Type
Article
Category
the arts
Workers' rights

What it really means to work in the book industry

Books+Publishing recently published the results of its 2022 employment survey of Australia’s book industry, following similar surveys in 2013 and 2018. Back in 2018, these survey results (and Samantha Forge’s great dissection of them) inspired workers at Penguin Random House to unionise, because they exposed just how unfair publishing wages were. This year’s results show that nothing much has changed since then.

The 2022 report focuses on wages, hours worked and bonuses of people working for various employer types. Of the 300+ people surveyed, 51 per cent work for large publishers, 25 per cent for mid-sized publishers, 6 per cent for a small publisher, 11 per cent in bookshops and 7 per cent for either libraries, literary agents, industry organisations or other industry-related employers.

Looking at the average wages, the report breaks down the ways that pay has shifted between June 2018 and March 2022, across some key departments.

  • Administration salaries have dropped 3 per cent to $55,898.
  • Editorial salaries are up 2 per cent to $63,643.
  • Marketing and publicity salaries are pretty much the same—up 0.6 per cent to $60,543.
  • Sales salaries also have hardly changed—they’re down 0.3 per cent to $58,565.

Let’s keep in mind that the Consumer Price Index has increased 10.9 per cent in that time. Although there are complications with using CPI as the measure of how much wages should have increased, I think it’s more than fair for workers to expect their pay to increase as CPI rises. If those salaries had increased fairly in the last four years, the average would now look like this:

  • Administration: $63,837.
  • Editorial: $69,142.
  • Marketing and publicity: $66,769.
  • Sales: $65,153.

Of course, even these salaries aren’t anywhere near high enough for such highly educated workers, as is commonly the case in the book industry. Most are probably reading those numbers and thinking ‘I wish I was being paid that much’.

As Books+Publishing helpfully clarifies:

The rises in average wages indicated by the data suggests that wage growth in the industry is not matching inflation and, despite nominal wage rises, many book industry employees are worse off than they were four years ago in real terms.

That is, until you look at the shift in senior management wages between since 2018. These salaries have increased 11 per cent, to $101,200 on average. Almost two thirds (64 per cent) of senior managers surveyed are earning $90k or more. Some are earning as much as $160k —a huge slap in the face of workers whose salaries are barely scraping past the $55k mark.

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Something that is increasing with inflation is the HECS debt of every book industry worker who completed probably two degrees just to get their interview.

This week’s comprehensive Australian publishing industry workforce survey on diversity, from the University of Melbourne and Australian Publishing Association, reveals that more than 85 per cent of publishing workers have at least an undergraduate degree, compared to only 24 per cent of the Australian population, and more than half of them also have a postgraduate degree. (This survey, which is well worth a read, also revealed that the workforce is predominantly female, white and heterosexual with high rates of mental illness.)

A postgraduate degree in editing or publishing has become a standard requirement on publishing job ads, even for the entry-level positions paying less than $50k. A master’s will rack up between $60–$70k in HECS debt. As Samantha Forge highlighted in 2018, it will take most graduates until the end of their working life on $60k per year to pay that off.

HECS debts don’t technically accrue interest but they do accrue ‘indexation’—a yearly percentage increase in the amount owed ‘in order to maintain [the debt’s] real value by adjusting it in line with the changes in the cost of living’ (read: CPI increases). This year, HECS debts worsened by 3.9 per cent in line with CPI. Any paltry increases in book industry wages are being immediately swallowed by the ever-rising debt created by this industry expectation.

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Consider the book industry’s wage stagnation issue against the unpaid overtime in Books+Publishing’s 2022 results: 93 per cent of full-time employees in the book industry work between 36 and 60+ hours per week, with 47 per cent of full- or part-time employees reporting that they ‘always’ or ‘regularly’ work overtime. However, this overtime is largely unrecognised, because less than two thirds (59 per cent) of employers offer any overtime pay or time in lieu.

In fact, a quarter of workers indicated that their employer doesn’t offer any compensation for overtime worked. While this is an improvement on the 2018 result (35 per cent), it’s still shameful of an industry that obsessively touts its own progressivism.

The industry’s understanding of overtime is complicated by the very blurred line between work and pleasure when it comes to books. For example, a book publicist or bookstore worker would be expected to attend book launches and industry events, read manuscripts or advances, and ‘network’ with authors and colleagues entirely in their own time, just to keep the job. This is also assuming that workers who are able to claim overtime or time in lieu feel comfortable doing so, which seems unlikely given how many barriers exist across the industry for accessing fair pay.

In basic terms, this recent data shows that 41 per cent of book industry employers in Australia aren’t paying workers for the total hours they work, making the workers (and their free labour) excellent value for company money. Who are these employers and how are they still getting away with not recognising overtime to employees who obviously work more than what’s in their contracts? That is literal wage theft.

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These Books+Publishing surveys capture important and otherwise invisible data about the true conditions of the book industry, which is notorious for keeping salaries and profits private for the sake of ‘competitive advantage’.

It’s difficult to get a true picture of the exploitation in the industry without having visibility of the real profits being taken by publishers. These are not publicly available, so we can only extrapolate them using book sales reported by Nielsen BookScan. For example, publishers sold $1.18 billion worth of books in 2018, which increased to $1.3 billion worth of books in 2021. This of course includes periods of lockdown that didn’t dampen book sales anywhere near as much as workers were told they would—2020 was one of the industry’s most successful in ages. I’d say we can safely assume that if sales are increasing in value year on year but wages on the whole aren’t going up, then publishing companies and bookstores are probably making excellent profit.

So why aren’t workers (well, most of them) seeing any of this profit, despite being the ones who make, distribute and promote the books? Employers should be initiating fair wage increases across the board instead of hoarding profit. This is exactly why workers unionise.

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The 2022 Books+Publishing data helps further demystify some of the most pernicious falsehoods that a book industry worker is taught, first by their university lecturer, then by their boss and sometimes even by other colleagues: that profits are good for workers, too; that the leadership team will eventually fix all the issues; that your hard unpaid work and long hours will eventually lead to a pay rise each year without you having to beg for it.

It’s no wonder that the last four years have seen revolt from unionised book industry workers for much-needed improvements—and they’re succeeding.

In October 2019, the first union-negotiated enterprise bargaining agreement in Australian publishing history was ratified by the Fair Work Commission for workers at Penguin Random House, the world’s largest publisher. Editorial and publicity workers at PRH had unionised throughout 2018-19 in response to a lack of company support around pay and widespread burnout, and to agitate for other much-needed improvements. With support from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, workers and management negotiated a comprehensive EBA with significant improvements for editors and publicists, including yearly pay increases, paid overtime and many other upgrades to conditions. (Is the 2 per cent increase in editorial wages reported in Books+Publishing’s 2022 results partly due to Penguin Random House’s EBA? I reckon so.) MEAA has since been working with publishing workers on subsequent EBAs.

Meanwhile, in book retail, union campaigns are securing historic wins in many bookstores, most notably at Better Read Than Dead in Sydney and Readings stores in Melbourne. With support from the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, workers at these bookstores have been standing their ground to secure safer and more sustainable stores, despite heavy retaliation from management in both cases. In 2021, Better Read Than Dead workers won an impressive EBA that RAFFWU described as ‘the best enterprise agreement in retail and fast food history’. Readings are nearing completion on their own EBA negotiations for their eight stores, although management reneged on negotiations in August, prompting an ongoing public campaign in support of workers.

These worker-led improvements are keeping the industry accountable.

*

When it comes to being a practising author in Australia, the income averages begin to look truly absurd.

The most recent Australian Society of Authors survey of author incomes found that 81 per cent of Australian authors earned less than $15,000 from their creative practice in 2021, with 58 per cent earning between $0 and $1,999 for the full year. An earlier, more comprehensive study by Zwar, Throsby and Longden at Macquarie University found that the average income earned from practising as an author in Australia in 2013/14 (including royalties, advances, self-publishing revenue, lending rights, copyright payments, grants and other author income) was only $12,900. When asked what other financial sources authors relied on during that financial year, the most common response (37.3 per cent) was ‘the income of your partner’.

The stark financial reality of working in the book industry is a symptom of an issue that is rife across Australia’s creative industries: we don’t value art enough to pay people a fair wage to create or promote it.

This is made worse by the lack of government support of Australia’s arts sector in recent years. It almost felt like progress when Julia Gillard announced the Creative Australia national cultural policy in 2013. But, a few months later, the Coalition took power and scrapped it. Shortly after that, as reported by The Guardian, Australia Council’s funding was cut by $105 million, Screen Australia’s budget was reduced three times in eighteen months, the Book Council of Australia was ditched, and $52.5 million was syphoned off the Communications and the Arts portfolio.

Then, the pandemic hit. In 2020 alone, the arts and entertainment sectors lost $1.4 billion revenue to Covid-19 lockdowns, leading to widespread loss of income. It took nine months of pandemic and a sector-wide cry of desperation for the Morrison government to finally announce small financial support payments for workers, despite the $15 billion annual revenue that these sectors contribute to the Australian economy.

In the months leading up to the 2022 Australian federal election, none of the major parties had released an arts and cultural policy or any decent plans for reviving the creative industries. In mid-May, weeks before the election, Labor announced some funding commitments for the arts, but even eventual minister Tony Burke conceded that the commitments were a bit light on actual financial support.

Since then, with Labor in power, the Australian Government has announced that they’re developing a new national cultural policy to strengthen Gillard’s original Creative Australia. This new policy will ‘establish a comprehensive roadmap to guide the skills and resources required to transform and safeguard a diverse, vibrant and sustainable arts, entertainment and cultural sector now and into the future.’

It would be a great start.

 

Image by Tetiana Shyshkina

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Comments

  1. It would have been good to carry out surveys of the very small indie bookstores before making generalisations about all bookstores and quoting the wage and work conditions that apparently exist in Readings and Better Read Than Dead and representing them as the retail end of the book industry. Although we exist on the utter bottom end of margins there is no way a staff member will be asked to attend to author events outside of work hours without being paid even though publishers, who gain mostly from the events, rarely contribute to the hire of the venue, refreshments, publicity materials and time spent on promoting in the community. All training of bookselling staff is in house- there is no training school for a booksellers role and selling books in a small bookshop is not a checkout job.There are no Australia Council or any other Arts Grants to make this happen. It would be great to know if the reporter for this article stepped into regional and outer urban bookshops to create a fuller picture of what happens in the industry and especially at the coalface.

    • Hi Meera, it’s Bethany Patch here (this article’s author), thanks so much for these comments, I really appreciate them. Based on what you’ve said, I’m not sure if you work for an indie bookstore or maybe own one, but it’s a relief to hear that some small indie bookstores don’t expect unpaid work. I totally agree that there should be more grants/funding or publisher payments for author events and bookseller training.
      While writing this article, I didn’t step into regional and outer urban bookstores. I relied instead on data collected through book industry surveys, including the Books+Publishing 2022 survey where only 11% of respondents work for bookstores (and it doesn’t specify indie, chains etc). This is understandably limited and not especially representative of small indie bookstores given that industry surveys are voluntary and more detailed data just aren’t available. Perhaps the people you’re talking about (who work in indie bookstores that pay fairly for their time) would be happy to complete the industry surveys next time, so that their positive experiences are recorded? Or maybe you’d like to organise a survey of small indie bookstores through B+P? That would be really interesting and helpful.
      As for quoting the wage and working conditions at Readings (a chain) and Better Read Than Dead (a small indie), these are well-documented and fact-checked, but I very much hope that they aren’t the norm across small indie bookstores.
      Thanks again for your comments.

  2. It seems that the big publishers need to step up in many ways – they can afford to. Fair wages, footing the bills for launches and other sales events are in their best interests and, surely, would be tax deductible. I sincerely hope conditions improve for workers across the industry and top-end greed and selfishness is abolished – it is shameful!

  3. A really good, important article – thank you.

    As you point out, many earn less than these average salaries, which are skewed by a few outliers on unusually high wages. Public sector publishers, university presses (covered by NTEU-negotiated enterprise agreements), legal, technical and educational presses all pay much higher than trade publishers, so behind that $63K average editorial salary will be a small group of editors earning $90K+ and many more on much less.

    The numbers also don’t capture whether/how wages increase as people gain skills and experience. $63K for a new-ish editor would be OK if they could be confident of that salary increasing as they gain experience and skills and take on more responsibility, but that’s often not the case. A common experience is to start on a much lower entry-level salary (some publishers are still offering $40K to assistants or junior editors; that was my starting salary over 15 years ago – it was hard to survive on then, and I didn’t have a Masters of Publishing to pay off or 2022 rent to pay), then after a few years you might get a promotion with dramatically increased responsibilities and workload, more unpaid overtime, and a salary of $55K; from there on, you’ll have to battle, beg or move jobs to reach $60K. Whenever you ask for a raise, you’ll be reminded how grateful you should be for that previous increase and the shiny new job title that came with it.

    The numbers also don’t capture the differences between big multinationals and smaller independent presses. Big multinationals are enjoying growing profits and have no excuse for not passing these on to staff. Independent local presses aren’t necessarily experiencing the same thing – they take more risks and generally operate on much narrower margins. It suits the multinationals to use the “there’s no money in books!” line to justify low/stagnant wages, as though they were operating on the same scary margins as smaller presses. The multinationals are also where you’ll find the biggest difference between senior management/executive salaries and everybody else. At smaller local presses, the gap between senior and junior staff is narrower.

    I’ve worked across a few branches of the Aus publishing industry and it seems to me that unionisation and enterprise bargaining – ideally including multi-enterprise agreements – will be how we fix things. This would introduce more transparency and fairness around wages, conditions and career progression, and make it harder for employers to dismiss requests for fairer pay with a vague “that’s just how the industry is” reply.

    I’d encourage everyone working in publishing to take a look at the Penguin Random House enterprise agreement if you haven’t already. It’s not perfect, but just having an enterprise agreement, with minimum pay rates and classification levels spelt out, is hugely different from what most workers in the Australian book industry experience: https://tinyurl.com/prhea

  4. The link you provide says the opposite:

    “the publishing industry is more inclusive. Survey respondents identify as LGBTQ+ at around twice the representation in the Australian population (21% compared to population estimates of 11%). The majority of LGBTQ+ respondents are open or partially open about their sexuality at work.21% of respondents identify as LGBTQ+ compared to estimates of 11% in the Australian population.

  5. I agree. Yet the conclusion drawn elsewhere from these results appears to overwhelmingly be that the industry needs to focus on diversity and inclusion as the priority. Why? To share the great privilege of being underpaid, not valued, exploited and patronised? Wages and conditions will not change unless the con is revealed, it’s the same with teaching and academia. We, as women still feel we are privileged to work in these positions because they appeal to our cultural values. Maybe someone with different values won’t find it a privilege to be treated so poorly. I think it’s patronising and condescending to focus on diversity and inclusion while exposing serious flaws in pay and conditions.

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