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When We Underpay People, We Don’t Believe They’ll Succeed

I’m often expected to be grateful for what I’m offered. I also risk facing harsher penalties if I try to negotiate a raise or salary offer. That’s the reality for many immigrants and women of color in the United States.

It’s why I didn’t even consider negotiating an author advance when I pitched my first book in 2015 — especially since I didn’t have an agent to represent me.

I did, however, have an agent five years later when Inclusion on Purpose went to auction. And honestly? I’ve wondered if having a young woman of color represent me resulted in receiving a lower offer than my white peers. I’m thrilled to have an amazing agent bat for me and I also know that she navigates similar challenges as me.

Consider the whiteness of the publishing industry: 85% of acquisitions editors are white and nearly 90% of books published are by white authors, according to a 2020 New York Times piece.

Now factor in that negotiation as a practice favors those who are already (over)represented in the industry and workforce. Can you guess the results?

Exactly: Women and people of color authors get lowballed for their books and intellectual property.

Two-time National Book Award winner, Jesmyn Ward, a Black woman, drove this home when her viral social media campaign #PublishingPaidMe revealed the disparity in book advances received by white and Black authors.

She herself had to “wrestle” her way to a $100,000 advance despite her accolades, while Chip Cheek, a white man, tweeted receiving $800,000 for his debut.

Eight. Hundred. Thousand. Dollars. For. His. Debut.

That makes it clear who publishing companies think are “worth” taking a chance on.

Book advances can mean the difference between an author taking years off to concentrate wholly on their book and hiring professionals to help in their journey, and an author writing while taking care of their out-of-school toddler while running their business full time.

My case was the latter.

I’ve dedicated my life to creating inclusive workplaces, and it was particularly painful to see exclusion playing out in my own journey as an author.

Authors of color are simply not given the same opportunity to succeed as their white counterparts.

If we want a better future for the industry—one that more meaningfully reflects the diversity of voices in the world and one where authors of color aren’t undervalued, then the publishing industry must change.

I have four recommendations to drive this change, and you can read them in Publishers Weekly.

Ridding the publication industry of discrimination is an ambitious endeavor, I know.

But if we consistently challenge the legacy of racism and bias in the industry (and others), we’ll get there. If we prioritize doing the right thing over remaining in our comfort zone, we’ll get there. If we act intentionally with continued awareness, we’ll get there.

Now, I want to hear from you! Have you ever been the recipient of an offer that you felt didn’t line up with what you feel you’re worth? How did you navigate that? Or maybe after reading this you see where you may have been more generous with authors based on factors other than their merit? Let me know what you think.


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