The publishing industry is rigged against Black and African authors. How can marginalized creatives hack the system and succeed on their terms?
The publishing industry is rigged against Black and African authors. How can marginalized creatives hack the system and succeed on their terms?
On June 26, 1997 the most famous wizard alive was yet to find his popularity. With his circular simple framed glasses, and bowl cut brown hair, Harry Potter didn’t look like much until you spotted the little jagged scar settled just-so over his right eye. It would be years before Daniel Radcliff would play the role that would define his career, and capture the imagination of millions.
Back then, J.K. Rowling was a single mother whose manuscript had been rejected 12 times before Barry Cunningham at Bloomsbury Publishing decided to give the children’s book a chance. Thanks to Cunningham’s daughter who read through the book at lightning speed, Cunningham thought Bloomsbury could make something of the book and the publisher paid a measly £2,500, which would be £3,909 or $ 4,963.16 today. With that vote of confidence, Rowling began the journey of building one of the most iconic and enduring children’s franchises in history. Ten years after she completed the last book in the series, 450 million copies have been sold and the story now lives in 79 different languages. According to Pottermore, a website that holds all information about Harry Potter, that means 1 in every 15 people owns a Harry Potter book.
The franchise, which is currently valued at approximately $25 billion dollars includes 7 books, 8 films, the Fantastic Beasts films and novel, toys, games, an online universe Pottermore, a theme park, a Broadway play, and the rights acquisition by NBC Universal reportedly worth $250 million dollars.
Key deals that helped bring the value of the franchise into focus include: Warner Brothers signed a deal with Mattel to create toys and Hasbro for games and confectionery. The collective Harry Potter films accumulated a box office total of $7.7 billion. The books have sold $7.7 billion and counting. Since 7 seems to be the lucky number, it is no surprise that Mattel and Hasbro have earned $7 billion from Harry Potter merchandise. With each deal, Rowlings collects a percentage either as a writer on the films, royalties from the books, or licensing for deals for the theme park and merchandising. So let’s take a look at what Rowling takes home from exploiting her IP:
- Books- $7.7 billion x 15% royalties → $1.5 billion
- Films- $7.2 billion 10% profit participation → $250K million+$400K million= $650K million
- Toys Licensing→ $7.7 billion (assume 4%) → $308K
- Theme Park licensing fee – $80 million + annual development fees
Total: 2.3 billion
All thanks to a book about a boy with a scar.
It’s worth mentioning that this is likely a gross underestimation of Rowling’s earnings for a few reasons. We don’t have access to the contracts she has signed, so we don’t know what she is getting for each project. Also, this is in no way an exhaustive list of the deals that Rowlings has signed or that she benefits from the profits. Therefore, it is safe to say that this calculation is simply for illustration. The Harry Potter series went from a book that was sold for $4,000 to a property that has built a $25 billion dollar business.
Granted, in the publishing world, J.K Rowling is an outlier. In fact, if it wasn’t for Cunningham, Rowlings may never have become this Rowlings. Most books do not captivate the world, or set the zeitgeist for an entire generation. But now in the wake of global awareness that industries are systems and not free and open markets for all, many are starting to question, is there a reason why some are locked out of the industry and others are given complete access?
That is to say, all things being equal, many who love children’s fantasy books would argue that Kwame Mbali’s Tristan Strong series is just as good a universe to live in, as Rowling’s Wizarding World. Yet, Rowlings is the Queen of children’s fantasy and the highest paid author in history.
Now as Rowlings comes under fire for her controversial comments for her position on womanhood and whether gender is a lived experience, there is a lot of concern that the present franchise in development, Fantastic Beasts could suffer serious losses. Consumers, more and more, are demanding that their content and the people who make them, fall in line with cultural sensitivities.
So now, in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter global campaign, where are all the Black authors? Why do they seem locked out of the oldest creative industry in the world? Why aren’t we reading their stories?
The traditional Publishing industry
Globally, the publishing industry is valued at about $119 billion dollars. To get the breakdown of this figure requires a few thousand dollars to climb behind an industry report paywall. To me it shows that the industry is heavily guarded and entry is going to have a pretty high threshold.
For this discussion, we’re focusing on the trade publishers. These are publishers who acquire, edit, produce, publish, and sell the books you might find in a bookstore for the average consumer. There are also educational publishers who control the publishing of textbooks, i.e. what and how we learn new material. The gatekeepers of knowledge.
If you are writing the next great global story or a non-fiction account you believe will change the world, you are likely looking to these five companies to publish your work: Penguin Random House, Hachette Livre, HarperCollins, MacMillan Publishers and Simon & Schuster. All but Simon & Schuster boast annual revenues over $1 billion dollars.
Smaller independent publishers exist. But when it comes to industry dominance, these are the pillars of trade publishing. How do you get in the door?
To get published, according to Reedsyblog, there are 5 steps. After researching your genre to understand where your story fits in, then get feedback on your manuscript. These two steps make sure that your story is good and something that your audience would enjoy. Then the challenges begin. If you are BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color—you need to research suitable agents.
This is not to say that only a fellow BIPOC can represent your book, or know how to get a publisher interested in your story. But chances are that they will have a better understanding of what you are trying to say, and how your voice adds something unique to the market.
In an age when most agents are straight, able-bodied, white women, the ability to relate to LGBT, BIPOC, disabled authors might be challenging. Not impossible, but far from the norm. You might be tempted to try your luck without an agent, and nothing says you can’t score a deal. Unfortunately, it is an agent’s job not only to develop relationships at various publishing houses to get your story in the right hands, but it is also their job to negotiate the best possible deal for you.
Let’s say you get in the door, your agent has managed to get you across that finish line, then the next question is who are our publishers? According to a survey conducted by Lee and Low books, the decision makers in publishing comprises: 78% white, 60% cis women, 82% straight, 90% non-disabled. That means that as the demographics of books readers continues to change, the people in seats of power remain the same. There is no one at the table to advocate for new voices. That’s a problem.
The industry might be tone deaf. But we still trust the New York Times Bestseller’s list as definitely a pulse of what audiences are enjoying right? Maybe not.
The New York Times Bestseller list has been running since 1942, but the first book list started in long ago in 1895, in a column in The Bookman. To be listed on the NYT Bestseller’s list is the equivalent of ‘Momma we made it’ for authors around the world. Overtime, the list has come under scrutiny because on average, being listed can increase sales for a first-time author by 57% and 13%-14% for a book’s first year of sales.
For starters, the list is curated and the methodology for listing is proprietary, so has never been disclosed. Allegedly since December 2017, 22 books by first-time authors have hit the NYT Bestseller list once for YA Hardcovers. And only 1 of those authors was Black: Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone.
Given the volume of books being written by Black authors like The Belles, Dread Nation, and Not So Simple and Pure why does this demographics fall short of the list? How many books does a bestseller have to sell to get on the list? What happens if all those books are bought by one person, how do you control for authors who can bend the system to their benefit? What seemed an objective measure of success now feels like a system that might be susceptible to abuse.
Much of the conversation around an industry like publishing will focus on developed markets like the US, Canada, and some European and Asian countries. Often left out of the conversation are developing markets where magnificent literary work is being done. Not only is there little understanding of those markets, there is less understanding of how those stories might be relatable or be positively received by readers in other markets. The same way Grammy-winning Korean film Parasite can breakdown the walls in other territories to collect non-Korean fans, Chimamanda Adiche’s Americanah can speak to different communities and generations beyond the shores of Nigeria or America.
In fact, the curation of literary content for a continent like Africa significantly lags behind, considering the volume of written work coming out of the continent. The need for more literary bloggers, and platforms breaking down the publications into national, regional, and genre specific categories is crucial to understanding the contemporary African literary movement.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the internet has become battleground and debate stage all at once. Protests about racial divide have taken on diverse forms. While many people use their platforms to denounce institutions that serve to oppress and harm African Americans, other voices look to the future. They are asking ‘how can we equalize the economic opportunities for the Black community?’
Some white authors in the young adult fiction genre began asking whether there was a disparity between white authors and Black. To test the theory, they began to share the advances they received from publishers at varying stages of their career. Very quickly it became clear that truly, a significant disparity existed. Sure, some of it accounted for experience, and quality of the story. Or whether these authors had an agent. But when that was controlled for, the gap was still vast.
Given the significant gap in advances, and access to successful agents who can advocate for your story, Black authors are often unable to navigate the publishing industry and command a high value for their IP. For those in professional industries, you know how it goes. At each new employer, you negotiate based on your last salary. So, if the IP coming in isn’t worth much, and your publisher isn’t putting money behind your project to build the momentum, or get it on the New York Time’s list, then the value of your story won’t grow.
Having conversations with merchandisers is a non-starter because you can’t demonstrate an audience exists. You can’t license your characters for commercial use because who has heard of them. Even if you somehow get into the publishing door, ancillary deals are not an option because you can’t point to an audience that will buy those products. What audience you can point to doesn’t seem large enough to warrant the risk of a whole product line.
Situated between a rock and a hard place, what are your options? Given the challenges within publishing, lack of representation from interns to agents, to book reviewers and even the NYT Bestseller’s list, what is an aspiring author to do?
Living in the matrix makes you feel underappreciated and undervalued. Build your own matrix.
Build the Matrix
In the age of social media, there is value in building an audience. Whether you assemble your troops on an actual platform or via an email list, or newsletter, no one will argue that a work around to the traditional model is to build a community. For Alex Elle or Samantha King Holmes, I’m sure many publishers would have passed on them. They are both Black women who write short poetry that is intimate and vulnerable.
The assumption might be that poetry doesn’t really sell, it is too niche and that there aren’t a lot of people looking for poetry written by Black women about sadness, broken relationships, or the vulnerability of personal growth. Well, they would be wrong. Alex Elle is followed by 756,000 on her instagram and Samatha King Holmes has a following of 459,000. Both women self-published their first projects and now both are working with publishers.
In no way is growing an audience easy. There is a skill to social media, especially in these days when the market is saturated and more and more Instagram writers are cropping up. But, given the challenges of the traditional publishing world, and how tricky it can be to get someone to believe in you and your story and your voice, maybe assembling a community may not be the worst approach.
At the end of the day, you may not be JK Rowling, but maybe that’s for the best. The world is looking for new voices and the traditional industry just isn’t cutting it. Whether it is the publishers or the hypocrisy of the NY Times Bestseller’s list, there are a lot of hurdles associated with attaining success the old fashioned way.
In the end, what we crave as the audience are more stories; more people willing to take us on a journey that allows us to examine our biases, look at our vulnerabilities or escape to a new world where we have all the power we need to create a whole new reality. Yep, we want more of that.
The Content Biz Bailout
- For those looking for the self-reported data coming out of the #PublishingPaidMe, the Google sheet is here
- Advances are a major part of the publishing world, but a lot of people don’t really understand how they work and why it matters. Check Patrice Caldwell’s tweet here, to learn a bit more about how the money shakes out. Patrice is a Black agent who works exclusively with minority authors.
- For writers looking to go the traditional route read this series on advances in the publishing world
- Looking for an agent of color? Check out Diverse Representation. The website attempts to track agents, attorneys, managers and publicists of color. It isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a start.
- Looking for books to read by Black/African authors? There’s definitely some overlap, and you may disagree about which category a book may belong in, but this is a great place to start. The weakest lists, in my opinion, are the African lists, but there are some gems there as well.