Posted on December 17, 2020

Just How White Is the Book Industry?

Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek, New York Times, December 11, 2020

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.

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.

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. {snip}


{snip} 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.

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.


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.


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.