Monday, March 23, 2009

Editors: The New Disenfranchised

Richard Curtis ran one of his classic articles today, this one, on instability in editorial careers, originally published in 1986. As with everything else he writes, the relevance is spooky.

His thesis is basically that the publishing industry's patterns of corporate acquisition cause editors to be constantly underpaid and living in fear of losing their jobs, which leads to more job-jumping, which leads to less book/author commitment--how much can we put into a book if we think we're about to get the axe? Let me borrow his paragraph, since he says it so well:
The most obvious, as well as detrimental, manifestation of this shift of editors' attention is job-hopping. As their love of books and authors is battered by all the firings and hirings, reorganizations, streamlinings, office politics, shuffling of responsibilities, and the buying and selling of the companies they work for, editors feel fewer compunctions about accepting job offers from other publishers. It's hard to feel company loyalty when corporate logos change with the frequency of automobile styles. Low wages have always prevailed in the editorial profession, but higher pay is not in itself a compelling lure for an editor contemplating a move to another company, unless it is coupled with a promise of greater job satisfaction. But if an editor is not getting such satisfaction, he's going to think a lot about his salary. It behooves us to think about how a $35,000 a year editor must feel when he listens to the complaints of authors making many times that amount. "Few of my authors make less money than I do," an editor told me, "and none makes less than my assistant."

To highlight his point, Richard created this list of "recent" mergers and acquisitions (effective 1986)--I think it pretty much drives the point home:

Appleton-Century-Crofts (a division of Prentice-Hall)
Prentice-Hall (acquired by Simon & Schuster)
Simon & Schuster (acquired by Viacom Corporation)
Atheneum (acquired by Charles Scribner)
Charles Scribner (acquired by Macmillan)
Macmillan (acquired by Simon & Schuster)
Little, Brown (acquired by Time Inc.)
Warner Paperback (merged with Little, Brown)
Avon Books (acquired by the Hearst Corporation)
Arbor House (acquired by the Hearst Corporation)
Fawcett Books (acquired by Ballantine Books)
Ballantine Books (acquired by Random House)
Times Books (acquired by Random House)
Pantheon Press (acquired by Random House)
Alfred A. Knopf (acquired by Random House)
Random House (acquired from RCA by the Newhouse
Bantam Books (acquired by the Bertelsmann Group)
Doubleday (acquired by the Bertelsmann Group)
Dell Books (acquired by the Bertelsmann Group)
Basic Books (acquired by Harper & Row, then deacquisitioned)
Crowell (acquired by Harper & Row)
Abelard-Schuman (acquired by Harper & Row)
Harper & Row (acquired by Rupert Murdoch's NewsAmerica
Playboy Press (acquired by Berkley Books)
Ace Books (acquired by Grosset & Dunlap)
Grosset & Dunlap (acquired by Berkley Books)
Berkley Books (acquired by G. P. Putnam's)
G. P. Putnam's (acquired by MCA, sold to Matsushita, then to
Seagram, then to Pearson Ltd.)
Pyramid Books (acquired by Harcourt Brace, renamed Jove)
Jove (acquired by Berkley)
Coward-McCann-Geoghegan (acquired by Putnam, then dissolved)
Dial Press (acquired by Dell, sold to Dutton)
Dutton (acquired by Elsevier, sold to JSD, sold to NAL)
NAL (sold by Times-Mirror to Odyssey Group, resold to Viking,
merged with Penguin)
Rawson, Wade (acquired by Macmillan)
Silhouette Books (acquired by Harlequin from Simon & Schuster)

Thanks, Richard. We all like a little pity-party in appreciation. It kind of makes me shiver every time I'm reminded that it's always, always been this way--the fear of the axe, the low wages, the challenges to building loyalty to a list/company/group of authors. I wish I knew what to do to fight it. (More indie presses?)


Anonymous said...

Additionally, the company I work for is on that list but is NO LONGER owned by the company listed as acquiring it. We're owned by a new company now.


Steve Brezenoff said...

Small houses FTW! As long as they don't get eaten.

JES said...

I don't have any answers, either. Wouldn't be surprised if the direction it all went was decoupling the editorial and publishing functions, so editors acquired their own loyal client lists (like agencies) and had nothing to do with the actual production of books, except maybe as "contractors."

But I gotta say this brought me up short:

"Few of my authors make less money than I do," an editor told me, "and none makes less than my assistant."

A complete surprise. Obviously the editor in question deal(s/t) exclusively with big-ticket authors, hmm?

moonrat said...

JES--um, unfortunately, no.

Advances are dwindling, but most offers are still around $10-15,000 a book (give or take, based on subject, yadda yadda). So say a book is 6 months' pure work--that's still more than my assistant makes per annum.

But that aside, if you're qualified to write a book you probably have a platform of some kind. Which means (most likely) you have a high-paying job and/or are an expert with lots of credible track record. Which means yeah, at what YOU do you're probably making several times my salary, at the very least.

JES said...

Your assistant makes less than $20K a year?! Counting scraps of bread and sips of water? :)

It's sort of a shame that authors, editors, and agents can't band together into true "booking" enterprises: places for the making of stories, from one end of the process (drafts, revisions, workshops) to the other (absolutely ready for pitching to the production and marketing specialists).

Assuming that most of the expenses would come from the participants, I have no idea where the money would come from out of my household budget. But given the right mix of personnel (including other writers) I'd sign up for something like that in a heartbeat.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Mergers, acquisitions, and sell offs have been the name of the game in my industry for many years. The company I work for now got it's start as three separate companies coming together under one umbrella. Growth has come from the conatant acquisition of small companies.

The first company I worked for in this field was quite large and no longer exists. It was acquired, split apart and sold off.

With the establishment of the 401K, which made it easier to take your retirement with you, company loyalty fell off. And the only way to decently boost your salary was to job hop.

It seems like companies are starting to realize that retaining employees is important and the incredibly shrinking benefits have slowed their disappearance rate. Other perks are rising to replace them, as long as they don't cost the company much, of course.

But we're in a much better position than editors.

MaLanie said...

I did not know it was this bad in the Publishing industry.

I am so sick of seeing the greed in this country. And the whole AIG thing makes me want to puke.

I am leaning toward spending my money at the Mom and Pop places (the few that still exist)I am tired of making the execs wealthier.

jimnduncan said...

It's unfortunate that writers can't be tied in contractually with editors instead of publishing houses, so that authors authors would move with the editor. Of course, that would bring a whole other set of responsibities for the editor, but then you'd have houses competing for editors who could bring best selling authors with them, demanding more money. It would certainly shift the control of content more into the editor and author's hands. Editors could create brands for themselves within particular genre's. Publishers would become more exclusively a packaging/marketing/publicity machine. Of course, you'd have groups of authors who would live and die by their numbers as a whole. I'm not savvy enough about the industry to know if this sort of thing would even be feasible, but it certainly makes for an interesting discussion.

Stuart Neville said...

It's posts like this that make me glad I'm with the publishers I am. My UK publisher, Harville Secker, is itself a child of various mergers into and within Random House, but I hope its strong identity and solid sales keep it safe inside the corporate structure.

More relevantly, I'm glad I'm with an independent press in the USA - my editor IS my publisher, so I'm pretty sure she's not going anywhere.

christine tripp said...

Moonrat, the poor girl must still live at home with her parents, that would be the only way she could manage to still afford to go to work!

So, if the editors, the ass editors, the authors and the illustrators (and thus the agents) aren't making the money, who the hell is? Just the publishers themselves and perhaps the major chain booksellers (subsidizing their business with stuffed toys, DVD's and rent from Starbucks)
There is money out there somewhere but how to get it, that's the question.
As advances to illustrators are higher, we may have a bit of an advantage and can manage to have this be our only income (with some diversity of illustration clients) but... pic books are becoming less in numbers, the work is going to the bigger names more and more and... there is always some more talented whipper snapper coming up FAST behind!

moonrat said...

christine--alas, no. there's just no money in it. the chains are all folding and hemmorhaging, and the publishers themselves are dropping like flies. we work on such a low profit margin that most of the time we fail.

yes, there's some major stupidity in how things are run--no industry should be like that. but it's part of the price of having books no longer be a luxury item. they're affordable, but not at a viable markup that guarantees the publisher any profit.

that's a whole other conversation. sigh.

christine tripp said...

What kills us all Moonrat, and I'm sure you and your collegues, is when you see multi million dollar advances go to celeb's. When a struggling writer reads of Clinton getting $15 million or even Jay Leno getting millions, it must hurt. Yes, yes I know the logic, "X" number of books WILL be sold to pay back that advance but when and how long will it take. Surely it will not out sell it's advance and make the publisher money. Imagine for an instant, that same cash getting used on advances and printing of amazing new books, how many books would that equal at $15,000 a pop and what is the likely hood, given a good editor, that they would sell and sell well and (more importantly) continue to sell long after the hype of the celebrity is gone?
Really strange logic if a company wants to exist forever.

BuffySquirrel said...


Jo said...

I think smaller presses are the way to go. Unfortunately they're having to struggle even harder to get a piece of the pie, and most of them just don't have the wherewithal or the bucks to get placement for their authors. Maybe something in the middling range? That's what I always looked for first- small roster, great catalog, approachable staff, but most of the established ones were bought out when things were good. All I can say is that the independents tend to rise again. So much is unknown right now, that it's pretty much all conjecture. I'm just hoping that good books will out.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Mmm, I wish they could have a contract that says that authors belong to the editors that sign them. That would make houses think twice before axing editors who had taken the time and effort to discover and grow successful work horses beneath them.

pacatrue said...

Not the acquisitions bit, but the low wages seems to just be the way much of "the arts" works. There's always someone willing to act, play an instrument, create a painting, or write/edit a book, so it eternally keeps wages low. Of course, not everyone is equally good at it, but in many such positions, it seems very difficult to define the qualifications. The language skills of two people could be equally good, but one might be a world class editor and the other mediocre at best.

moonrat said...

well, i'm one of the world class ones, paca. natch ;)

pacatrue said...

That went without saying, moonrat. It's like adding a comment that the grass is green.

ThePurpleOwl said...

It's the same in Australia, unfortunately. I'm one of the 'lucky' ones, editing for the defence department of our government -- lucky in that I know I'll keep my job. Not so lucky in that choosing to hold this job instead of one in a 'real' publishing house limits the creative satisfaction I can get out of it. It's a 'good' job, yes ... but we should be paid well (better than I am!) to produce 'good' books no matter who we work for, and it's sad and confidence-draining that we're not.

There are lots of indie presses here, though, and even some co-op-type networks. SPUNC, the Small Press Underground Networking Community, really gives me hope:

slsiegmann said...

Dear Moonrat,

I'm a longtime reader looking to start applying for publishing jobs. I'm looking at a few editorial assistant positions, particularly at academic publishing firms, and several of them request salary requirements with the cover letter. So I'm curious--what exactly is it reasonable to ask for? Would it depend on location (New York as opposed to somewhere cheaper) or the company (OUP, for example, as opposed to a children's book publisher)? Given how recently you posted this, I thought you might have some advice. Either way, though, thank you for providing so much information on the industry.

moonrat said...

slseigmann--it does vary, and you have the right idea that smaller presses and UPs pay less than bigger companies. i'd say the average editorial assistant probably starts at $30,000, although some make as much as $35,000 out the door, and some as little as $26,000.