Big Five publishers Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster, as well as several independent presses, recently committed to raising entry-level salaries to between $40,000 and $45,000 at the end of 2020 or in 2021. Intended to make opportunities in publishing more financially accessible to BIPOC and other historically excluded professionals, this latest attempt to reckon with publishing’s whiteness was spurred by the country’s outrage at the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many other Black Americans at the hands of the police and the ensuing push to interrogate racism and anti-Blackness at a systemic level, including within the publishing industry, this past summer.
Entry-level workers, often assistants in editorial, marketing, design, sales, production, and other departments, do the essential work of reviewing book proposals, creating sales and marketing materials, proofing manuscripts, and much more. Industry norms often perpetuate low pay and long hours, which can include unpaid overtime. Low entry-level salaries ranging from $30,000 to $36,000 have been cited as one of the various barriers to diversifying publishing—many who aspire to work in publishing are unable to live on low wages in New York City or other expensive industry hubs with the burden of student loan debt and without supplemental support from family. “Higher starting salaries are an important step in attracting and retaining employees of color and from less-privileged backgrounds,” says an executive at a large publisher that has committed to an increase.
A mid-level professional at a small publisher who identifies as BIPOC cites the industry’s low wages as a significant barrier to entering and staying in the industry. “If I had not been with my partner, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I would not have survived beyond my first publishing job. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it with school loans. It’s what a lot of people of color in the industry have to deal with, because many of us—I don’t want to speak for all of us—don’t have generational wealth to fall back on.”
While there is excitement about the raises, the sense prevails that this wage increase, though long fought for internally, is only a start, given the industry’s struggle to keep pace with continually rising costs of living. “It’s helpful, but now we need more, just because it’s taken so long to get to this point,” says Foyinsi Adegbonmire, who works as an editorial assistant at an imprint of Macmillan, which raised its starting salary by $7,000 from $35,000 this past December. “It’s great, but because there’s [a high] cost of living in New York, there are student loans to pay, it’s hard to fully breathe a sigh of relief,” she says.
Industry professionals also want to see salary adjustments outside of the entry-level tier. Although HarperCollins and Penguin Random House have committed to raises at other levels, other publishers have yet to follow suit with public announcements of widespread adjustments. The mid-level professional who relied on her partner’s support to stay in the industry early on—and whose company has yet to announce any formal wage bumps—says that this wage suppression has had lasting effects on her plans for her future, including saving for retirement and purchasing a home, and has seen it affect her peers’ plans for having children or even owning a pet. Even ten years into her career, she still considers leaving publishing. “I feel very jaded, because on the one hand, I get to do something I love, but on the other hand, I don’t even love it anymore, because I can’t afford to do it,” she says.
Professionals say it is difficult to navigate career advancement, particularly when seeking promotions, because of a lack of transparency about salary structure and how pay determinations are made. “For true equity, to get there at some point, we need full transparency,” says Adegbonmire. When it comes to asking for salary increases, the mid-level professional says the people in power at her press, often older white women, can lack understanding of or empathy for this situation. “Their response to mid-level employees who hope to be where they are someday is, ‘Well, you know, people don’t get into publishing for the money. It’s about the books.’”
Jennifer Baker, who has been in the industry since 2003 and is a managing editor at Random House Children’s Books and the host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, agrees. “There’s such a gap between understanding what it is like at an entry-level place and even beyond that. But I just never forget what it was like to be an assistant. And I’ve met so many people, who, once they get to a position, they forget,” she says.
Living wages are only one piece of cohesive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Where publishers do outreach for open positions, their efforts to build inclusive management and company culture and the availability of mentorship and advancement opportunities all play a part in ensuring BIPOC employees are able to bring their talents to publishers and thrive alongside their white counterparts. Black women in particular have cited lack of mentorship, representation in leadership, accountability for racism in the workplace, and an unwillingness from executives to provide support for books from Black authors as other reasons the industry remains a difficult place for them to succeed.
“I think pay is only part of the problem. The racist things that happen, the racist books that get published and printed, the pay gaps between white authors and illustrators versus authors and illustrators of color, all of that is incredibly draining. Even if they get more Black people into the industry, those people still aren’t going to stay. They’re going to be burnt out—there’s going to be emotional burnout after a certain amount of time because they won’t have the support network in place,” says the mid-level professional.
While professionals of color are hopeful about the wage increases as one step toward addressing these various issues in their workplaces, they remain cautious. “I just want a comfortable working environment and to be respected,” says Baker, who identifies as Black. However, she adds, “If we’re still going to have to tiptoe around white privilege, white supremacy, none of this is going to change. Ever. It’s just going to look different. But it’s going to be the same.”
Executives at several large publishers cite willingness to continue remote work post-pandemic, trainings, and ongoing assessments of demographics and pay as pieces of the work that will continue to address issues of DEI, in addition to top-level appointments of people of color. But the culture of isolation can be hard to shake, particularly at small publishers without much diversity to begin with, says the mid-level professional.
The longevity of this wave of efforts remains in question. “I’m cautiously optimistic. So much of what happened in 2020 has been reactionary. Being reactionary isn’t sustainable,” says Baker. With the industry’s history of variable interest in Black issues, she wonders, “So what’s different this time? We’ll see.”
Priscilla Wu is a writer, editor, and communications professional living in Portland, Oregon.