A Challenge And A Hashtag: Exposing Racial Inequities In The Book Business

Jun 15, 2020

June 1: Penguin Random House tweeted from their verified account, “We stand against racism and violence toward the black community. And we commit to listening—to our readers, to our authors, and to our teams—as we work toward becoming part of the change.”

That same day, a tweet from Macmillan Publishers included these words from its CEO: "We stand against racism. Black Voices Matter. Black Stories Matter. Black Lives Matter.”

Other major publishers followed suit.

For black authors these statements rang hollow. We’ve long suspected we rarely command the same advance payments as our white counterparts.

Advances really matter. There are a few books I'm dying to write. But they require a volume of research and a commitment I can't afford. I can't take time off to craft those books the way they would need to be crafted. Bigger checks would afford me that time.

So I tweeted a challenge to publishers regarding pay disparity and anti-blackness, subsequently daring white authors to prove their allyship by disclosing what they were paid for their books.

The tweet gained traction, and the following day, a fellow Young Adult author L.L. McKinney tweeted: “Let’s do it. Let’s have the conversation.”

Not long after McKinney's #PublishingPaidMe upended Book Twitter, Roxane Gay tweeted to much shock that she’d received only $15,000 for the much-acclaimed and New York Times-bestselling "Bad Feminist."

White author Lydia Kiesling received an advance of $200,000 for her literary debut novel while Jesmyn Ward, who is black, received $20,000 for her National Book Award-winning "Salvage the Bones." 

Young Adult author Laura Sebastian, who is white, was paid $185,000 per book for her "Ash Princess" trilogy, while black author N.K. Jemisin — for each book in her lauded "Broken Earth" trilogy — received only $25,000.

And now I must ask the publishing industry: If black stories matter, why aren’t they worth as much as white stories?

Tochi Onyebuchi's new novel, “Rebel Sisters,” a sequel to “War Girls,” will be published this October. Onyebuchi lives in New Haven, Connecticut.