 5% were written by non-white authors. Zeroing in on 2018, just 11% of books published were written by people of color. In today’s era of mass consolidation, where the number of major U.S. publishers continues to shrink, the diversity of literature is further at stake. The consolidation of the publishing industry will lead to lower competition, and consequently, lower advances, which disproportionately harms writers from marginalized backgrounds. From the publisher’s perspective, the bigger the company, the less willing they are to take risks. And with more books that simply appeal to the lowest common denominator, we’ll see a homogenization of ideas in mainstream discourse.
So why are there so few writers of color in the publishing industry?
Many reasons, but here are four:
#1: “There’s only one seat at the table.”
As a writer of color, when I was querying literary agents with a book set in a fantastical China, I often received rejections with replies like: “Unfortunately, I already represent a work similar to yours.” If I had to make a guess, the agent probably meant a work that also took place in a China-inspired setting. But the idea that there’s only one seat at the table for every minority group is a myth. As we can see from bestseller lists, the market is ready for more than token representation. There’s room for all of us.
#2: A narrow definition of “literature.”
A reader on Instagram commented saying essentially “I just read books, I don’t care about the author or their race” and here’s the issue with that: besides erasing part of a creator’s identity, publishing is an industry that rewards and uplifts certain voices (read: white ones).
— Victoria/V.E. Schwab (@veschwab) June 2, 2020
Conventional western narratives favor a focus on conflict and individualism, with common tropes such as man versus man or man versus nature. (Remember Lord of the Flies? Macbeth?) But to characterize “literature” as only fitting within these styles is to exclude a plethora of non-western literary traditions. Take a look at Chinese literature, for example. If we use a western framework to analyze celebrated classics such as Dream of Red Chamber, we can construe the pacing as slow and the plot as boring. But if instead we recognize our subconscious biases and shift our understanding of what a novel is, we can grow to appreciate stories with a focus on community rather than individuals, constancy rather than change.
#3: The price we’re willing to pay for diverse authors. (Spoiler: Not much.)
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.
— Jesmyn Ward (@jesmimi) June 8, 2020
After #PublishingPaidMe went viral in early June of 2020, authors began self-reporting their advance figures to a Google spreadsheet. One week later, of the 122 writers who said they earned at least $100,000, 78 of them identified as white, seven as black and two said they were Latin American.
In 2020, author L.L. McKinney started the hashtag, #PublishingPaidMe, after realizing that authors of color were disproportionately paid lower advances compared to their white peers. Even when those books went on to become bestsellers, (see Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist), the advance the author received was negligible. Why does this matter? An advance is a payment offered by a publisher against royalties before the book is published. Because this sum is offered before publication, the size of your advance can impact how much marketing budget and attention your publisher will give your book. Books with large advances often become “lead titles,” which are the most pushed books during each publishing season–the books that you see on windowfront displays, social media features, and newspaper ads. This aggressive publicity then lends itself to higher sales numbers, which lead to steady royalty payments. Thus, the authors with higher advances have a greater chance at staying in this ultra-competitive business.
Another factor to consider is the publishing timeline delay. Because of the way the publishing cycle works, authors usually write their book two years before the book comes out. This means that authors cannot start depending on royalties until two years after they’ve finished their book. If you’re a full-time author with no other revenue streams, then you need your advance to sustain you in the lead-up to publication. For this reason, marginalized authors often can’t survive on their writing income alone, forcing them to take on another job and deprioritize their creative work.
#4: The people behind the scenes.
The latest diversity numbers in book publishing were released this morning. Figures show the industry is JUST AS WHITE as it was four years ago. This study includes 153 book publishers & agencies, including The Big 5 publishers, which control nearly 80 % of the market. @LEEandLOW pic.twitter.com/IjHQ6MNIsL
— Esmeralda Bermudez (@BermudezWrites) January 28, 2020
Customers like the familiar. Just as we befriend people who think and act and look like us, we also seek stories that resonate with our existing beliefs and opinions. In a Lee & Low Diversity in Publishing survey conducted in 2019, 75% of the publishing industry overall identified as white.
of the publishing industry overall identified as white in 2019.
When white agents are in charge of choosing which manuscripts they think will sell, which then go to white editors who choose which manuscripts to buy, it’s no wonder that a majority of books published each year also end up being white. And even when white industry professionals are intentionally seeking stories centering people of color, they will most likely prefer stories that fit their existing schemas around these people. (See: American Dirt controversy.) That’s not to say change is impossible. When we give people of color leadership positions within publishing, change starts from within. Gradually, both the norms of the industry and the types of books published change at a tangible scale.
So what can we do?
- Read diversely and widely. Read outside our comfort zones.
- Interrogate our biases. If a particular story doesn’t resonate, consider why. Is it because the book doesn’t fit within our schema of how a story should function? Is it because the characters don’t operate in the ways we expect them to?
- Advocate for inclusive hiring practices. We need greater representation on both the creative side and the industry side.
As Haruki Murakami once said, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
K. X. Song is a diaspora writer with roots in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Her debut novel, An Echo in the City, is forthcoming with Little, Brown in Summer 2023. Currently, she resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit her online at kxsong.com and find her on Instagram and Twitter at @ksongwrites.
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