Do low publishing salaries harm literature?

It’s definitely been a hot topic of discussion recently, at least in the blogosphere and on twitter.  It was hard to miss on the Book Bench and Galley Cat – maybe even harder to miss all of the comments.  But I have to say, this is typical assistant/associate discussion (I assume it dies down a bit once one is a bit too old to complain publicly about such things…).

As someone under 25 in the industry, I have to admit that the salaries have always appalled me, and it does probably keep a decent number of intelligent kids out.  I complain often enough.  But on the other hand, I do not have parental support, an entire third of my monthly pay check goes towards student loans, and I live in a fairly cheap apartment in Brooklyn.  I walk to work to save money on the subway, I shop at Trader Joe’s instead of Whole Foods, and in the past year I think I’ve bought a total of 3 shirts that were not H&M or Old Navy.  Eating in is the name of the game.  Okay, I don’t complain often enough.  I complain all the goddamn time.

But you know what?  If I didn’t want to be in publishing, then I wouldn’t.  The people in this industry are really passionate about what they do, maybe even more so because they’re sacrificing certain comforts they may have grown up with (I certainly have ).  Maybe I would prefer not to have to spend a good chunk of my free time scrambling to complete freelance projects or babysitting rowdy four-year-olds.  But if that’s what it takes to work with the books that I want to work with, then that’s what I’ll do.  I could easily walk away and do something else.  I could be one of my friends that works 80 hour weeks crunching numbers or reading thousands upon thousands of pages of legal briefs.  But I’m not.

Low publishing salaries don’t harm literature.  Sure, they are appalling, and they probably do keep very smart people away.  But the people that love literature and work in the industry aren’t all trust fund babies (not that this makes them unqualified, mind you).  Maybe literature is still going strong because of what people sacrifice.

And high author advances?  Maybe thats what’s actually hurting literature.  Dan Brown anyone?

It certainly wouldn’t hurt to share the wealth.


One thought on “Do low publishing salaries harm literature?

  1. You’ve also got to consider though that high author advances and Dan Brown might be caused by low salaries. What I mean by that is that you pay your employees low salaries so the efficiency and the quality of the work goes down in your publishing house. This means that you have to publish less books regardless of quality. Then you have to make sure that you publish things which will sell really well (again regardless of quality). To do this you have to have some incentive for the writer of this thing that’s going to sell really well and that’s why you have enormous author advances.

    Any industry where you have depreciated salaries you’re also going to have a lower quality product regardless of the enthusiasm the workers might have.

    I think generally you’re right though. Lower salaries don’t harm literature but it does harm the publishing industry. In that, the industry becomes either about a writer with an already established name (political memoirs) or something with a wide appeal (Dan Brown). Despite this good literature still seems to get out there. Either through small intrepid publishers or, more recently, new media.

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