Publishing Should Not Rely On Gig Workers

There are only two reasons to get into book publishing: the books (that’s how they get us formerly idealistic English majors) and the people (the other weirdos who also got gotten by the books). These people are famously overworked and underpaid but they’re still very much in it, simply for the thrill of being part of the process of putting books out into the world. It’s not much, but that little thrill is the backbone of the publishing industry.

Which is why I felt let down when I read a March 5th piece in the New York Times about a new company called Authors Equity. It consists of a supergroup of publishing veterans led by Madeline McIntosh, the former CEO of Penguin Random House, along with Don Weisberg, the former CEO of Macmillan, and Nina von Moltke, PRH’s former president of strategic development, all of whom I thought would value the enormity of the work that employees of major publishers do. It appears I was wrong.

Authors Equity boasts a new business model that might appeal to a certain and select group of authors: instead of being paid advances on book earnings, authors will share in any profits their book generates. Regular publishers already make profit share deals with high profile authors, so what’s innovative about this new company? Minimal overhead. As the Times reported, “The publishing team for each book, including editors, publicists and marketers will be assembled from a growing pool of freelancers. Authors and their agents will help decide who gets hired.”

These lines stopped me cold. Rather than offering book workers the stability and benefits of full-time employment, Authors Equity will rely on the gig economy to get the job done. Look a little more closely, and “growing pool of freelancers” is a terrible euphemism for “jobs are disappearing and more and more of us are fighting for scraps by competing for freelance gigs.” Authors Equity wouldn’t be the first media company to choose to work with freelancers rather than a staff. I’ve watched such decisions destroy so much of the ecosystem of journalism and contribute to the length of a massive strike in TV writing and production, and I would hate to see it happening in the book industry too.

Over the past decade or so I’ve watched as the big publishers have become more and more risk averse, taking fewer chances on exciting new voices.

Regardless of how you feel about how such arrangements are detrimental to labor, these kinds of cost-cutting measures also very rarely make the finished output better. I absolutely believe that all authors, even the future wannabe kings of the Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous list who Authors Equity is clearly courting (Tim Ferris and James Clear are investors), will benefit if the people working on their books have job stability and healthcare. There’s also something to be said for the kind of institutional knowledge that only full-time employees can bring to the table.

We absolutely need new ideas and new models to benefit authors in today’s publishing landscape. It’s rough out there, and corporate consolidation isn’t helping. Over the past decade or so I’ve watched as the big publishers have become more and more risk averse, taking fewer chances on exciting new voices while focusing on the celebrity– and politician-driven books and established authors who are guaranteed to sell larger quantities. I’m not sure Authors Equity offers much of a solution to this problem, given that lesser known authors can rarely make do without an initial advance.

It’s particularly ironic that the company name Authors Equity most immediately calls to mind the theater actors union Actors Equity, which has been working since 1913 to fight for the rights of live performers. Authors don’t have a union. Neither do publishing workers outside of the small but mighty HarperCollins Union. Equity for a small, select group of authors is simply not enough.

In her years at PRH Madeline McIntosh was a well-respected leader, important to the people who made the books at her company. I hope she’ll reconsider her company’s business model in favor of one that is less damaging to the industry. I also hope that one day universal healthcare becomes a reality, and that all authors and book workers will have unions.

So here’s a radical idea: how about a business model in which each author gets the attention they deserve because the people who work on their books are not overwhelmed, financially or otherwise. I’m no titan of business but I have to imagine that if the people who make the books are not under enormous pressure to find work (or, as in the case of current book workers, the corporate pressure to churn out more and more books), they’ll be more equipped to give each and every author the proper care. And that would be truly equitable.

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