Publishers discriminate against women and Black authors — but readers don’t

It’s no secret that the book publishing world features plenty of discrimination. An analysis by the New York Times found that just 11% of fiction published in 2018 was written by people of color; in June 2020, a viral Twitter hashtag called #PublishingPaidMe revealed that many well-known Black authors had received book advances that paled in comparison to those of less experienced white authors.

Women, meanwhile, are about as likely to make the New York Times bestseller list as men, but their books are typically priced lower and are less likely to receive reviews.

Defenders of the status quo might argue that these practices simply reflect market realities: Perhaps readers are simply more interested in books by white, male authors. But a new study published in PLOS One suggests that’s not the case.

In the guise of a book publisher, the study asked more than 9,000 people on Amazon’s gig-work site MTurk to evaluate three made-up books based on their covers and blurbs, which included information about the (fictitious) authors as well as their photographs. The authors’ gender turned out to make no difference in how interested participants were in reading a given book. When it came to race, participants were actually willing to pay a premium (about 50 cents more) for books by Black authors.

“What our study shows is that there is an interest and an appetite” for books by Black and female authors, says Dana Weinberg, a professor of sociology at Queens College, who co-authored the study with Adam Kapelner, an assistant professor of mathematics. “So there’s really no justification for exclusion.”

How readers decide which books to buy

The study’s findings don’t mean that readers are totally unbiased. Anecdotally, Weinberg says she’s heard that books with people of color on the cover typically don’t sell as well as other books. And data from Nielsen Book Research suggests that men are more likely to read books by male authors than they are books by women in both fiction and nonfiction.

The study also doesn’t account for the various additional factors that may influence readers’ decisions about whether to purchase a book, from reviews and media coverage to word of mouth and awards. Weinberg says the research most closely mimics the experience of browsing books surfaced by algorithms on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Until the publishing industry itself becomes more diverse — 85% of people who work in the editorial arm of publishing houses are white, according to a 2019 survey — authors from marginalized backgrounds are likely to continue facing unfair treatment. But readers can do their part by putting their purchasing power toward more books by Black and female authors, thereby providing further proof to the publishing industry that discrimination goes against its own business interests.

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