Her clog-clad foot bounces rhythmically as she tells her friend about the book she’s just started working on. ‘The spelling and the grammar are terrible,’ she says. ‘Totally cringe-worthy. But the content’s good. It’s fiction, but it’s not, you know … Because it feels true.’

Her friend does a tilted head nod. Oh, she knows. She gets it.

‘But I’m pretty sure I hate my job. Last week my managing editor circled a word I’d hyphenated and wrote, in red pen, ‘I wouldn’t have done that.’ I mean, what the fuck.’

Her friend tells her she’s lucky – she’s being paid.

‘Well, I couldn’t’ve done another unpaid internship,’ she replies. ‘I can’t live at home forever. And I have a post-graduate degree. Shouldn’t that be enough to get paid work?’

Her foot bounces so quickly now that her clog might fly off.

Her friend says there are very few jobs around, so actually, if anything, she’s very lucky.

‘To be an editorial assistant, working three days a week? I could earn more money picking fruit.’ She shoves her glasses back up her nose.

Her friend, clearly tiring of the conversation, suggests she quit. After all, she does still live with her parents.

‘But you’re right! There’s nothing else out there!’ she says. ‘Did I tell you I sat the Lonely Planet editing test about a year ago? There were, like, sixty other people there. Sixty. I think they hired two of them! I mean, who were they? And what are the others doing?’

Her friend says she had no idea.

‘There’s nothing creative about the publishing industry,’ she says finally. ‘That’s what I’ve learned. It’s just red pen and who you know.’

She’s frustrated and angry and she probably has a right to be. As an editor working in the publishing industry, her income is unlikely to exceed 45k before she turns 25. And she will be lucky if it ever exceeds 50k. Throughout her career she’s likely to attend countless meetings about a desired pay increase and will always be told the same thing: the line of people who want your job goes around the block, so back to your desk or get on your bike. And if not that, she’ll be reminded she works in publishing – there is no more money to give. Back at her desk, she will resent the fact she resents the receptionist for earning more than she does.

I sat behind this young woman at the Emerging Writers’ Festival Launch at the Wheeler Centre in May. The room was abuzz and there wasn’t a spare seat. Except, that is, for the seat beside me. Had they sussed me out? Did they know I don’t believe in unpaid internships? That I was listening into their conversations and frantically typing them into my iPhone? That I, somewhere in my blackened heart, felt sorry for us all? Those who believed there’s a prosperous career in publishing.

There are fifteen universities offering postgraduate editing courses in Australia. Even more offer editing classes at undergraduate level. And if tertiary education and years of experience still aren’t enough to get you a job – which is highly likely – then the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) offers accreditation. The exam, which has been offered since 2008, is recommended for editors with more than three years’ experience and tests competence, not excellence. And it costs non–IPEd members a whopping $725 – not much less than most editors’ weekly wage.

But tertiary education, years (sometimes decades) of experience and accreditation, still won’t see you rollin’ in it – or necessarily employed at all.

The Book Industry Award 2010, which is administered by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), sets the minimum weekly wage for a trainee book editor at $756 a week, or $39,312 per annum. This soars to $803.80 a week after completing a six-month probation period. For the most senior editor, the minimum weekly wage is $1168.20 per week, or $60,746.40 per annum. Now, that all sounds kind of reasonable until you try to convince an employer you should be paid as a senior editor.

But don’t worry, on the upside – if you can call it that – most book editors won’t earn enough to have to pay back their HECS-HELP debt, no matter how low Mr Abbott pushes the repayment threshold.

Meanwhile, the MEAA’s 2011–12 National Freelance Rate for book editors and proof readers is listed at $215 per hour, or $911 per day.

And now take a big breath in, because this is when we laugh: HA HA HA!

I felt for this woman sitting in front of me, grappling with the situation in which she finds herself, because I’ve been there. She can see her future and is doubting her career path before it has barely begun. I certainly wouldn’t dissuade her from reconsidering her options.

But there’s one thing she has got wrong, or still doesn’t realise: it’s not just red pen and who you know – it’s also constantly wondering, in a female-dominated industry, whether you’d be paid more if you were a man.

Gabrielle Innes

Gabrielle Innes is a freelance editor and writer.

More by Gabrielle Innes ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Female dominated coincides here with a strong affective component of labour, too. On top of the dismal pay, most editors I know would rather work late into the night, on weekends and public holidays, rather than sit with the uneasy feeling that we’ve let some grave error slip in the book, or somehow have failed the author in a duty of care. Sleepless nights are also unpaid and we often find it difficult to put that knowledge into practice.

  2. I work in publicity in publishing and the biggest issue that I notice is people (mostly young women) unable to stand up for themselves. Editors are often shy and lacking in the face-to-face confidence it takes to ensure that you aren’t trampled on by media bosses.

    Stand up for yourselves my friends: do not work unpaid overtime; if you are an intern, directly approach your supervisor about further work, especially if they say you do a good job (if they don’t have a job opening or if you cant think of a way that they can use you, then ask that they keep you in mind for any future openings); ask for a raise after a year and prepare yourself for the battle that WILL happen by arming yourself with an awareness of how well the business is doing, how much your skills are in demand at your work, and above all an awareness that you deserve decent compensation for all the time you’ve studied and worked. You are not a supplicant, you are a professional and deserve to be treated as such.

  3. With respect to panda, I agree only to *some* extent that editors can be hesitant to speak up. I have seen some young female editors hang back, but I have also seen others ask for rises (assertively, professionally, and with justification) and be told no, no, and again, no.

    Bravo to Gabrielle for speaking up about this issue, which continues to challenge the industry.

  4. The general point that young women in publishing are not fairly paid is right, but (as an editor who has worked for a few trade publishing houses), I have to quibble with these exact figures. Unlikely to earn $45k p.a. before age 25? True. Unlikely to earn over $50k EVER? That’s not correct. Youngish (but not completely untested) editors would be on about $50k at most publishers I know of, and on about $60k after 5 to 10 years’ editorial experience. From there on, the only real way up is to move into management or commissioning. Not “rolling in it”, maybe, but certainly enough to make it a sustainable career. There are other pros, too: job satisfaction (yes, even creativity!), flexibility, the option of going freelance later on, once you’ve made some connections (especially useful for new mothers). That’s not to say that it’s a perfect industry, or that gender isn’t a large part of the reason for the low pay. But this piece paints an inaccurately grim picture.

    What is indisputable is that there are now far, far more well educated aspiring editors than there are jobs. It’s a small industry, and in my opinion universities have misled their postgrad editing students, promising jobs that don’t exist in return for fees. Meanwhile, the culture of the unpaid internship has crept up on us, so that now even free labour has been devalued, if that’s even possible: so many people do multiple internships, and so many internships are of patchy quality, most of these unpaid stints don’t give students useful experience or impress potential employers.

    What’s the answer? I might be old and cranky (I’m pushing 40), but I can’t help but miss the days when 25-yr-olds didn’t envy the receptionist – they aspired to BE the receptionist, because that was a legit way into the industry, following a boring old degree in English or history. Now, the 25-yr-olds I meet have “professional writing” degrees and would never dream of taking on a secretarial role, but they’ll work for years for free and them complain that they’re “undervalued.” Well, yes; funny how that happens.

    It’s an overcrowded industry to be sure, and not a path to riches – but if you can find that first job (preferably a paid one! Don’t sell one another out), it’s a fun way to make a modest living.

  5. An interesting discussion. Just noting briefly, in response to edde:

    Youngish (but not completely untested) editors would be on about $50k at most publishers I know of, and on about $60k after 5 to 10 years’ editorial experience.

    This does not match up with my experience. Many talented, dedicated inhouse trade editors I know struggle to break the $50k mark even after eight to ten years in the job. A disturbing number of the ‘youngish but not completely untested editors’ I know earn under $40k. There are outliers, but these numbers reflect my own experience and discussions with other editors.

  6. In response to Edde’s comment, I’m not sure that starting out in the reception is a typical/common entry to editorial anymore. That’s what I’ve observed, in any case, but perhaps it still occurs at some publishers. My experience has been that just to get in the door in editorial, you need to show you have at least a graduate diploma or MA in publishing/editing, or related field, on top of your English/Arts degree. I think this can be where some resentment arises, as much is expected with relatively low compensation in return.

    I’ve also experienced employers suggesting that there are plenty more out there who want your job, when the issue of low pay arises. It may be true that some employers get a barrage of applications when they advertise, but we shouldn’t be too impressed by the numbers – this includes a lot of people who are really not qualified but are having a go anyway (and a high-profile employer like Lonely Planet no doubt gets a lot of travel-writer wannabes trying the editor doorway). I have seen an employer manage to offer positions to only two people out of some 150 applications, despite wanting to hire more – the response to this being that they just didn’t find anyone else who was suitable. (The one rare male applicant they offered a job to turned it down because the pay was too low.)

    I’ve also seen editors raise the issue of (even slightly) better pay and be met with defiance and inflexibility. I do think editors could be doing a better job of spelling out where and how they ‘add value’. It’s difficult, though, as editors by job description are unseen and are meant to be quietly working away in the background. But think about that defamation case your employer avoided because of the issues you picked up in the text, or the embarrassment you’ve saved the ‘brand’ and so on.

    As to whether editors would be paid more if it were a male-dominated industry – yes, I think so.

  7. A good point made by Edde not to sell one another out. While I think unpaid internships can be a great way to get your foot in the door, underselling ourselves remains a big problem. Being a) a woman, b) returning to work after having children, and c)working in a creative industry seems to be the great doormat triumvirate. We need to figure out how to stand up for ourselves — even with post-graduate qualifications.

  8. Fair enough – the figures in my earlier comment match up with the editors I know (note: in Sydney. Perhaps higher cost of living = slightly higher pay?), but these may be the lucky ones.
    But re this: “A disturbing number of the ‘youngish but not completely untested editors’ I know earn under $40k” — as the article notes, unless they’re “trainee” editors with zero experience, this is likely to be below the award, ie illegal.

  9. i wonder if Gabrielle has any research or figures on union or collective organisation within the editorial trade. This seems to be a logical first step towards improving wages and conditions. Of course it’s easy for companies to push against such requests from individual employees but how do we organise? (Through the MEAA it looks like, though I have no experience with them and woudl love to hear from any book editors who are members.) And would it have to be specific for editors or all roles within the book/trade publishing?

    we could focus on the collective power of editors and shift the responsibility for low wages away from the individual workers and back on the management.

  10. Thank you Gabrielle! You have reaffirmed my decision to make a career change (despite being an unemployed graduate). I was extremely lucky to fall into publishing with an academic publisher who has since moved their production (and hence editing) arm offshore. I was lucky enough to work for two other publishers, with my last employer being a government agency. That meant that I did break $60k, but only just. After 10 years in the industry, I realised my options for career advancement were next to zero.

    I loved the people I worked with (well mostly) but it was time to move on. I wholeheartedly agree that the fact that the industry is so poorly paid because it is female-dominated. It was refreshing to work in the public sector, where payrises were part of the EBA.

  11. Sorry, but zero sympathy for anyone who accepts a job that pays below award. If you put up with these conditions, you are part of the problem and you are making things ten times harder for everybody else.

  12. Great post, Gabrielle. I share your concern that many well-trained early-career editors are exiting the profession before they’ve really got started. It’s a huge shame both for those people (who miss out on a potentially rewarding career) and for the industry (which should be employing the most promising future editors). For what it’s worth, I think the jury is out on how much employers value an internship on someone’s CV, in any case – precisely because they’re well aware that internships are often menial at best and exploitative at worst.

    I have just one question and one suggestion. Here’s my question: have you or your friend looked outside Melbourne’s trade publishing circles? Think of non-traditional publishers such as education, government, NFPs, charities. There are so many organisations producing exciting content – print, online, multimedia, learning tools, whatever – and people with publishing skills are in demand. And they (mostly) pay more respectably than trad publishers. It’s tough everywhere, of course, but if your concern is building a sustainable career, it’s something to think about. I’ll bow to the earlier poster on the question of what salary growth to expect from a trade career, but I can add that non-trad publishers may be less likely to offer only bottom-dollar roles in the early stages.

    Finally, here’s my suggestion: if you’re finding that everybody else is competing on price (which seems to be the core of the problem you’re facing with the internship issue), why not compete on some other ground that you can do something about? While your mates are fiddling around with internships of varying quality, what could you do to develop while you’re job-hunting and (hopefully) earning money? For example, there’s now a National Mentoring Program for editors, available in several states around the country (including Vic.), which provides opportunities to partner with a more experienced editor to further their career development goals. You could also aim to gain editorial accreditation (AE) in time, which is increasingly sought after by clients and employers and is even a prerequisite for some jobs. The exam does test competence, not excellence, as you say – but it’s important to bear in mind that you need to achieve 80% to pass – a stringent definition of competence by any measure.

    Good luck Gabrielle, and do post an update about how you’re going.

  13. After 25 years in the industry, mostly freelance punctuated with inhouse stints, I have found my income shrinking each year as work becomes scarcer and the working year shrinks to eight months. Yes, that’s four months with no income at all. I earn less than the minimum wage and would be better off working as a checkout chick … if I were not simultaneously overqualified and inexperienced, not too mention too old, for the job.

    So, in late middle age and too old now to retrain (Who would hire a 60yo new graduate?), I face a truly frightening future of not so genteel poverty. My advice: find another profession while you still can.

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