Trade facing industry-wide burnout, Bookseller survey finds

From The Bookseller:

Publishing is facing “industry-wide burnout” according to a survey conducted by The Bookseller, which revealed 89% of staffers responding to the survey had experienced stress during the course of their work over the last year, while 69% reported burnout.  

The survey also found a significant number of employees are working more than their contracted hours each week, with many unhappy at the state of their work-life balance.  

With more than 230 responses, heavily dominated by publishing staffers (87%), the survey found 64% of people working in the industry felt their work had impacted their mental health in the last year. Many attributed this to unsustainable workloads and an “always on” culture, worsened by the pandemic. 

One editor, who has worked in the industry for seven years, said they are required to do “entire strands” of their job outside of contracted hours, to the extent they feel unable to start a family and are “seriously considering” leaving the industry. 

In total 63% of respondents said they worked more than their contracted hours each week, with some saying they worked up to 20 or 30 hours extra. Nearly three quarters (73%) agreed that their workload had increased in the last year, while 37% said they were not satisfied with their work-life balance. 

One senior desk editor who has been in the industry for nine years said working from home during the pandemic had “definitely” promoted a culture of working extra hours. “Work-life balance is a joke! I’ve heard editorial assistants not taking their lunch break and even cancelling training sessions as they felt they had to continue with their work,” they said. “Morale has severely decreased since the pandemic, lots of colleagues have left (either to other publishers or out of the industry) as they did not enjoy their jobs and were not valued as staff or compensated well enough.” 

The survey showed 38% of respondents wanted to leave their job. An assistant editor, who has worked in the industry for four years, said they “love” their job but were working more than two extra hours a day “not to even catch up, but to fall behind less”. They said: “I have had to work weekends. I am constantly stressed about the deadlines I am missing, as they impact my colleagues. This should not be the workload of a junior staff member. And, quite frankly, the workload and the pay do not add up. This is not worth it, and I am making plans to get out of the industry.” 

. . . .

 “Junior members of staff are often doing enough work for two people but are only in rare instances offered external help such as being able to freelance certain tasks out. There is an expectation from senior leadership that the company will continue to buy more and more books, but no corresponding communication re hiring more staff to help with this. People have been stretched beyond their limits over the last two years particularly and that’s why we’re seeing a mass exodus from the industry.” 

A marketing executive, who has worked in publishing for seven years, agreed. “There’s been a huge change in focus over the past two years, driven by the pandemic, to look at backlist titles and perennial sellers as well as more focus on e-books and audio, but the expectation that teams can do that on top of their pre-existing workload is going to lead to workforce-wide burnout.” They added: “My line manager recognises the issue and is understanding but there seems to be limited appetite higher up in the company to take steps to address the issues.” 

Another assistant editor, working in the industry for five years, said they had “not known burnout like it was in November” due to supply chain issues. They said: “We’re all exhausted and we know everyone else is exhausted, as an editor you don’t want to give marketing and publicity more because you know they are overworked too so it’s just this cycle of piling more on your own plate and drowning in it.”

They said their manager also felt the same. “It’s industry-wide burnout and change needs to come from the top, I can’t expect my mid-level manager to be able to solve this.”

A former publishing staffer, who recently switched to agenting, said they experienced “horrific” working conditions as an editor. “My last year as an editor I took only five days of holiday because I didn’t have an assistant and there was no one to cover even the basics of my day-to-day when I was away, so going on holiday meant a month of working through the weekends to make up for it.” 

They said they “love” being an agent now, because it has made them enjoy books again. “I see my friends who still work as editors continuing to struggle while their line managers refuse to give them anything approaching help or support. The bright, hardworking young people who work in publishing because they love books leave to go to better industries—as I nearly did—and nothing changes. M.d.s and c.e.o.s need to have a hard look at the workloads they place on their junior staff and start making real and consequential changes.” 

However burnout is not limited to publishing staffers. A number of booksellers also reported issues with stress due to working conditions. An archives assistant, who has worked in the industry for 10 years, said: “Rotas would be provided with only a week or two notice at times, trying to secure holidays was always a protracted affair, trying to speak to management about any HR/pay issues was always impossible, trying to view payslips was a convoluted affair, working hours would regularly be unsociable—you were supposed to be on a pattern of lates and earlies but management would just put you in for what suited them, so you would regularly be working weeks of mostly late shifts, you’d be lucky if you got weekends off, and you’d be expected to just accept very last minute changes to your rota.” 

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

13 thoughts on “Trade facing industry-wide burnout, Bookseller survey finds”

  1. 89% of staffers responding to the survey had experienced stress during the course of their work over the last year,

    Well, isn’t that too darn bad. Welcome to the adult freaking world.

    • Yep. I have family, friends, and acquaintances in at least two dozen completely different industries (edit: actually none of them in trad publishing) – and all of them have these same complaints.

      I keep my mouth (mostly) shut around them. I’m retired now, but I was a software developer. If I had so long as a month between one “death march” and another, I was in blissful heaven.

  2. The bright, hardworking young people who work in publishing because they love books leave to go to better industries—as I nearly did—and nothing changes.

    So, how about following the bright, hard-working young people? This stuff isn’t that hard.

    Love books? OK. Read ’em.

  3. This is the same in any field that seems particularly attractive from the outside. Many guys dream of working in baseball, but aren’t good enough to play professionally. So they end up working in the front office, where they are overworked and underpaid. But hey, the same is true of most minor league players. I am given to understand that the entertainment industry, in its various forms, is even worse. I regard any “dream job” industry with similar suspicion.

  4. Near term prognosis for NYC tradpubs isn’t good.
    Worse for the workers.
    Double digit inflation combined with a labor shortage in a business that lives off disposable income doesn’t augur fun times.

    Stress isn’t going to go down for the staff as the weight of cost containment inevitably falls on them. The “great resignation” hyped by the media isn’t driven primarily by worker disenchantment and “grass is greener” syndrome but rather by working boomers exiting stage left as the pandemic lockdowns gave them a taste of retired life. Forced to analize their finances many have discovered they can’t afford not to retire. Long hours and heavy workloads on the remaining tradpub workers are the result.

    Add in paper shortages and supply chain disruptions (at the source, now) and an industry of limited agility is facing major challenges. My expectation is massive price hikes and a further culling of lower selling authors. The stress on tradpub workers is nothing compared to what tradpub authors are facing.

    • I’m not sure what you mean by “can’t afford not to retire”. Is this something specific to the USA?

      It’s a good few years ago now but I spent a good deal of time and effort working out whether I could afford to retire (and whether my wife would still be okay after my death) – so the reverse of what you are implying. It turned out that I worried too much and could have got out about two years earlier as retirement proved just how cheaply one can live if you’re debt free.

      • “Can’t afford not to retire” happens when the cost of staying in the work force results in loser free cash than retiring.

        American taxes are “progressive” which means higher taxes the higher the gross income. In many cases the added revenue from remaining at work is consumed by the higher taxes (federal, state, city, county, etc) and the commuting costs. In addition, retirees often sell their residences and move to smaller, cheaper residences in lower cost of living locations, including income tax-free states like Florida.

        In many cases, the residence and place of employment are located under different local tax authorities, say adjacent counties, that don’t often offer *full* reciprocity so you’d get to pay tax to both. This is particularly true of people who work in high tax cities like, ahem, NYC but commute from New Jersey or Connecticut. Even worse if they also live in NY state.

        Consider the cost of living differential between Hartford, Conn. vs NYC: 34%.

        A person living in Conn. and working in NYC retiring on 75% of base pay would be *gaining* as much of 10% of their take home income by retiring and another 2-3% by only paying Conn taxes. Moving to Florida could double the “gain”.

        The cost of living differential between the high end (nyc, California) and the low end (Tennessee, Texas, etc) run as much as 50%. And this is true not only true of NYC (tradpub) but most big cities. In many locations retiring voids the need for daily work commutes of an hour or more. Quality of life boost there.

        Atop all that, depending on the person and their type of pension they might then
        supplement their income with a part time job (at reduced tax rate) or engage in Indie publishing. 😉

        First world lifespans allow for a lot of different lifestyles to those willing to plan ahead. No need to be a wage slave your entire life.

        (A friend of mine retired at 45, taking a buyout when the company was merged, and opened a part-time consultancy. Some years later he phased that out and switched to astrophotography. He built an observatory in land he owns in PR that he runs via internet from Ohio. He even has a supernova to his name in his third career.)

        • Thanks for the explanation. It’s much clearer now, or anyway as clear as it needs to be the appreciate the apparent paradox. Some of this applies in the UK, but to nothing like the same extent or to the same effect (unless one emigrates).

          • And that’s the key: the US is about as big as all of the EU.
            50 states, a dozen or more regional cultures and lifestyles plus the ability to move around at will. No need to emigrate to find an environment to your liking. And that includes weather.

            Unlike France and Spain among others with vast swaths of depopulated territory, there is still a full spectrum of communities in between the two coasts, ranging from million person metropoli to 30,000 person towns and smaller. Some of the best quality of life regions are practically secrets outside the US.

            It gives everybody, but retirees in particular, a lot of options for restructuring their lives in the pursuit of happiness. 😉

  5. Sheet, imagine how those firm’s authors felt – who went through a couple of years of lockdown with no support from the government, and, it has to be said, not a single email of concern from their publisher.

  6. Maybe worth pointing out that, given the Booksellers location, this survey probably relates to UK workers, though the report doesn’t give sufficient details of the survey’s methods/results to allow any estimation of how representative or reliable it is.

    Having said this, it does sound plausible, even though I believe that these workers in theory at least have rather better legal protections than their equivalents in NYC. Before I retired I was spending about four months every year working seven day weeks, so my sympathy is limited, though I had the good sense to work in an industry that paid well for hard work. My feeling is that these workers are coming to see how the “real world” now runs and are just having to face up to the fact that the romance of literature no longer stands between them and hard nosed bosses who only care about the bottom line and their next bonus.

    • Your guess almost certainly is true.
      What these stories neglect to document is the *age* of the employees.

      For all tbe cliches you hear about (american) generational cohorts, there are real differences between them, mostly due to the times when they were growing up or entered the workforce. Gen-X’ers who grew up under Carter stagflation have different expectations than millenials that grew up during the Bush/Carter/Bush boom.

      The zoomers entering the workforce just as tbe pandemic hit lost two of their formative career years that tbey’re never getting back. And with the ongoing restructuring of most businesses at the tail end of the pandemic the jobs they are dealing with today are evolving away from what they used to be, to say nothing of their “expectations”.

      If I had to guess, the quoted guys are in their 20’s, maybe early 30’s, and in their first jobs.


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