I Never Made a Living Wage When I Worked in Publishing

From Electric Lit:

Years ago, when my son was in preschool, I found myself in the human resources of big Harry Potter rich publishing house. I’d crossed the bridge from the New Jersey suburbs we’d found ourselves in. At the time, my husband and I were renting the top floor of a house in one of the toniest suburbs in the county. I didn’t have health insurance, but my husband and children did—through my husband’s home country. We’d just come from there, flown overseas, where things had been easier and cheaper. Childcare was subsidized and my son was happy and I was researching my first novel. But my husband’s green card had been denied and we were broke.

To save money a friend of ours lived in the dining room and we had one car. In this tony suburb full of backyard structures and moms who lived in their perfectly manicured fiefdoms, where the only people in the streets were lawn care workers, we stuck out. I didn’t have a Gucci bag. Our car was not German. The roommate in our dining room gave everyone pause. Even if staying at home had been my thing—and it wasn’t—we didn’t have the money to do the things other stay at home moms did. For my son there were no camps, no mommy and me, no enrichment activities like the ones the kids around us took advantage of. I didn’t have money for pilates or yoga or Botox. We didn’t even have money for a proper flat for just the three of us. It was time to I went back to work.

The HR person scrutinized my resume. She asked why I’d changed jobs so frequently, not staying more than a year in any one publishing job. Because I needed to make more money, I told her. I almost rolled my eyes. She knew as well as anyone how low the publishing salaries were. Her eyes narrowed: Are you only interested in the money? My face flushed. Of course I was interested in the money. It goes without saying—the need for money is why one works. I told her that I’d gotten into publishing because of my love of books and the industry. Publishing had been my first real job, my only real job, I told her. I’d taken a few years off to have my son and we’d moved overseas so we’d have family help. But now I was back and I wanted to work.

I didn’t get the job, which was for the best, financially speaking. I’d done the math. My pay would hardly cover the child care costs and travel into the city. In the end, I left publishing. I took a job close to home where I worked as a nurse recruiter. My hours were flexible and no one cared that I hadn’t worked in a couple of years. I made commission. I talked to nurses all day and I did this until my daughter was born. There I was never shamed for working because I needed money.

When I started out in New York City publishing I made 19k a year, twenty-five years ago. This was a standard salary for editorial assistants and here’s a fact that won’t shock you—it wasn’t a living wage, even then. During that period, I lost my apartment. I squatted in an abandoned building in an apartment that was open to all who wished to enter. I starved. My mother had offered to send me a plane ticket home but refused to help me stay—I decided on my own to do so.

I had one room with a door I could lock. I showered at the Y. There were weeks before my next paycheck where I lived off the dry oatmeal in the office kitchen, learned to order soup and ask for extra bread on dates. I never passed a payphone without checking the coin release for abandoned change. I pushed aside washing machines at the laundromat for stray quarters so I could afford a bagel, a phone call, a subway ride. When a man at a street fair asked me to be a call girl I had a big long think on it before I finally said no.

I wanted to live in New York, wanted to work in publishing. I wanted to be a writer. I lived close to the bone, and I had no social life. Getting cheated by a cashier meant the difference between eating a hot dog off the street or starving that night. After some time, I left that publishing house for another and made a few thousand more. But when I left that first job, I also left editorial acquisitions—the sort of job that decides what books get published. I worked for managing ed, copy editing those already acquired manuscripts. Managing editorial departments, production departments, publicity—these jobs generally pay more than acquisitions—which are generally more prestigious and which might explain the sorts of books that we’ve always seen published, continuing to get published. With the extra money, I got out of my squat. I had managed to save the prerequisite first and last month’s rent and some extra money for a bit of furniture, and moved to a room downtown. This was the late 90s when there were still cheap rooms to be had in Manhattan. Then I jumped off to a dotcom that was short lived, but where I finally was paid a living wage. My last boss in publishing asked me how much I would make at the dot com and when I told her, she laughed. “You wouldn’t make that in ten years here,” she said. She might have laughed, but to me it was serious.

The big five publishing houses are owned by huge conglomerate companies. Harper Collins, recently on strike, is owned by News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s company. They pay these wages because they have always paid these wages—not because they can’t afford to pay better. Publishing is the sort of job that wealthy white people historically did, no one else need apply. Coming from greater Detroit (and not the parts that typically wound up in places like New York City), I had not understood any of this. If I had, I’m not sure I would have come at all. I was willing to pay the enormous price of moving to New York City because I’d been too ignorant to understand the price that would be exacted of me.

My father and mother had followed their calling. Both believed there was something noble in their professions. My father was a reporter who refused any editor or management position he was promoted to. His union job was safe and he was a union man until he retired. My mom was a Detroit public school teacher. When my mother had stage four cancer when I was 10, we were not financially ruined. Her union job protected her. Moving to New York City I hadn’t realized that my dream job was a job for people who had trust funds, or, at the very least, a parent or spouse who helped with rent or paid off credit cards. Not for people with parents who would not, or could not, help them.

Here is a fact: if a person cannot make a living wage in their job, even living as frugally and close to the bone as I was, then the wage is too low.  It’s unconscionable that publishing—especially those with big umbrella corporations like News Corp or the late Sumner Redstone’s company, Paramount Global, continues to pay their publishing employees so little. When I looked at starting salaries of publishing positions today, I was shocked to see they are exactly as low now as they were then, adjusted for inflation. Only now things are much harder. I lived without cable television or a cell phone back then. It would be impossible, especially during the past three years of remote pandemic working, for anyone to live without internet.

It’s especially unconscionable in light of what we know now—and let’s be real, we knew it then—that low wages keep out those with less means, and those from marginalized communities, in particular. This kind of gate-keeping is deeply problematic, and the exact opposite of what publishing should be doing.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG couldn’t have said this any better.

9 thoughts on “I Never Made a Living Wage When I Worked in Publishing”

  1. Here is a fact: if a person cannot make a living wage in their job, even living as frugally and close to the bone as I was, then the wage is too low.

    Here’s another fact: If a person cannot make a living wage in her job, then she can get another, better job.

      • Yep, but nope. That’s the catch. Only those who can afford to take the job will be able to apply, and there are so many of those around that the companies can get away with the scam.

        I’d call it Hobson’s choice, re-framed as a cruel trap for those who are in love with the idea of working in literature only being able to work there if they can afford it.

        • The problem is that plenty of naive recent college graduates (usually residing in the Eastern United States) want those jobs because they firmly believe that traditional publishing is cool.

          After all, who publishes all the New York Times bestselling authors? Who wouldn’t want to be able to tell their friends that they met Barbara Kingsolver, John Grisham or Stephen King?

          Having been financed by Mom & Dad in college and never holding a real job (no, internships aren’t real jobs), the graduates from anywhere except Columbia or The New School have not the slightest idea what New York City living costs are.

        • Plenty of other industries use the same logic, not just publishing. However, right now it’s only the case in publishing if you believe in the paper dinosaurs.

          I’ll add that other industries have a dual-track structure, with lucky people (tenure track professors, full time at tech companies like Apple/Google/Facebook, etc) and unlucky (adjunct professors, contractors at tech companies, etc).

          • But those pay living wages more or less.
            Even in the dotcom days the lowest boiler room staff got decent pay, mostly because of location.

            Corporate tradpub is unique in having both low pay and high cost of living.

            • Even this is a bit optimistic and ignores some class-warfare aspects. Once one gets to a midpoint-or-below school in an urban area (to pick on two examples that have a lot of company, Seattle Pacific University and Northeastern Illinois University), an Assistant Professor’s salary in the humanities is not a living wage. Those humanities PhDs from “disadvantaged backgrounds” have to be better-than-the-average candidate for a tenure-track position to be able to afford to live on the tenure track, because the schools where the bottom-rung tenure-track positions are liveable tend to be “above average.”

              This is the same struggle the military went through with getting women experience as commanding officers: So many commanding-officer positions require preadmission-at-time-of-commission to certain “career tracks” that they had to be noticeably “better” than their peers to just be considered — from the very start, with (in the 1970s and 1980s, and well into the 1990s) darned few available mentors who “looked like them.”† It’s the same struggle that the legal profession started confronting in about 2008 or so, when the cohorts of law schools with equal gender representation started being candidates for medium- and large-firm (non-boutique) managing partners. And if you want a really horrifying example that’s even more on point, consider leadership of the athletic federations governing soccer, gymnastics, and figure skating… the actual competitions in which have been thoroughly dominated by women in this country for over three decades. It’s not just about “equal pay,” either.

              † Much of which was Congress’s fault for imposing and continuing a “combat-role exclusion” that was thoroughly refuted by not later than 1973. I got to watch the effects up close and very personal indeed, specifically including three superiors who were unsuitable for their positions but were the only ones with the “credentials.”

              • Side note: yes and no on the soccer thing. Yes, US women’s soccer is usually top-level internationally while US men’s soccer is second-tier at best. However, this is less because American women are better than American men at soccer than because, by international standards, America is actually really good at supporting women’s sports (which isn’t saying a lot).

                • Also, there is waaay more money in other US pro sports.

                  For example, Manny Machado just got a (guaranteed) contract extension that pushes him past a half billion in career earnings. And Shohei Ohtani will go free agent in november. Bidding on his services will start at $500M.

Comments are closed.