NO POWER GREATER | Fixing the Books: Publishing’s exploited workforce is starting to organize

Book publishing is an industry that capitalizes on the fear and insecurity of its workers. Being book lovers, they accept low salaries, seeing it as a necessary sacrifice to keep the beleaguered publishing industry afloat. Yet this same fragile business offered a record-breaking $65 million advance for Michelle Obama’s memoir, which went on to sell 10 million copies mere months after it was published. Penguin Random House, which published Obama’s memoir, starts editorial assistants at a salary of about $40,000 and only recently announced that it would boost entry-level salaries to $45,000, beginning in 2021.

Although the U.S. publishing business faces obstacles in the digital era, the belief that low wages are the industry’s only lifeline is a fallacy. After a sharp decline at the start of the pandemic, unit sales of print books jumped nearly 6% compared to 2019, according to NPD BookScan, which measures trends in the book publishing industry. Ebook sales increased by 31% in the month of April alone.

For the first time in recent memory, book workers across the industry are building collective power to demand tangible and significant change. In March, employees at Hachette protested Woody Allen’s memoir with a walkout; the viral hashtag #PublishingPaidMe highlighted the pay disparities between Black and non-POC authors; and on June 8, more than 1,400 book workers across the industry called out of work to protest the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people by police, as well as the publishing industry’s own racism.

These instances of collective action won’t solve the deeply entrenched inequities in publishing overnight, but they are evidence of renewed labor organizing after a long period of resignation.

Although some publishing houses have unionized, a lingering stigma has undermined union strength in the industry. “I feel like I’ve pulled myself out of Plato’s cave, and now I’m trying to drag other people out,” says a union steward at HarperCollins, referring to the difficulty of persuading people to join the union’s open shop.

One of the major roadblocks to building power in the book industry is the systemic lack of wage transparency. Until recently, Publishers Weekly’s annual job and salary survey was the only readily available source with this kind of raw data—and it still wasn’t comprehensive enough to give a full picture. One group circulated a grassroots spreadsheet in which workers across the book industry anonymously shared their salaries, job titles, employers, and years of experience, among other vital data that’s impossible to find elsewhere. Nearly 600 workers responded, and the spreadsheet continues to grow.

So far, book workers’ efforts to organize and improve pay equity have been somewhat successful. In September, Beacon Press announced it had raised its entry-level salary to $44,600, a $9,000 increase. A week later, Macmillan announced that its starting salary would be raised to $42,000, a $7,000 increase.

All publishing houses, including employee-owned ones like W. W. Norton & Company—where I worked for over two years as an assistant editor—are complicit in the industry-wide exploitation of low-income workers. In August, Norton announced that the salaries of its board of directors had been fully reinstated after a pandemic-induced pay cut. But for the first time since the 2008 recession, Norton employees will not receive end-of-the-year raises. In 2016, Norton prioritized an estimated $10-12 million office renovation over significant salary increases for its employees. Norton employees, particularly those from historically marginalized groups, have reported being “asked” to do uncompensated sensitivity reads of manuscripts. And while the volunteer-based but HR-led Diversity & Inclusion Committee is an important first step in diversifying the office, it also creates additional unpaid labor for Norton’s BIPOC, queer, and disabled employees.

Publishing workers have a long way to go before they realize their full organizing power, but the tools and the motivation are there. The new wave of labor organizers in the industry gives hope to those who want to be able to work at what they love and still pay the bills.

Illustration by ERIK PEDERSEN