How low pay and low pay transparency undermine the publishing business

How low pay and low pay transparency undermine the publishing business

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

How did I arrive at this? Let’s start with the numbers.

According to a survey by bookcareers.com, 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 reed.co.uk

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).

How does this compare to those at the very top? Again, it is hard to get data on this. I consulted Companies House, which tells you how much the highest paid director of the various companies get, but this figure is not reliable [companies do not have to name the director, and the figure quoted is not always just the salary]. Having said that, if we were to use this data (which we could justifiably do, given the lack of information the industry itself will share), we could assume that the highest paid people at these companies earn close to £1,000,000 per year, sometimes more. Publicly-listed companies do better with their transparency in these reports, so we can probably quite safely guess that benchmark salaries for running a major publishing business begins at £500,000 but can come close to £1m when boosted by performance related bonuses, share options and pension earnings.

As I’ve been looking at monthly figures: a salary of £750,000 would give you monthly take-home pay of £34,053 after tax, again according to reed.co.uk. On £500,000, you would take home £23,011 per month which is almost exactly the starting annual salary for many workers in this business—if they are lucky.

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 (or, of course, they are earning a lot of money—somewhere between £38,000 and £750,000 and up). 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.

But this is the market, it’s no one’s fault, it’s just supply and demand. Young people who want to work with books will happily work long hours for low pay. But as workers move up the ranks, pay negotiations happen confidentially, and most people do not know what colleagues with similar levels of experience earn. Job titles can be arbitrary and sometimes pretty meaningless. People can go from editorial assistant to publisher literally overnight. Others remain at the same level for years. The industry will argue this is because of "talent". Some people are rewarded for their ability, others left to stew in their own mediocrity. If this is the case, then making the ways by which such talent is measured and evaluated clear and transparent to all should not be an issue – because fair’s fair, right? In the marketplace, we all get what we deserve.

In fact, as we all know, promotion and success in publishing is a highly secretive and subjective affair. Everyone is paranoid and fearful about their position because the way you get and maintain that position is obscure. Fearfulness feeds into the secrecy—and this fearfulness is often undercut by deep shame and confusion leading to what I’ve started to suspect is a hidden mental health crisis in our business. The pressure to perform our professional selves on social media makes all of this so much worse. When you put this alongside the financial situation—and then we pretend to wonder why we don’t attract a more diverse workforce? It is deeply patronizing to people under-represented in our business to ask why they are not knocking down our door to come work with us in this context. 

I don’t really know what to do about this, but here are a few ideas.

1.     Join a union. Everyone working in publishing should join the NUJ or Unite (these unions are recognised by PRH, not, as far as I know, by any of the other big publishers). I said this in my original piece and I will say it again: an employee network focussed on the concerns of one particular group of employees does not have the same bargaining clout as a union. An employee network cannot legally organise a strike  which is one of the most effective ways employees can improve their pay and conditions. A useful guide to unionising is here. It is deeply hypocritical of publishing to use the aesthetics of counter-cultural politics to sell its products while quietly profiting from the cheap labour of starry-eyed young people and using the abundance of those people to keep wages low—but publishing has been doing this since time immemorial and will continue to do so unless employees work together to change things. To all the young publishing staffers who contacted me this week, ask yourselves: what would Sally Rooney want you to do? She would want you to join a union.

2.     Stop feeling guilty. I felt guilty for years for not earning more money. But I’ve learned this week that shame and guilt are rampant in this business. Those who are stuck in their career path feel bad about their perceived failures. Those doing okay feel bad because they know other people are struggling. We need to foster solidarity between us rather than secrecy and guilt.

3.     Participate in and support existing campaigns around transparency. Aki Schilz of The Literary Consultancy is doing excellent work around this—please follow the hashtag #BookJobTransparency. She is also working on a survey entitled “My Journey in Earnings” which aims to give workers the information on pay that their employers are still not quite ready to share. It is completely anonymous – please participate. Please also follow Suzanne Collier and her excellent work at Bookcareers.com. Not only is she gathering extremely useful data around pay, she is also a lifeline to people stuck in this business who are struggling to move forward with their careers.

4.     Use social media, but do not rely on it: we should pressure our recruitment platforms to refuse to print job adverts that do not give the salary. All publishing companies need to share mean and median wages with their employees, differentiated by department and give realistic career paths. Social media is a good way of keeping these issues alive because publishers want to seem like they care about society and their employees’ well-being. Relying on social media entirely, however, provides patchy, knee-jerk results and tokenistic concessions. Nancy Roberts, a former publishing professional who left to establish a start-up that helps organisations improve diversity tells me that despite her many links to the industry, trade publishing has been reluctant to engage with her work, preferring instead to focus on their own in-house initiatives. She believes that the only reason these companies refuse transparency around pay is because they are afraid to share this information. According to Roberts, such secrecy contrasts with other industries she works with (construction and finance)—industries that are far less impacted by social media in their internal policy-making. Roberts also has some very depressing information about debt and publishing: using the Bookcareers data on average earnings, and taking average student debt as £50,800 (according to an IFS report from 2017, and for poorer students, average debt is £57,000), it would take 30 years for someone on the average publishing salary to pay back the cost of their degree. It is perhaps unsurprising that the industry is so reluctant to engage with the shocking reality of these figures. Please also read Roberts’ letter to the industry – she has had a very different career trajectory to mine, but has ended up with very similar conclusions.

5.     Maintain healthy scepticism towards in-house initiatives to address these issues. Following on from the reaction to my article, I wrote to the bosses of PRH, Hachette, HarperCollins, and Pan Macmillan. Tom Weldon (PRH), David Shelley (Hachette) and Anthony Forbes Watson (Pan Mac) responded promptly, kindly and at length. HarperCollins' communications manager Jon Howell replied on Charlie Redmayne's behalf with similar generosity. They all say they agree with me. They all say they care about these issues. They are introducing measures to improve things. Some of these measures are imaginative—a stand out at PRH is a rental deposit loan for new starters (although if you need a loan to pay your rent, then you should think very carefully about working in publishing). Hachette finally introduced “totally transparent pay scales” at the end of last year. While to be welcomed, I feel that many of these measures are treating the symptoms rather than the overall malaise. And, with all due respect to these business leaders, they are not paid to treat the malaise—so I don’t see why we expect them to. I repeat: the highest paid people at these companies earn close to seven-figure salaries. £500,000 is almost fourteen times a starting salary of £24,000, based on annual take-home pay. I do not see how anyone earning that kind of money can really understand what it is like to be faced with the kind of financial challenges I have outlined here—and I do not care if they started out on crap money also. This is an argument I heard time and time again from senior people in publishing  (in my day, I earned £12,000 a year and was happy about it… ) and it is utterly irrelevant.

I do not work for a big publishing company anymore, but I still consider myself part of the industry. I’ve given it ten years of my life, it is mine as much as anyone’s. And that is what I would say—especially to the young people who love books so much they are willing to sacrifice their well-being for it—if you go into it, you need to make it yours. And that means working with your colleagues to fight for better conditions for everyone, not just those who, in the words of a HR executive I spoke to this week said, make it to the top of the pyramid. Because even if you get one of those jobs, you won’t be able to tell anyone how you did or how much you get paid. And the ability to speak freely to someone who asks for straight answers to simple questions, is something money cannot buy – as this week has shown me quite literally.  Among all the ironies of this situation—the fact that the most powerful people in our business, defenders of free speech, guardians of our ability to share and distribute information, cannot tell me the most basic facts about their organisations is perhaps the worst of all. The ability to speak the truth is something I suspect most young people in publishing care about deeply. I think, and hope, that our authors—many of whom also make huge financial sacrifices for this business—would stand with us on this.  


Niamh Mulvey is a writer and editor. She is also co-founder and publisher of children's books start-up In the History Books.