“Max Perkins didn’t do as much administrative work as editorial assistants do today,” said Daniel Vazquez, an editor at Astra House. Although he may not know exactly what the famous 20th-century editor’s day-to-day was like—did Perkins work on The Great Gatsby in his office, or did he have to line edit at home because his nine-to-five was consumed by endless meetings?—Vazquez’s statement is indicative of what a lot of younger publishing professionals say when asked about their workloads: namely, it’s never been this bad.
Book publishing has long had a reputation as a low-paying industry, but one that offers its professionals enviable perks—not the least of which is helping to influence the national discourse. Over the past few months, though, questions about whether that sort of trade-off is still working have been circulating on social media and roiling different factions of the industry. In March, a former assistant editor at Tor named Molly McGhee shared her resignation letter on Twitter. In it, she explained how she was finding success in a job she loved but was nonetheless overwhelmed by an insurmountable stream of work and frustrated by the murky path toward promotion. The post drew hundreds of responses (and more than 700 retweets). In May, the Bookseller released a report stating that 68% of publishing staffers in the U.K. felt burned-out in the last year.
While complaints from junior staffers about crushing workloads and low pay have begun to creep into some industry reporting, publishing veterans are also unhappy. Some say that decades of corporate consolidation and two-plus years of working from home have exposed widening cracks. They speak of an intensifying corporate culture that prizes meetings over meaningful work, the end of parties, and the creeping feeling that they’re pushing a product more than a passion. All of it raises a question: Are people who work in publishing unhappier than they were, say, 20 years ago? Does it matter?
“To a certain extent, we’ve always had a lot of people who’ve passed through,” said one high-level executive, when asked whether he’s seeing any attrition in the workforce as a result of complaints about salaries and workloads. (This executive, like many industry professionals who spoke to PW for this story, did so on the condition of anonymity.) He questioned the idea that any unhappiness among publishing employees is specific to the industry. “We are in the third year of a pandemic; we’ve been largely talking to each other on computer screens. There are mass murders taking place [in the U.S.] with frequency. So there are a lot of external pressures weighing on people.”
Another industry veteran at one of the big houses was also dismissive of the idea that unhappiness is unique to publishing. “Isn’t the world unhappy right now?” she asked when the topic of burnout was broached. As to the question of whether workloads for junior staffers had become unmanageable, this source retorted, “It’s publishing, not coal mining.”
A third executive acknowledged that unhappiness levels among employees in the industry are likely up, but blamed a combination of social media and the pandemic. “Thanks to more ways of being heard, and more listening by publishers, unhappiness that has always been here—over things like low starting pay, long hours due to the nature of working with books, difficult advancement paths—is more audible now than ever before.” This executive also attributed much of employees’ unhappiness to the pandemic, citing added pressure on parents and caregivers during lockdown periods, for instance.
There are many, however, who have left the industry or fled big houses to join other companies within publishing because, though they’re passionate about the work, they feel there’s more of it than they can handle. Or they bumped into insurmountable financial difficulties.
“My perception is that those who had things they wanted to do outside of their careers—if they had a hobby or wanted to start a family—were unhappy because they found it impossible to balance with publishing,” said one former staffer at a Big Five house.
A former mid-level editor who recently left the industry after a decade on the job said that despite other complaints, it came down to salary. “I knew I couldn’t stay in publishing if I had a kid,” she said. “I always heard that editors often quit when they had kids because they made less than it costs to cover childcare.” This source said that after she resigned, colleagues—friends as well as strangers—reached out to her for advice on how they, too, could quit and transition to a better-paying job in a different industry.
“I think higher-ups have made a lot of sacrifices to be where they are, so it’s instinctual for them to say, ‘Everybody has problems,’ ” explained a former junior editor who recently left the industry. Noting that it remains incredibly competitive to land an entry-level job in publishing, especially in editorial, this source said the mindset is that employees are the ones who need to adapt. “I think publishers are really used to thinking along the lines that everyone wants to work here and only the fittest survive.”
That mentality, others noted, is particularly draining. “I don’t think publishing has found a way to make its workers feel less disposable,” said a young editor at a Big Five house. “I don’t know if people are unhappier. If anything, maybe there’s more solidarity in how grueling the work is, and it’s finally okay to talk about it.”
A clash of generations
Many executives and managers chafe at the suggestion that publishing work has become more intense and consuming. The debate seems to hinge on unanswerable questions: Did current CEOs and other executives get to where they are because they were more willing to do the grunt work? Did the editorial assistants of yore, and the publishers of today, merely come up in a better moment in the world?
Many sources—especially older members of the industry—said what’s happening in publishing is part of a wider generational clash between baby boomers and Gen X on one side, and millennials and Gen Y and Gen Z on the other. They see it as a case of exasperated managers colliding with a faction of outspoken and idealistic assistants who are unrealistic about the nature of work in general.
There is scant data on salaries in the industry, aside from this magazine’s annual salary survey. In 2013, the median salary for men in publishing was $78,000, and for women it was $59,000. Our most recent survey found that salaries have stayed largely stagnant: the median salary for men in 2021 was $80,000, while gains for women were a little better, with the median rising to $62,750. And as has been true for most years, almost half of respondents reported pay raises in 2021 of 3% or less (which would barely cover even the moderate rise in inflation before 2022).
Given the high cost of New York City housing and the amount of student debt carried by many industry newcomers, low pay is a much greater hurdle for many aspiring, and current, publishing professionals. Indeed, PW’s salary survey for 2021 found that by far the biggest complaint of those under 30 about their jobs was low pay, followed by difficulty of advancement and increasing workloads.
Should publishing executives and CEOs be concerned? While some high-level sources acknowledged that the country’s tough economic situation is likely putting increased pressure on those in junior positions, many said the path to better jobs hasn’t changed. For those who stick with it, there are opportunities to advance and competitive salaries to be had.
As one CEO of a major company angrily put it: “Young people in our business have had the very same complaints about publishers being cheap and demanding for decades. We all went through that boot camp and many bailed. Those who stick it out wind up in well-paying jobs.” This source also noted that publishing is not alone in its approach, and that “all creative industries pay poorly at junior levels—film, Broadway, art museums, newspapers.”
One topic that the younger generation of publishing employees is particularly adamant about pushing to the forefront is race and diversity. While the lack of diversity in publishing has been written about for decades, the scope of the disparity came to the fore in 2015, when PW for the first time published statistics about the race of respondents in its salary survey: 87% identified as white. It was also the year that children’s book publisher Lee & Low released a white paper on diversity in publishing. Its Diversity Baseline Survey found that the industry’s workforce was 70% white.
Since then, publishers have made stronger efforts to discuss, and defend, their hiring and recruitment efforts. Diversity, equity, and inclusion committees and departments have been created. Scholarships aiming to draw more BIPOC employees into the business have been established. New imprints dedicated to publishing titles by authors of color have been launched. But most publishers acknowledge more work needs to be done.
So how does race play into the current conversations about burnout and low pay? Some in the industry maintain that the subjects are intertwined. One book editor, who is a person of color, noted that corporate efforts at DEI can single out the few BIPOC employees at big houses and force them to answer sweeping questions about racism. These employees, the source said, “are often having to do free DI work with no bonuses or compensation.”
Though some publishers have raised entry-level salaries to around $45,000 per year, many insist the starting salaries combined with the heavy workloads are driving people of color away from publishing. They claim that, due to the racial wealth gap, people of color often don’t have the luxury of aspiring to low-wage media positions with perceived perks. There is no data linking burnout, pay, and the retention of BIPOC staff (one executive said that internal data from her Big Five house indicated BIPOC staff are not leaving in greater numbers), but it continues to be a point of discussion in the industry at large.
Obstacles to upward mobility
The assertion made by the CEO that those who hang on in the industry end up in financially sound positions is somewhat supported by PW’s salary survey. The median salary for those in management in our 2021 survey was $130,000. While it may be debatable how comfortably someone can live on that salary in the tristate area, many young people interviewed for this story said the problem isn’t only their starting salaries but also how long it takes to get to better positions and earn the accompanying raises.
“In-house promotion just isn’t happening,” claimed a literary agent who started her career at the big houses. One of the problems she sees, especially in editorial, is that when promotions come, the work doesn’t actually change. “You’re an editorial assistant and you’re maybe assisting two editors. Then you get promoted to assistant editor and you’re supposed to be acquiring, but you’re still likely assisting at least one editor. Then you’re promoted to associate editor and you’re not supposed to be assisting anyone, but often you are.”
There is “no room being made for people to transition into editor,” the agent said. And these young editors, she added, are supposed to be “the executive editors of the future—the people who will have the big pocketbooks.”
One young editor who left the industry said the problem wasn’t just how long she had to wait for a promotion, but the unclear requirements for getting one. “There’s no rubric of things to meet,” she said. “It just happens when they feel you’re ready.”
Although numerous high-level sources dismissed the idea that publishing doesn’t promote well from within—they put the problem at the door of the odd bad manager—external factors like consolidation have, in all likelihood, affected promotions.
In publishing, as in all industries, the easiest way to get a promotion is to change companies. With fewer companies to choose from, more senior and executive staffers are staying in their positions for longer, which makes it even harder for lower-level employees to move up.
The 2013 purchase of Penguin Group by Random House parent company Bertelsmann reduced the Big Six trade houses to five. Meanwhile the number of midsize publishers, which crucially offer the kind of basic benefits employees receive at major corporations—such as healthcare or a 401(k)—has steadily declined. In the past five years alone many of these midsize publishers have been subsumed by larger interests: Rodale was bought by PRH in 2018, Workman was acquired by HBG in 2021, and the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt trade group was purchased by HarperCollins in 2021.
Though publishers are reluctant to discuss how many jobs are cut during acquisitions, layoffs are part of the integration process. During the recent high-profile trial of the government’s attempt to block PRH’s purchase of Simon & Schuster, it was disclosed that PRH looked to achieve $81 million in cost savings by 2025 by combining the two companies. Though PRH didn’t reveal specifics on how the savings would be achieved, the company did say the reductions would feature $25 million in savings from distribution and warehousing, $25 million from IT and duplicate administrative and managerial functions, and the remaining $31 million from the elimination of third-party contracts.
Robert Gottlieb, chairman of Trident Media Group Literary Agency, said steady consolidation in the industry has led to multitude shifts over the past few decades. As publishing has evolved “from a cottage industry into one full of corporate multinationals, publishers’ expectations for their return on investment has become much more substantial than it was 30–40 years ago.” Overhead costs have gone up, and back-office operations have been steadily diminished. Gottlieb thinks it has probably become “very hard to change jobs” in certain sections of publishing, especially for those in operations. “Editorially, it’s less difficult if you have a great reputation and have published a lot of books,” he added.
Of course, even as the number of big and midsize houses shrinks, there are many growing small presses. But many younger industry members said the pay at small presses is often worse than at their larger counterparts, and so are the benefits.
Less support, more submissions
Another subject that repeatedly came up in conversations about burnout is submissions: agents and editors said that the number of manuscripts submitted to publishers is rising, while the support staff that used to help editors work through them is being reduced.
“There are probably more submissions going out now” than ever before, said one literary agent. Why? She thinks it’s both that it has become easier to submit books and that the number of people doing so has increased. The uptick in people selling books to the houses, various sources said, is down to a growing number of laid-off or disenchanted editors becoming literary agents. (As a different agent explained, the transition from editor to agent is a logical, and easy, one: “What they know is publishing, and being an agent allows you more independence.”)
In the past, said another agent, “When you had a big submission, you would send it to maybe 15 people and pay for the messengers to bring the manuscripts in their boxes.” Now, she went on, because you can blast a submission out electronically, agents will send the same book out to more potential buyers. “Email has made it so easy to submit.”
The notion that there’s more manuscript reading required from editorial departments—historically reading work has been done outside office hours—was an issue cited repeatedly by agents as well as editors. And cuts to support staff were frequently mentioned as a reason junior staffers are seeing higher workloads.
“They need to hire more support staff,” said one literary agent. “Editors do so much. I check in with mid- to senior-level people a lot. I hear from senior editors and editorial directors who’ve lost assistants and are struggling. I’ve heard from a head of an imprint who doesn’t have an assistant.”
Meanwhile, over the previous two years most big publishers posted record profits. Sources at the houses repeatedly expressed frustration that this windfall wasn’t shared more widely with employees. (That said, PW has learned that some big publishers handed out bonuses during the previous two years: S&S gave company-wide bonuses to all those not already on a bonus scheme in 2020, and HBG noted it gives bonuses to staff every year, and that “extraordinary bonuses” were handed out in 2020 and 2021. And Macmillan’s St. Martin’s Press gave its employees a bonus last year.)
Despite the industry’s unexpected boom in 2020 and 2021, publishing remains a business with relatively tight margins, and numerous executives have been warning that those years look to be an anomaly. When S&S reported that revenue and earnings soared in the first quarter of 2022, CEO Jonathan Karp described the jump as “defying gravity.”
The party’s over
One thing the pandemic has proved is that though working from home allows employees greater flexibility, it’s also deeply isolating. And it arguably makes it harder for publishing—a business that, to some extent, made up for its low-paying salaries with events, parties, and a feeling of participation in the literary world—to attract new talent.
“The shitty job with shitty pay has always been there,” said one literary agent. “But the perks were the free books, the famous authors wandering the halls, the camaraderie, the stupid parties—even the free lunches and the doggie bags for dinner. None of that is happening.”
As an editor at a Big Five house put it, “Publishing is sort of a dues-paying industry. It’s not intentional, like frat hazing, but you do have to pay your dues. Over time you move up, but it’s a grind and it can take a big toll. The social aspect, though, is what makes it bearable.”
What the “social aspect” looks like in publishing moving forward is an open question. Numerous sources said they think it’s unlikely publishers will foot the bill for as many events as they did in pre-pandemic times. If anything, the past two-plus years proved something that publishers have been quietly assuming for some time: many of the events they regularly spend money on—media lunches, book launches, lavish parties at the now shuttered trade show BookExpo America—don’t have enough of an impact on sales to justify the costs.
It’s pointless to ask anyone in this business if the industry used to be more fun than it is now—publishing folk have likely been discussing the industry’s downward spiral since shortly after Gutenberg got his press running—but it’s hard not to notice the contrast between how industry veterans describe their time as assistants and what today’s assistants are saying. The veterans overwhelmingly offered happy memories of starting out, noting that they were having too much fun to worry about the low pay and heavy reading load.
One senior editor at a big house, who spoke fondly of the heady days of publishing in the early ’90s, said he does sometimes worry for the younger generation, “who don’t go out for drinks after work.” Then again, he countered, “it’s hard to tell what’s the pandemic and what’s me being old.”
An executive at another big house cautioned against viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses: “We’ve always heard that the past was more fun,” this source said, but “the past was home to sexism, racism, alcoholism, low pay, and poor HR administration that allowed abusive bosses to flourish.”
In addition to their concerns about how younger people will adapt to an industry that may be getting less social (no interaction with like-minded colleagues in offices, the end of impromptu after-work happy hours, fewer book parties), industry veterans also complained about an environment that feels ever more corporate.
One veteran agent said another result of consolidation is that the big houses are “not willing” to buy more experimental books. While agents have been complaining about this for years, this source said editors at the Big Five have less room to publish books that are “quieter and slower.” As the source put it: “It’s always been true, but it has gotten worse. There are still breakthrough books that are difficult to sell, but the percentages are getting smaller.”
Corporate oversight, others said, goes well beyond acquisitions. That trade book publishing is more corporate than it was a decade ago might not be news, but some veterans worry the pendulum has swung too far for a business founded on the principle that the core product is more work of art than widget.
One former high-level executive, who recently retired, said he takes no issue with the bottom-line nature of the industry. But the work in his final five years on the job was changing in worrisome ways. “The idea of being in a corporate situation where you go to meetings all day long and you sit on stupid committees—where is the time left for publishing books? I’ve spoken with many people who feel similarly. Some people still resent it bitterly.”
Other industry veterans say the corporate nature of the business is affecting more than the work itself; it’s changing what publishing professionals can and cannot say about their work and their place in the larger cultural landscape. “You can’t say anything anymore,” said Paul Bogaards, the former executive v-p and deputy publisher at Knopf, who last year launched his own firm, Bogaards Public Relations. “There’s an abundance of caution about who speaks and what is said.”
With corporate publishing becoming more closed-mouthed, Dennis Johnson, the publisher of the indie press Melville House, has come to the fore as one of the most outspoken publishers in the business. “I get a lot of phone calls from journalists writing about touchy subjects who say they’re calling me because I’m the only publisher in New York willing to go on the record,” he said. For example, Johnson was one of the first publishers to criticize PRH’s planned purchase of S&S in a December 2020 op-ed in the Atlantic.
Are unions the answer?
Industry members aren’t just complaining about their working conditions on social media; they’re pushing back against their employers in more public and concerted ways than in the recent past. In early March 2020, workers at HBG staged a walkout to protest the publisher’s plan to release Woody Allen’s memoir, which resulted in HBG promptly dropping the book. That June, the industry saw the largest show of collective action in decades when book publishing staffers walked off the job to support countrywide Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. A public letter posted by a loosely connected group of mostly younger publishing industry members said the effort was a response to “racist murder, white supremacy, and racial capitalism.”
On July 20, 100 unionized workers at HarperCollins staged a one-day strike in an effort to jump-start negotiations for a new contract. The strike marked the first at the publisher since the mid-1970s, when HC was known as Harper & Row. Employees at other publishers have also unionized recently, including at Image Comics and Seven Seas Entertainment.
A labor organizer who has been working with book publishing professionals said she’s been building networks in the industry more actively since 2019. The pandemic, she believes, illuminated to many junior staffers that “they really aren’t being paid a living wage for New York City,” as some, working remotely, moved to other locations where their wages could allow for a higher standard of living.
Nonetheless, it’s difficult to gauge what effect these efforts might have. As one senior editor at a big house mused, “It would be interesting to see what would happen if all the assistants walked out for a week.”
However, many sources seem to think that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Take, for example, the frustrated writer who worked his personal experiences at a soul-crushing job in corporate publishing into his novel. Before his protagonist is abruptly fired, he discusses how “the McGraw-Hill syndrome of despair and attrition” had set in. He mentions the terrible wages, the drudgery of crafting blurbs for books he hates, the misery of sitting in his “glassed-in cubbyhole” at a midtown skyscraper. The author? William Styron. The book? Sophie’s Choice—published in 1979.