A Retrospective Look at #PublishingPaidMe
By Jia Wen Ho, Michelle Ye, Leanne Francis and Shaniah Shields
In the tumultuous year that was 2020, a hashtag that was started by author L.L. McKinney called on transparency around publishing advances. #PublishingPaidMe, which was trending on Twitter, was used to expose racial disparities in pay in the publishing industry. Many authors were sharing what they were paid to write their books in order to highlight the disparity between what Black and white writers earn from their publishers. The result was a call for transparency and openness from publishers in their communications with authors.
Now, nearly three years on, we are retrospectively reviewing #PublishingPaidMe and considering how the publishing industry and general publishing landscape has changed in recent years.
How #PublishingPaidMe Began
Prior to the #PublishingPaidMe trend, discussions about disparities in writer compensation were sparked, for example, by the release of Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt. Unfortunately, surges in the conversation often died down and were left to fade into memory. McKinney’s hashtag moved beyond obscurity, becoming the catalyst for and supporting subsequent movements. #PublishingPaidMe led to the creation of a public spreadsheet where writers detailed their earnings, race and book genre. The collated data includes thousands of entries with publication dates spanning from the 1990s to 2022 and puts in stark black and white the connection between race and payment. McKinney remarked that writers had always known this gap existed, but it was not until #PublishingPaidMe prompted widespread responses that they realised the gap was actually a chasm. The momentum generated by #PublishingPaidMe pushed forward a day of solidarity across the publishing industry, in which over a thousand workers pledged to donate their earnings to various fundraisers. Other hashtags followed, such as #BlackoutBestseller, carrying on the usage of social media influence to amplify BIPOC voices in publishing.
Authors Share Their Experiences
The growth of #PublishingPaidMe prompted BIPOC and white authors to share their book advances on social media. It was disappointing but not surprising to see that award-winning Black authors such as Jesmyn Ward (recipient of two National Book Awards) and N.K. Jemisin, recipient of three Hugo Awards, received much smaller advances than their white counterparts. “Virtually unknown white authors, meanwhile, report getting astronomical advances on debut novels, with no track record to speak of” noted Vox, who revealed how Chip Cheek received a whopping $800,000 advance on his debut novel, in stark contrast to N.K. Jemisin’s $250,000.
Other notable authors such as Matt Haig and Malorie Blackman also spoke up. Matt Haig, a white British author, revealed that he received £5,000 for his first book and £600,000 for his tenth. Whilst Malorie Blackman, author of Noughts and Crosses, could not disclose her earnings, she stated that she had “never in my life received anything like the sums being posted by some white authors.” White sci-fi author John Scalzi, whose recent deal was $3.4 million, pointed out that publicly sharing his pay does not mean he ends up making less, but that “other people end up getting paid more fairly for what they’re doing.”
More quotes by authors who participated in the campaign can be found here.
Where We Are Now
#PublishingPaidMe was hotly discussed in 2020, resulting in better transparency for authors’ pay. After three years, when the discussion has settled, did the publishing industry change for the better?
Unfortunately, it appears that the publishing landscape did not evolve much after #PublishingPaidMe. CREATe published a report in December 2022, showing the sustainability of the writing profession is seriously questioned. Since 2006, there has been a sustained decline of 60% in the median income of writers’ earnings. Regrettably, the chasmic ethnicity pay gap between Black and multi-heritage writers and their white counterparts persist, with Black and multi-heritage authors paid 51% lower.
The situation inside the publishing industry is also disheartening, especially with the ongoing strike by 250 HarperCollins employees for stronger union protections, better pay and more support for diverse employees. With an ultimatum of striking until HarperCollins corporate signs a contract with these demands, the union employees are still on strike after more than fifty days. Recently, there have been talks to reach a contract, however this prolonged strike cast an ominous cloud over the publishing industry.
#PublishingPaidMe started the necessary conversation about pay, but the conversation must continue, as change is yet to be seen.
Our Hopes for the Future
The UK’s former children’s laureate Malorie Blackman tweeted during the #PublishingPaidMe trend: “as BIPOC creatives, we need to keep getting up, no matter how many times we get knocked down.” Although these conversations may be uncomfortable, the #PublishingPaidMe movement highlighted how necessary it is that we level the playing field for BIPOC authors.
As readers, bloggers, booksellers and publishing hopefuls, we each have the power to champion books by underrepresented writers and push marginalised voices to the forefront of publishing. Looking to the future, it is essential that publishing becomes more transparent and inclusive, providing an equally paid platform for all creatives.