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Opinion | Just How White Is the Book Industry?

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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.


I, a totally unknown white woman with one viral article, got an advance that was more than double what @rgay got for her highest advance. #publishingpaidme $400,000 for How to Fall in Love with Anyone. I've written an essay about this (forthcoming) but I want to say more here: — Mandy Len Catron (@LenMandy)


Mr. Adjei-Brenyah wanted to share his contract. But he knew that doing so could make his publisher look bad and hurt his career. “It’s scary when it’s your life,” he said.

Reticence gave way to action, though, when he thought about Jesmyn Ward’s tweet about how she “fought and fought” for a $100,000 advance, even after one of her novels won a National Book Award.

Mr. Adjei-Brenyah started to type.

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.


Statements released by publishers on social media last summer condemning racism.

But measuring progress isn’t easy, and requires a baseline to compare against: 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. That list came from WorldCat, a global catalog of library collections. We wanted to focus on books that were widely read, so we limited our analysis to titles that were held by at least 10 libraries and for which we could find digital editions.

We also constrained our search to books released by some of the most prolific publishing houses during the period of our analysis: Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Doubleday (a major publisher before it merged with Random House in 1998), HarperCollins and Macmillan. After all that we were left with a dataset containing 8,004 books, written by 4,010 authors.

To identify those authors’ races and ethnicities, we worked alongside three research assistants, reading through biographies, interviews and social media posts. Each author was reviewed independently by two researchers. If the team couldn’t come to an agreement about an author’s race, or there simply wasn’t enough information to feel confident, we omitted those authors’ books from our analysis. By the end, we had identified the race or ethnicity of 3,471 authors.

We guessed that most of the authors would be white, but we were shocked by the extent of the inequality once we analyzed the data. 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.


Want your book published? It helps to be white.





100% of fiction books published

Just 11% of books in 2018 were written by people of color

89% were written by

white writers

100% of fiction books published

Just 11% of books in 2018 were written by people of color

89% were written by

white writers

100% of fiction books published

Just 11% of books in 2018 were written by people of color

89% were written by

white writers


Note: Among a sample of more than 7,000 books published by Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Doubleday, HarperCollins and Macmillan.·Source: “Redlining Culture” by Richard Jean So

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.

(Random House published 12 books during this period by non-Black writers of color such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Michael Ondaatje, according to our data. In a response to our analysis, Random House pointed out that it was the longtime publisher of Maya Angelou, whose autobiography “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” was released in 1986; because it is a work of nonfiction, it is not included in our statistics.)

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 at her desk at Doubleday in 1976.


“Many white editors are not exposed to Black life beyond the headlines,” said Ms. Brown, pictured here at her desk at Doubleday in 1976.Courtesy Marie Dutton Brown

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.

The lack of diversity among authors might be obscured by a small number of high-profile nonfiction books written by athletes, celebrities and politicians of color, according to Ms. Brown. “It gives the appearance that there are a lot of Black books published,” while publishers’ less famous “mid-list” authors are overwhelmingly white, she said.

Literary prizes may also make publishing appear more diverse than it actually is. Over the past decade, more than half of the 10 most recent books that were awarded the National Book Award for fiction were written by people of color; Colson Whitehead has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice in the past four years.

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.

In a 1950 essay titled “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” Zora Neale Hurston identified the chicken-or-egg dilemma at the heart of publishers’ conservatism. White people, she wrote, cannot conceive of Black people outside of racial stereotypes. And because publishers want to sell books, they publish stories that conform to those stereotypes, reinforcing white readers’ expectations and appetites.

“It’s amusing to me when publishers say that they follow the market,” said Ms. McKinney. “They’re doing it because of tradition. And the tradition is racism.”

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.

Asked to comment on the acquisitions meeting, Simon & Schuster provided the following statement: “At Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, we are proud of our long and continuing history of publishing Black voices. While we typically do not comment on the acquisition process, each potential acquisition is considered based on its own merits. In 2016 we made a six-figure bid for Angie Thomas’s debut novel ‘The Hate U Give’ (plus a follow-up novel) in a heated auction between multiple publishers and the book eventually went to another publisher.”

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.”

A number of signs indicate that publishers are also carrying forward the energy from the summer’s protests.

In October, Hachette Book Group announced the creation of Legacy Lit, one of several imprints started this year that are devoted to publishing books by writers of color. Krishan Trotman, who will lead the imprint, said she’s seen waves of support for Black authors come and go, but that Legacy Lit represents a real commitment to diversity by Hachette.

“There will be a huge boom of books — all of a sudden Black women are hot or urban fiction is hot — and then there will be a backslide,” said Ms. Trotman. “That’s why we need these imprints. They’ll be here even after all the hoopla dies down.”


Krishan Trotman sits on a bench outside.


Krishan Trotman will lead the Legacy Lit, the first imprint dedicated to publishing books by people of color at Hachette Book Group.Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times

Along with Dana Canedy at Simon & Schuster and Lisa Lucas at Pantheon and Schocken Books, Ms. Trotman is one of several Black women who were named to senior publishing jobs this year. Like Ms. Morrison 50 years ago, they may be able to clear the way for more writers of color to flourish.

The bottom rungs of publishing are also a source of hope. When Ms. Brown started at Doubleday in 1967, she was the only Black intern in her year’s cohort. In 2019, almost half of all publishing interns identified as people of color.

Whether those interns can grow into careers like Ms. Trotman’s or Ms. Brown’s will depend on publishers’ continued willingness to hire, promote and listen to people who they have historically sidelined. Our data suggests that progress toward diversity can be as short-lived as a single editor’s tenure.

“The presence of Black editors is really important,” said Ms. Brown. “But you need more than one at the table.”

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