My mother and my aunts all worked at the same place when I was little. It was an electronics factory in Queens. My mother worked in shipping, where she packed Styrofoam bricks with transistors. Tía Isa branded the little numbers on the smallest ones, checking her work with a powerful magnifying glass. Tía Gera tested the voltage all day long.
In the end, they worked until retirement, and in all that time – 30 years, all told – none of them ever asked for a raise. Instead, they pooled their money, covered one another in a pinch, and worked financial magic so that I don’t remember a single day of being hungry.
All to say that, early on, I lived a life where money couldn’t possibly be used as the measure of our value or we would have surely lost our minds, or at very least our dignity. Instead, our family measured our worth by how well we made do with the resources we had available.
It’s all admirable, and I’m grateful for all my family did for me.
But the truth is that some of those attitudes about money and self worth have followed me into publishing – and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Fast forward. Unlike my mother, I do not test, brand or pack transistors. In fact, I have a job that many people would kill for. But here is the ingrained script that runs through my head whenever the question of money enters the picture.
Don’t complain. You’re not starving, after all. Be grateful for what people offer because you are lucky to do this work. Be glad you have readers at all. It’s tacky to talk about money – hush. Don’t you dare focus on money, which is meaningless; focus on “what’s really important” – the kids.
And that, my friends, is how women – especially those from marginalized backgrounds – can really get shafted in the publishing business.
For the record, I am intensely grateful that I have the privilege of writing books for young people, and that my books name the experience of immigrants and bicultural kids at a time when Latinx families are essentially under siege in the media. It’s important work, noble work, and fulfilling. I’m grateful that my life is filled with other creative authors and illustrators whose books are groundbreaking. I am grateful for every last beautiful moment this career has offered me.
But here is what is harder to say. I have worked like a mule to make a space for myself in this field. I’m good at what I do. I should be paid fairly and professionally in both my advances and in my fees for conferences and school visits.
Even as I type this, I feel sick. I worry immediately that this will make me sound greedy.
Interestingly, in talking recently with many of my female friends in publishing, I find that they struggle with a similar unease, even those who started out in middle class or more advantaged families. (See earlier posts on the #kidlitwomen site.) But for many of my friends who are women of color, the unease is a more pointed, especially early on in our careers. Of course there will be the superstars who are offered top dollar right out of the gate (and more power to them.) But for the rest, whose careers unfold more traditionally, the worry is real as time goes on. Will we make a professional, living wage? Should we close our eyes and be happy that we get to do this at all?
I can’t help but wonder if our male counterparts who have reached the same career level ever feel guilty for advocating for their finances in this way. My guess is no, not really.
Let’s pivot for a second and take on the recent movie flap about Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg. You may remember the jaw-dropping revelations that she was paid $80 a day to reshoot scenes for All the Money in the World while he got paid over $ 1 million to do the same. The real kick in the face? They were represented by the same firm.
Why do I bring this up? Because money in publishing is a very opaque thing, and opacity doesn’t work to our advantage. In all the secrecy and conditional factors of our business, it’s easy for you to get low-balled and underpaid, just like Michelle Williams- and you’d never know it. It might be as an advance for a male colleague that’s much higher than yours or it might be that someone has been paid more to speak on the very same panel. Maybe the school has paid far more for a school visit or granted first-class travel accommodations to someone else – while you’re happily still booking coach.
I wish these scenarios were just in my head, but they’re not. Every one of these things has happened to me, and I’ve been served up lots of rationalizations in response – none of which took away the sting of feeling that I’d been had.
Recently a dear friend accidentally confessed that he and his writing partner had each made a substantially bigger advance on their novel than I had on mine. Was it sexist? After all, I have male friends who earn smaller advances than I do. Enter the murkiness.
We know advances have to do with your name recognition and with how badly your editor loves your project and what power they have at their publishing house to acquire it. Your advance has to do with your former sales figures and awards, with the “hotness” of the book’s topic – and of course, if you’re an author of color, if the marketing department believes they can sell your work in the mainstream. Don’t forget the negotiation skills of your agent and the ability of the publisher to shell over big bucks, too.
See the trouble? Negotiations are tricky. Any of those things could have been the reason I was paid less. Still, you can’t ignore the fact that bias can be folded into each and every one of those factors. And so, suspicion enters the game.
What’s the answer? I think we have to start truly assessing where we are in our careers and then putting a fair price on it. This means frank conversations with your agents, of course. But it also means that we stop worrying about asking for too much money. In the end, maybe your agent won’t get the advance you’re hoping for, but you absolutely don’t stand a chance if you don’t ask with conviction.
Conferences and school visits are other revenue sources and there’s a lot of hand-wringing that goes on about those two subjects, too. Early in my career, I had no idea what to charge, aka, I had no idea how to value myself as a professional author. I mean, what did I have to offer? Here I owe a huge debt to my friends Monica Brown and Guadalupe Garcia McCall, comadres with some chops. They had to remind me repeatedly to price myself fairly, especially as I started to publish more. They very generously shared their own fees so that I could gauge where I wanted to set mine. I am ashamed to tell you, even now, how long I resisted their advice and how many times I second-guessed my fees, especially when it was for schools. But eventually, I learned the hard way. On more than one occasion, I did school visits for a price determined by me, only to find out months or years later, that another author had been paid much more. Who was to blame? Me.
So here are a couple of strategies – simple ways to protect ourselves from our own internalized thinking (“I’m not worth that amount. I have nothing important to say.) and from those who may operate under their own faulty assumptions that we are not the main “breadwinners” and therefore do not need as much money as one of our male colleagues.
One: ask about money without shame. The fact is that panels can operate on the airline model. Every seat had a different price, just depending. The person to the right of you got paid half what you did. The person to the left of you got paid three times as much. You’re all experts and all equal on the stage, but your wallets tell another story.
I turned to Phil Bildner, for some advice since he manages my bookings at the Author Village. Phil’s number one question on behalf of his clients, male and female, is whether all panelists are being paid the same. “Why not ask? It’s a fair question,” he says.
Do that. Whether you’re represented by someone or whether you’re fielding your own requests. Tape the script to your computer and to your forehead. “Thank you for the invitation. Is everyone on the panel being paid the same?” It should be the question you ask right after, “Just to verify, this is not an all-male panel? There will be people of color on this panel, too?”
And I say, why stop there? Before you offer up what your fee is to visit a school, ask plainly what the school or panel organizers have paid presenters in the past. It is a fair question, no matter how squeamish it makes you.
Does this mean you will never do anything for free? Is everything about the buck? Do you have to turn your back on your sense of community and generosity?
Not at all. First of all, the visits sponsored by your publisher for publicity and marketing will not earn you a dime, at least not directly. Beyond that, you can satisfy any need you have for service as you see fit.
For now, here’s what I’m trying out because volunteerism is an important part of how I want to empower Latinx communities. I’ve opted to pick two organizations a year for a free author visit. These are typically in my own state and are organizations that are very closely aligned with my interest in girls, culture, and family. They have to ask me in writing, and they have to tell me about their organization and their finances. I look at their mission and if they truly have no other means to bring me. If it’s a match and if my schedule is open, I’m in.
The solution for you might be different. Maybe you don’t do anything for free, period. Fine. You’ll find the right balance.
What matters here is that you decide what your time is worth and what you’re worth. You decide what to give away, if anything at all. It is okay to love what you do and to be paid well to do it. It’s time for clarity, sisters, and a time for all of us to learn a new language: Self love and money.
It’s International Women’s Day this Thursday, March 8, 2018.
We’re celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in children’s and teens industry. Join in the conversation on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen or Twitter #kidlitwomen
Please note the comment policy for #kidlitwomen:
The #KidLitWomen project is a solutions-oriented forum, focused on improving the climate for gender equality in the children’s and teen literature industry. While high emotions are a natural part of this ongoing dialogue, the hope is that we can always return to a spirit of problem-solving and remain a celebration of the many women who make up such a large portion of this community. Discussion should be respectful, constructive, and tightly related to our goal. We reserve the right to delete comments that are abusive, inappropriate and/or fall outside the scope of this initiative.