On March 12, 2022, four editors from two Big 5 publishing houses, all mid-level employees, publicly announced their resignations on Twitter.
“It’s funny how it happened because I think it was three or four of us who quit on the same day. We definitely didn’t plan it, even though it was a big moment on Twitter,” said a former Big 5 editor who spoke to me with condition of anonymity.
One former Tor editor, Molly McGhee, posted their resignation letter on Twitter. McGhee wrote that her promotion was denied even though her acquisition, The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake, hit the New York Times Best Seller list. Making it to that list is a “career high” for an editor, according to McGhee, but she was told that she needed more training to be considered for a promotion.
McGhee didn’t have an issue with her employer, Macmillan, but finds there’s a “systematic prejudice against junior employees” like her. “When the great masters of editing die, or retire, what will happen to all their apprentices? Like me, they will have left before they became a master themself. Soon, our great publishers will be staffed only with novices. I find myself asking: what will books look like then?” she ended the letter.
The United States has been hit with the so-called “Great Resignation” since the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Americans quit their jobs, chose to stay home, or looked for better opportunities elsewhere. Dubbed the “Great Publishing Resignation” by Twitter users, the phenomenon has just recently hit the publishing industry.
Two editors from Hachette also threw in the towel on that fateful day in March: Angeline Rodriguez, who is now a literary agent at WME, and Hillary Sames, who has since moved to another industry. Rodriguez didn’t explain her reasons for leaving but tweeted goodbye on Orbit, while Sames, also from the same imprint, wrote that she’s “leaving NYC and publishing.”
At Macmillan, meanwhile, Erin Siu, also bid goodbye to publishing on that day; she has since taken a new, non-publishing role.
Apart from McGhee, it’s unclear what provoked the editors to quit, even publicly announce their job departures on a similar day in March. But according to the former Big 5 editor I spoke with for this story, the low-wage work and the unwillingness to allow employees to move out of New York City, the book publishing industry’s capital in the U.S., are the final straw.
“The reason that I left my job in publishing was pretty much 95% because I was not allowed to continue to work remotely… And I wanted to move out of New York City because it’s very expensive and very hard to save money, especially [with] what they pay you with publishing salary.”
Experiencing burnout and lacking a work-life balance, the former editor also shared some of their workplace practices. They revealed that they did most of the editing and submission reading work outside of their nine to five and that it was expected that the work gets done on the weekend or after hours. That made it easier for them to make the decision to leave.
But like McGhee, they told me that they didn’t have problems with their colleagues but that “sometimes, the management…was more out of touch.”
The former editor said,
“I never had anyone come to me and say, ‘hey, you better work this weekend, or else’… The attitude is, oh, ‘we just love it so much,’ so we’re kind of expected to put in that extra work. It’s not pressured. They’re not telling you you’re going to work weekends, because of course, they’re not going to tell you that. But they are saying, if you want to succeed, you’ve got to be willing to put in the work or if you want to build your list or have a really successful book, you’ve kind of got to be willing to make the sacrifices to make that happen.”
Publishing is still, and has always been, New York-centric. And despite the pandemic heavily disrupting it — allowing employees to work remotely temporarily — publishing apparently went back to its old ways. “What I feel the most strongly about is allowing remote work or just being more flexible because I don’t know how they’re going to keep people around otherwise, or I don’t know how they’re going to change in the way that they said that they want to,” the former editor added.
Despite missing their editing career and working with people who love books, they told me that they don’t regret their decision of leaving at all. “I stand strong by it, and I’m so glad I did it. I feel like I’ve got so much more free time. I’ve got more room to breathe,” they said.
The book industry, unfortunately, has a surplus of people eager to get their foot in the door, and those who run it can still hire others despite the continuous revolving doors:
“The thing about publishing is, even though I left and other people left, there are still hundreds of applicants waiting for their chance who are ready to give up anything… I hope that me leaving and other people leaving convinces them that this is a real problem that needs to be addressed. But then I also know how competitive publishing is and how easily replaced I’ll be… And I do think if people keep leaving, I don’t know that my departure made any difference.”
The former Big 5 editor also revealed that it might not be the last time that the industry loses people: “I’ve had several people reach out to me telling me that they’re considering leaving because of how they feel right now and what their emotional state is.”
Among the four who bowed out in March, only McGhee went on the record. In an interview with Literary Hub, McGhee said that since publishing is a small industry where people know one another, many aren’t comfortable speaking out publicly about their struggles at work.
She also went on to share what being an assistant editor at Macmillan entails — mostly doing administrative duties to support her editors. And just like what the anonymous former Big 5 editor revealed, it seems that in her former workplace, the pay isn’t better either.
“Once I was in it and realized how unlivable and untenable the pay is for the amount of work that you do, it was a very heartbreaking experience for me,” she said.
This she also reiterated in an interview with Publishers Lunch, saying that she loved working for Tor and with her colleagues but that the “workload expectations and the pay were untenable.”
I’ve reached out to Macmillan and Hachette to ask for comment for this story but have not received a response.
Not Just a U.S. Problem
Unfortunately, these concerns are not entirely unique to the U.S. publishing industry. I myself came from a trade publisher from the Philippines, so I can relate to the experiences of the editors who opened up about their workplace issues.
In 2018, I was slated for promotion as a senior editor, but I left beforehand. Although I was just an editorial assistant back then, I was doing the work of a fully-fledged editor — filling up lists, managing book projects from contracts to a finished product, marketing the books, and doing administrative duties. This is not unique to me, as my former colleagues also left the publishing house, sharing similar reasons.
Speaking to a former editor from a publisher based abroad, they told me that they left their publishing job because of the “problems with the system and its management.” The former editor revealed,
“There was just too much work for too few people who were already so demotivated. As a senior editor at that time, it felt like I was leading the team in an impossible game of chase with our publishing calendar. It rudely dawned on me that each one of us was doing the job of at least three people, without much support nor guidance from upper management… Adding insult to injury was the fact that most of us were underpaid while constantly working overtime.”
They now found themselves in a non-editing role after leaving publishing. And like their counterparts from the U.S., they said that they loved their former job: “I wish for a better day where job interviews will not entail having to hear and accept that there is no money in making books. With humane management, at the very least, I believe that is still possible,” they said.
The Great Resignation and Publishing
Although the issues brought up by the former Big 5 editors are “serious and real,” the resignations are also “endemic,” according to publishing consultant Jane Friedman.
“I’d want to know the hard figures about these resignations. What percentage of employees are we talking about? Is it more than in prior years? Are today’s resignations getting more attention than usual because employees are being more vocal about it than before?” she asked.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to pull up the statistics of those who left the industry and why, unless we collect the data directly from publishers. The closest is this chart from the U.S. bureau of labor statistics under arts, entertainment, and recreation. But still, that doesn’t say much.
Friedman connected the Great Resignation to what’s happening in publishing. “The pandemic has made people wake up and realize that the status quo is no longer acceptable. We all see and recognize the Great Resignation, and that is leading to more discussion and demands from workers in every sector,” she said.
According to Harvard Business Review, this phenomenon did not start with the pandemic and “did not appear out of nowhere.” The authors wrote in an an analysis, “Workers are retiring in greater numbers but aren’t relocating in large numbers; they’re reconsidering their work-life balance and care roles; they’re making localized switches among industries, or reshuffling, rather than exiting the labor market entirely; and, because of pandemic-related fears, they’re demonstrating a reluctance to return to in-person jobs.”
On the other hand, when those four editors shocked Twitter in March, there was a discussion about the publishing industry and what appear to be its conundrums. Author Erin Fulmer wrote a series of tweets on why she thinks that publishing is “broken.” It’s the result of a combination of reasons, she said, including unchecked racism in the industry.
Fulmer wrote, “As publishing consolidates, mergers inevitably spark layoffs to increase ‘efficiency’ i.e. shareholder profit. The remaining staff get more work for the same pay, not just editors, but admin, accounting, legal, etc. This slows production & promotes burnout at every level.”
She also said that publishing is “not ok because our society is not ok” and that it’s “built on the same rotten ground as everything else.”
The Future of Publishing
But all is not lost, as the former Big 5 editor I spoke with said that the publishing industry is working on how to make the lives of workers better, albeit at a slow pace:
“They talk a lot about wanting to diversify. And I think that’s an impossible goal for them to reach unless they open up to remote work or raise their salaries even further than they have… If publishing was talking a big talk about wanting to diversify the workforce and get in people who are going to stay longer, I think they need to invest in that.”
They also believe that change is possible, but it requires more work from publishers. “I do think change will come, but I think it’s got to be more than just this first wave of people,” the former editor said.
Despite the seemingly slow progress and the unaddressed concerns of many publishing employees, Jane Friedman also sees some positive developments along the way.
“I think unionizing efforts in the publishing community will continue and/or speed up, and salaries will continue to be adjusted, but executives always pay attention to the market and do salary ‘benchmarking.’ If we’re talking about the biggest publishers, they just don’t turn around on a dime,” she said. “Change happens incrementally.”