Last week, YA author L. L. McKinney started the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag to bring to light the disparity between what white and Black authors earn in advances. There is little to no transparency in publishing and this was a needed public reckoning to start to account for the unconscious bias (at best) and outright racism (at worst) that happens in editorial, sales, and marketing meetings. And on the agent side, too. We are not immune.
Are the people who buy, market, and sell books for publishers sitting in meetings, twiddling their mustaches, planning overt ways of keeping Black authors down? I don’t believe so. Are they saying things like “Black authors don’t sell well” or “we already have one of those” or “Black teens don’t read” or “white people don’t read books by Black authors.”? Yes. I’ve heard these things multiple times. Some people act like that even if they don’t say it out loud. Are there white people and BIPOC in publishing genuinely, earnestly, fervently, aggressively trying to change this? Yes. But it’s as hard and slow and full of setbacks as it is to fight systemic racism everywhere. I am optimistic that this hashtag, and its write-up yesterday in the New York Times (!!) is going to help make this change come a littttttttttle faster in publishing. But as we know, nothing happens fast in publishing.
That was the root, and hopefully the effects, of McKinney’s hashtag. But if you were a writer reading it this weekend, I want you to have an understanding about what advances do and don’t mean, in general.
If you are unclear about how advances work, read this.
If you are thinking oh my god that author is amazing how did they not get 1 million dollars????? I invite you to remember that publishing is not a meritocracy, and, as we have seen, is rife with inequity and racism. That Jesmyn Ward and N.K. Jemisin had to fight for their advances or were not thrown fistfuls of cash is mind boggling to me. Jemisin noted on her Twitter that she opted to take lower advances so to earn royalties more quickly, and that is a valid and understandable approach to take. (Not that she needs my approval there.)
Very often, future offers are built on past offers, though, so deciding this for one book could mean you’re deciding this for future books. Because if that first book doesn’t sell as well as you hope, the publisher is going to use that sales track record to say wellllllll, this next advance is not going to be as high as the others and you’ll have no leverage to demand more. If it does sell well, the publisher can still say welllllll, we’re not sure how this next one will do so we’ll have to be conservative here, publishing is tough right now blah blah blah. They’ll say this to you more if you’re BIPOC, as we have seen. Publishers work to get the best books for their company for the least amount of money because it is a BUSINESS. It’s my opinion, broadly speaking and not applicable to all situations, that you take the money and run. Publishers are never, never, never going to say we should have paid you more for that last one, so here is some extra money now. Never. Never. Never.
If you’re out on submission now, if you’re about to query and thinking eight steps down the line, if you’re writing a book and hanging on by the skin of your teeth to make ends meet and take care of yourself or your family, what are you supposed to do with this information?
First, don’t despair. I can’t promise that it’s going to be great, that you’re going to get a seven figure advance and all your problems will be solved and all your hard work will be fairly compensated. That’s almost certainly not going to happen, I’m sorry to say. But if you despair you’ll quit, and then no one will get to read your work and your work will be important to someone. If you quit because it’ll be hard and unfair, then you are guaranteeing no one will read your words, and someone might need them. Take care of yourself, but don’t quit.
Second, when you look at these numbers on Twitter, you have to understand how incomplete the data is, and how many times it’s comparing apples to oranges. Someone’s $25k deal could have been for North American rights which means that person’s agent can sell the foreign and translation rights, which takes even longer to sell than North American rights, and absolutely rake. it. in. when the book takes off. A “low” advance for North American rights can be worth way more in the long run than a six-figure advance for World rights. Looking at someone’s 100k for World rights is not the same as someone’s 25k or 50k for North American rights.
Third, an advance does not measure your value as a person. People who get six-figures are not inherently better than you and their book is not inherently better than yours. That’s easy for me to say as A: the agent, B: a straight, white, cis lady, but while advance calculations are not devoid of influence from the writer’s personhood, it is not a single value judgement on that. It’s tricky and inexact and I’m not covering every inch of this territory, but know this. A big advance does not mean you are a better person or a better writer. A small advance does not mean you are a worse person or a worse writer. It feels like it, but it’s not the truth.
Fourth, just because some jerk got 100k doesn’t mean there’s 100k waiting around for you just because you are not a jerk. Publishing is not a meritocracy, see above. And while it seems like there are endless advance reserves for jerks, publishing is not going to give you more money just because you want it, deserve* it, or worked really hard on your book. I hate that this is the truth, but it is. It does not excuse racism PERIOD, but I want to prepare you for your next negotiation. You/your agent cannot say “well this jerk got 100k so we should get it too.” What other people make has basically no bearing on your advance, unless that person is directly in your genre and you know their sales figures. You don’t get a higher advance just because some jerk got a higher advance. You get a higher advance because some jerk’s book sold well, and yours may sell like that, too. (See below for caveats.)
*If you are a BIPOC writer, I think you do deserve to be better compensated. I think your agent can say “this white jerk got 100k and so should we.” I can’t guarantee that it will work, and I hope it won’t work in one or five or seven more years because that means that BIPOC writers are fairly compensated, but yeah, I think you should try this tack in your next negotiation, if you want a bigger advance. Talk to your agent.
What is an advance then? If you are a writer, it could be the sole compensation for the years of work you put into a book. It will never be an accurate reflection of a fair hourly wage. It’s not wage work. It’s not a salary. It wasn’t designed to be and I don’t think it can be modified to reflect that. Is it fair? No. Can it be fair? I don’t think so. Can it be more fair to BIPOC writers, and other marginalized groups? God yes. There’s nowhere to go but up from there sweet jesus. BUT. If you think of your advance is the same as your salary then you will always be disappointed. If you want writing to be your job, you have to hustle, and hustle even more if you are BIPOC and don’t come from privilege. It sucks. I don’t know how to make it suck less other than to advocate for BIPOC writers and try to get more books in the hands of people who want and need them.
To writers, an advance is sometimes the only (or among the first) point of validation, the thing that says You Are Good. Yes, you finished the book, got an agent, got an offer. But so many writers look at that advance as The Gold Star that proves they are a real writer of real value. If that gold star is “small” then they are diminished. If that gold star is “big,” they are bolstered. Does it feel great to get a lot of money for your book? It fucking does! But try not to see it as the single most important marker of your writing self-worth or value—the same with starred reviews and hitting the New York Times list. Do I want these things for all of you? Yes. Is the system fair? NO. But please, please, please try not to derive all your self-worth from this unfair and sometimes arbritrary number that a publisher’s spreadsheet spits out based on half truths and guesses. You can decide how YOU feel about that number, and I hope you decide that it’s just a number and not a mirror. I know there is a lot of priviledge in thinking that way, because that number is also rent and food and childcare and education and safety and healthcare. That is part of the systemic racism of our world and of publishing. But next to that, parallel to that, at the same time as that, remember that you, personally, are not your advance.
This isn’t everything about advances I could say. This isn’t everything about the hashtag or about racism or about how publishing needs to rectify its own processes and bias. It’s a start, I hope. It’s a bit of perspective for white people about what BIPOC are paid and the flimsy clout of a high advance. I hope that if reading that hashtag caused you despair, that you found something else to be joyful about this weekend. Maybe protesting. Maybe donating your time or money. Maybe your family. Maybe writing. Maybe quiet or TV or food or sun.
I hope this is only the beginning.
Stay safe. Still wash your hands and wear a mask. Defund the police. Black Lives Matter. Arrest Breonna Taylor’s murders. Keep writing.