How low pay and low pay transparency undermine the publishing business

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From The Bookseller:

Last Sunday, I shared an article from my personal website about the difficulties of progressing in the publishing industry. Since then, I have been inundated with messages from people in the business sharing similar experiences with me. I’ve spent the past week reading these messages and speaking to chief executives, union organisers, HR people and many, many, many publishing workers to try and understand what is going on in our business, and I have come to the following conclusion: it is impossible for publishing to fulfil its own diversity agenda while continuing to pay low wages to most workers and to maintain its decades-long secrecy over pay and progression.

. . . .

According to a survey by, the average overall salary in publishing in 2017 was £32,228. The average starting salary was £20,740. This data is partial—it relies on participants in a survey, rather than data from the industry itself and the participants were younger than average—so it’s likely the actual average salary is a little higher than this.

So, let’s be generous to the industry and assume that the average worker in publishing might be earning around £38,000. In my experience, unless you are an exception, it can take about ten years of work to get to that level—which is the age at which many people start to have children, so I am including childcare costs in the below calculations.

£38,000 p.a. is around £2,456 take home pay per month according to the jobs website

Costs (all are per calendar month, approximate and arguably on the low side)

Rent for a one-bed flat: £1,200

Fulltime childcare costs for one child: £1,000

Transport from Zone 3: £140

Bills, including phone, council tax, gas & electric: £300

Total £2,640

This worker would be in the red before they had even bought food.

For a new starter on £24,000 (probably the highest starting salary in the business) with no children, their monthly take-home pay is around £1,600. This person’s costs might look something like this:

Rent for a room in a shared house: £700

Bills including council tax, gas and electric, phone: £200

Travel from Zone 2: £120

Total £1,020

This leaves around £500 or £125 per week for food, socialising, loan repayments, saving for a deposit, taking a holiday, whatever. Many new starters earn less than this (anecdotally, it can still be as low as £18,000).

. . . .

As you can see, for the average publishing worker, it is quite simply impossible to build a financially independent life around this business. It works for those who are in it because they are in relationships (often with people who earn a lot more) or they have family living in London, or family money, or they do not have children.

. . . .

While getting the facts straight about money is important, let us avoid recriminations of any sort because it just distracts us all from the fundamental fact, which is: for most of us, publishing does not pay. Another argument is that plenty of jobs pay around £38,000, even after ten years. That is true, but it is more likely you can do those jobs outside the capital, where rent, childcare and transport are much cheaper. Also the fierce competition for entry-level jobs in publishing means that new starters are often highly qualified graduates who could expect to earn a lot more after ten years in other industries.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The author of the OP described the pay problem at traditional publishers, small and large, more eloquently and in more detail than PG could.

His only added observation is that, given what PG suspects will occur in the traditional publishing and physical bookstore businesses until well after the onset of a vigorous financial recovery, he suspects that things will become significantly worse in those businesses before they become better, if they ever do.

He will also add that the Wall Street hedge fund that owns controlling interest in Barnes & Noble, Elliot Management, is unlikely to have the slightest emotional connection to the bookstore business and will be willing to cut expenses by huge margins, close stores and lay off headquarters staff or even take BN through bankruptcy court if the fund believes that is the best way to generate the most money from an investment that, in retrospect, may appear to have been poorly-timed.

10 thoughts on “How low pay and low pay transparency undermine the publishing business”

  1. As you can see, for the average publishing worker, it is quite simply impossible to build a financially independent life around this business.

    So go do something else.

    • Agreed.

      I’m fortunate in that what I enjoy doing has helped make me and Mrs. PG financially independent (but not filthy rich or even slightly-soiled rich).

  2. While getting the facts straight about money is important

    I’m not sure though that she does.

    Firstly, the person on £38,000 pa is only in trouble because they’re spending 40% of net pay on childcare. Are they a lone parent? If not, why can’t their partner care for the child, or, if the partner works, make sure that they get a job that at least covers the child care costs (plus a bit extra for travel)?

    Of course, the partner may be unable to work or care for a child (disabled or a full time student for example), but this only raises the second big problem: no financial presentation such as the OP author gives is worth a damn unless it takes full account of the benefits system.

    I don’t understand enough about the system (#) to estimate its impact on her example case but they would certainly be getting child benefit (admittedly only about £91 per month for one child) and significant help with childcare costs. To make a convincing case she needs to make up fuller details of her example and feed them into the various on line benefit calculators to see what the real position would be.

    (# I really should know more, but we just take our state pensions and free health care and don’t otherwise get involved with the benefit system, so the motivation for venturing down that particular rabbit hole is limited).

  3. What I don’t understand is that given most trad-published authors aren’t earning much, and the staff earn comparatively little, then who is getting all the money in big publishing?

    Ah – I see PG has the answer.The Wall Street hedge fund.

      • They weren’t expecting any money for the first year but tbe lockdowns have magnified the gap between costs and revenues. They’re mostly living off online, ironically enough.
        They didn’t buy B&N to milk it but rather to flip it. Pump it up and dump it in a combined IPO with Waterstones and whatever other distressed publishing properties they can scarf up.

        • Sure. It’s a stock play for a retail outlet. It may very well work for them.

          The publishers’ fiction arms can be run as cash cows, and I think that is what we are seeing. But B&N? I agree. Pump & Dump.

    • The mlney goes to their Corporate Overlords at Lagardere, Bertelsmann, Holtzbrink, and whatever the Murdocks call their outfit tbese days. They’re all wholly owned subsidiaries of multinationals.

      S&S is tbe exception, still being owned by CBSViacom, for now. But they don’t make enough moneyto matter. They’re on the market–no known takers, so far–because post-merger CBS has lost half its valuation which is making them a takeover target unless they quickly reduce their dead weight and debt load. A funny case that merger: the idea was to combine to be big enough to compete in the new world of video and instead they combined long term value with shorter term debt and became a more attractive takeover target. Since the potential buyers are Apple, Netflix, and maybe Amazon, S&S isn’t a fit with any of the three. We’ll have to see how that plays out.

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