For those who were lucky enough to know someone in the book publishing industry before entering themselves, they might’ve heard the warnings: Don’t expect to be rich. In fact, don’t expect much at all. The complaints. The frustrations. They might’ve realized that in the book world, progress is made both begrudgingly and unbearably slow. That passion is the reason people enter, but burnout is the reason people leave. That retention is one of the largest problems we face as an industry. That no matter how much someone loves books, it doesn’t always pay the bills.
In fact, it rarely does.
I knew most of this myself before entering the world of publishing and pursued it anyway. This didn’t prevent my frustrations, but it did make them less shocking. For aspiring publishing professionals, interns, and eyes on the outside, there’s a rose-coloured lens in which we’re viewed. Book lovers are some of the most dedicated people in the world. They believe in the transformative power of storytelling. Books have the ability to change us – so how bad could the industry that produces near magic be? For many, they might say… well, bad.
Access to books, the chance to meet and work with authors, and the satisfaction and love you receive from bringing impactful stories into the world are all things that drive people to the industry to begin with. Then there’s the downside: negligible salaries, constant turnover, hostile work environments, and the large generational gap leading to constant frustration in junior employees.
If you’ve been around in publishing spaces recently, the discussions of burnout have taken precedence as of late and for good reason. Personnel changes are constant, and while many are thinly veiled under the guise of ‘wanting to spend more time with family’ or ‘excited to pursue a career in their industry of choice,' the truth is that more often than not for many people, the benefits of working in publishing are not outweighing the cons. With the cost of living inflating exponentially, the COVID-19 pandemic putting intense strain on employees both emotionally and financially, and the work environments promising to change but rarely ever doing so, we’re seeing people reach their last straw earlier than ever in their publishing careers. What was once a lifelong career in books has now turned into a revolving door of entry-level employees dipping their toes into publishing for a couple of years and leaving promptly with a bitter taste in their mouth. And yet, there’s a never-ending stream of bright-eyed book lovers waiting to replace them. To rinse and repeat. So how does the cycle stop?
Passion in the industry is a novelty on the outside, but a weapon on the inside. It justifies the pay. It justifies the long hours. It’s not meant to be just a ‘business,’ because it’s not meant to be just a ‘job.’ Yet we see time and time again how publishers defend their actions as ‘business decisions.’ Passion and empathy only enter the equation when they are being used to convince industry professionals to take pay cuts, to exceed expectations at all costs, or to take advantage of someone’s love for their job. We also see the immense strain on the most junior employees – faced with fierce competition and the threat of being replaced, this often leads to excessive hours, intense workloads and shouldering problems far above their job titles. These professionals are also more likely to belong to marginalized groups, meaning racialized, queer and disabled employees are entering unsupportive and, at times, traumatic environments in the hopes of working in books.
Notably, criticism of these systems is loud and clear, which was a breath of fresh air compared to other corporate environments. In response to criticism, publishers often promise change. Action and follow-through are the most important steps to getting where we need to be, but there’s a level of faith I have in our up-and-coming generation to overhaul the systems and habits that are inhibiting us the most.
While publishing has opened my eyes to a plethora of problems, it has also introduced me to some of the most brilliant people I have met. People with drive and ambition and people who are never satisfied, in the best way. While I don’t anticipate change to be coming immediately, I do see it on the horizon, and I find myself routinely inspired by the work and dedication simmering just below the surface. Even though things may feel unchanging at times, it’s there, and it brings me hope and inspires me to continue working to change things. With the large generational shift in the future, I have high hopes that when it does happen, we’ll see our industry grow into something we can be even more proud of. One where the glamour on the outside is truly reflected on the inside... if only the brilliant minds capable of altering the way we view publishing and the industry as a whole don’t walk out the door first.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Ayesha Mumal is a Windsor-based publishing professional currently working in publicity at Penguin Random House Canada. She is also the Marketing & PR Manager for Augur Magazine, where she unites with her fellow speculative fiction fans. When she’s not reading she enjoys live music, travel, and now from the safety of her home, baking, specifically naming profiteroles as a personal specialty.