When we start protesting about stuff we start to protest about everything. Can the gatekeeping role of publishing really be excluding sections of the population? Publishers have to decide which books they will publish after all: nobody can take on every book ever written. I have always thought that book publishing was free of bias: everyone working there is anti almost everything you could as a social liberal think of disapproving of. But I have to admit that the scales are falling from my eyes. We liberals don’t want to be biassed, but maybe we have been unable to avoid bias.

The last six paragraphs of Maris Kreizman’s Los Angeles Times piece Want to fix the racial disparity in book advances? Pay assistants more” appear to me to make it all clear. (Link via Lit Hub.) Her focus is on the reality that by and large black authors receive smaller advances than white ones. The reason, she argues, amounts to the reality that publishers, subconsciously almost, expect books by black authors to sell less well that comparable books by white authors — an assumption which has up until now been a self-fulfilling prophesy, regardless of what at the end of the day turns out to be the actual sales fact. The prophesy is self-fulfilling, not simply because publishers believe that black authors really do sell less well (even if this isn’t always the case), but because publishers are less well equipped to assess the prospects of black authors’ books than of white ones’. And, she argues, this results from a lack of diversity in employment in the industry, because

  • industry salaries are low, especially at the entry level
  • young black entrants to the industry can’t afford to stay
  • and often don’t find a mentor to guide them
  • so they move to better paying businesses
  • the higher up the publishing organization you look the whiter it becomes
  • editors boost book proposals on the basis of other books they have loved
  • the size of the advance is based upon the extent of the enthusiasm the editor is able to communicate to colleagues
  • the likelihood of success for a book is “measured” by the success of “similar” books
  • without willing it, editors make these comparisons with books written by people who by and large look like them, the success of whose books they can “understand”.

The people who are able survive the low entry salaries in publishing are differentially those who can afford to keep doing what they love without having to worry about making more money. If your parents are able to help out with the odd check, or if you can anticipate inheriting the family home, you aren’t subject to quite the same pressures to accumulate your own wealth, as someone less fortunately placed may be. So you can afford to keep on working in that almost college atmosphere which is a book publishing house. You feel fortunate — because you actually are fortunate.

As Ms Kreizman tells us “Editors must also fill out profit and loss statements to justify their advances. The P&L contains fixed costs (including overhead and manufacturing), and the editor’s job is to plug in the advance they would like to offer and determine how many copies the book would have to sell to justify it. Fudging P&Ls is a publishing tradition as old as getting drunk at book parties.” I’ve done both myself. The bigger the advance, the more sales you need to show. The more sales you show the greater the hype you have to create in order to “sell” the project in-house. You can best create hype for a manuscript which you can justify to yourself hyping — the sort of project you yourself would go for. We all strive to overcome the effects of our upbringing. We mostly fail.

Advance disclosure shows, via the links, much of the current turmoil surrounding this issue. Plus ça change is also relevant here I think.