We should begin by saying that, on a fundamental level, we understand why Publishers Weekly chose the “Books Are Essential” tagline as a rallying cry. Like every industry during this pandemic, publishing is in a dangerous state of flux, and it needs to find new ways to move product even when supply lines are stressed and it’s not safe for people to be in bookstores or go to live publishing events. But this uncertain moment is why it’s all the more crucial for the publishing industry to be precise with its language, and it’s why we think the tagline has missed the mark.
Right now, the term essential is used to describe workers who perform labor that provides our society with fundamental services to survive. It refers to health-care workers, grocery store employees, trash collectors, and others who do jobs that keep us safe, clean, and alive. Crucially, essential is a term applied to people—it is an acknowledgment that workers are what stitch our communities and what’s left of our economy together.
Because of this, we strongly disagree with applying the “essential” classification to books. A book is a product, not a person—and in a moment when publishing is laying off workers who were already significantly underpaid and overworked, the expression, even coming from an industry periodical, feels almost callous: the product is considered essential, but the people who make it are not.
This logic is older than this pandemic, of course. A young person’s love of books, of working for a meaningful or artistic cause, has long been used as rhetorical leverage to exploit low-level employees. Among other things, the industry banks on its workers accepting the “privilege” of a base wage that hasn’t been raised in decades, as well as having to work overtime without additional compensation. If an individual refuses, that’s fine too—a company can easily find someone else who can afford a raw deal. It’s no wonder publishing has a problem retaining workers from less privileged backgrounds.
The natural endpoint of an industry treating the sale of its product as essential but its workers as expendable is already visible: we need only to look at the horrors occurring in Amazon warehouses and fulfillment centers. In this light, how can we even consider a book to be truly essential in the context of a pandemic response? Information, expression of free speech, and art are all “essential” to a society, certainly, but publishing as an industry is not equivalent to those concepts; it’s just one means of packaging and selling them. People are reading a lot under quarantine, which does present an opportunity for the industry, but we must keep that opportunity in context.
This industry has the chance to honor the ideological merits of the books we’re making by responding radically, compassionately, and creatively to the difficulties our human workers are experiencing. For instance, we should be protecting our warehouse workers by pushing electronic and audio formats in order to lessen the strain on filling physical orders, and reduce the consumer expectation of lightning-fast shipping times. We can help our indie bookstores do business safely by making them less reliant on their physical presences through something as simple as changing a promotional link from Amazon to Bookshop or LibroFM. Publishers can and should be partnering with indies in marketing efforts, via exclusive promotions and campaigns. And major publishers can respond to this changing economy in ways that still value their staff, by focusing on top-end salary cuts instead of layoffs or furloughs, giving up expensive properties now that we’re learning that we can work just fine remotely, and relying less on volatile boom-or-bust publishing and acquisitions strategies. Pushing subrights, treating audio- and e-books as more than just afterthoughts to print, being creative with packaging and pushing existing backlist IP—there are lots of ways to create a steadier industry that doesn’t require cutting labor when crisis hits.
Ultimately, we can help our communities weather this crisis in meaningful ways that do not coopt the language of more contextually “essential” fields. This comes with acknowledging a certain amount of privilege—as agents, we might not fully feel the squeeze of a precarious industry for a few months, and perhaps not anywhere to the level our bookseller and in-house colleagues will experience it. But with the understanding that a rising tide lifts all boats, we must care for those most in harm’s way. Publishing must adjust its expectations, adapt in the many available ways it can, and make sure its labor isn’t paying the brunt of the costs.
Books are not “essential” in the way the term is now used, but that does not mean the people who make them deserve less. The first step toward a more stable and equitable industry during this pandemic and in years to come is valuing our people as much as we value our books.
Erik Hane and Laura Zats are founders of Headwater Literary Management.