Around this time of year, I start hearing from recent graduates hoping to get into the publishing business. While I enjoy meeting with them and am inspired by their enthusiasm for books and the industry, I’m sometimes a little ambivalent about these meetings since I don’t always feel like I have amazingly helpful advice about how they can get into the publishing business while still being able to pay their bills.
People hear that publishing is a poorly paid industry, but cultural taboos around talking about money, which are extremely strong in the publishing world, mean that job searchers might not have a real idea of exactly what “doesn’t pay well” means in dollar terms.
I thought it might be helpful to share some of the facts and figures around what it took me to get into the book publishing industry, and how much (or, really, how little) I was paid along the way. Some of these numbers date back around a decade and a half, so I’ll also include my rent so you can understand what it meant in relative terms. All of these jobs except for the college ones were in New York City.
While still in college, I co-founded and ran a literary magazine for three years, which I worked on for free. I had a work-study job with a literary translation journal at my college for a semester or so in my senior year, where I was paid around $10/hour. I wasn’t paying rent at the time.
The summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I was offered an unpaid internship at a prominent literary magazine in Brooklyn, but they were moving to a new office that summer and very disorganized, and they stopped responding to my emails after my first or second day in the office. I took a job in a coffee shop instead. I made $8 an hour plus tips, which was slightly above minimum wage.
The next summer, I got a part-time internship at a literary agency. It was also unpaid, though my college had a program that offered a $2000 stipend so students could take unpaid internships, which worked out to around $10 an hour. I also worked at the coffee shop again.
I started to understand that book publishing is a business where having a network is extremely important. I didn’t know anyone in book publishing aside from the agent I had worked for. She suggested I go to the Small Press Center’s first-ever New York Round Table Writers' Conference at the Society for Tradesmen and Mechanics in late April. As most of my classmates were wrapping up exams and celebrating our approaching graduation, I went to this event in New York and attended every panel I could. I also mustered up my courage and introduced myself to some of the speakers, many of whom were extremely generous and offered to meet with me for coffee. This created the beginning of my network in book publishing, and led to both my first and second jobs in the business.
I wanted to attend Book Expo America, but the tickets were a couple hundred dollars, and I didn’t have a job yet. One of the folks I met at the Writers' Conference hooked me up with a way in: My first actual paid gig in book publishing was wearing a cloak, carrying a plastic sword, and handing out postcards about a self-published book at BEA. It wasn’t glamorous, but it got me in the door and paid $150 for a few days’ work, and on breaks I hid my cloak and sword and tried to meet the publishing employees who were working the booths. This was not very successful, but I couldn’t have known that in advance.
My first actual job was at a literary agency, where I worked around 30 hours a week in the office, but 50 hours a week overall counting reading submissions and writing reader’s reports “on my own time.” I was paid ~$420/week. (So for folks doing the math at home, my nominal $15 per hour wage was more like $8.40…or lower than my coffee shop job from the previous few summers once tips were factored in.) I had no health insurance, and no paid time off or sick days. This predated the Affordable Care Act, so I just tried not to get sick, and when I got a pinched nerve, ignored it as best I could.
I started this job while living at home and commuting into the city, which cost $200+ a month in train tickets, plus another $76 a month for a subway pass. A few months later, I got a room in a rent-stabilized 3 bedroom apartment where my rent and utilities were a steal at $400/month, which was around a third of the market rate in that neighborhood. The apartment was falling apart and infested with bedbugs, but I stayed because it was all I could afford.
My second job, at a small book publishing company, paid me a starting salary of $27,500 with no health insurance. 3 months later, I got a raise to $30K but the health insurance premiums ate most of the raise. My share of the rent for one bedroom in a two bedroom in Bed-Stuy was $750, utilities not included. From there, I was pretty lucky, as I was promoted within a couple years and was able to negotiate solid raises for myself. I also managed to keep paying the same amount of rent until my landlord decided to sell the building in 2013, seven years after I moved in, which helped my finances enormously.
I have always been very aware that a number of immense privileges conspired to make it possible for me to get into book publishing. First, I’m white, mostly abled, and passed as straight until I chose to come out, once I was in a job where it wasn’t a problem for me to do so.
In addition to all of that, I graduated from a private college without any college debt. If I had owed student loan payments of even $200 or $300 a month, the finances would not have worked out for me, and I would have had to choose a different career path.
On top of THAT, my family was based right outside of New York City, aka the heart of the U.S. publishing industry, so I was able to live with them and commute to the city for job interviews, and I kept living with them until I had been working for four months and had some money saved up to pay for a security deposit and weather some financial storms.
Out of curiosity, I searched Glassdoor to find out what editorial assistants are paid these days. It’s pretty bleak, folks. The average is around $34K, ranging from $28-42K.
As an industry, we need to be honest about what it costs to take a job in our industry, and who can afford those costs. We need to be open with our own stories and transparent about the privileges that let us get where we are, and keep those very much in mind as we level up in the industry and have more impact over the salaries of junior employees.
To create a more diverse, representative industry, we have to create inexpensive or free (or, better yet, PAID) pathways into the business.
Having a diverse workforce will make us better able to publish stories and books for folks from all walks of life, ones that will resonate with the readers we aren’t currently serving. But if entry-level employees have to be able to work for free or for extremely low wages for years, we won’t be able to access the talented folks who can help us make desperately needed change in the industry.
That’s why I created The Next Page conference, and why I’m so dedicated to helping writers and publishers get money for their work. I’ll be writing more about The Next Page in a future newsletter, so stay tuned.
This week in links
“How Kickstarter is reshaping the publishing industry” Adam Rowe interviewed me for Forbes
“How has the internet changed book culture?” Publishers Weekly
“Look to China if you want to disrupt the way we sell books” The Bookseller
For more like this, please subscribe to On the Books by Margot Atwell.