Guest Column: What Authors, Readers, and Everyone Outside Institutional Publishing Should Understand About the HarperCollins Strike
In solidarity with the ongoing strike at HarperCollins, we’re handing the mic to Rachel Kambury, member of the HarperCollins Union and Associate Editor at Harper Wave and Harper Business.
You might have heard that there is an ongoing workers’ strike happening at HarperCollins. Kent and I support it; in honor of Giving Tuesday, we’re mailing a check to the strike fund today. All the cool kids are doing it! If you feel so moved, please join us.
Later in the week, I’ll send out a subscribers’ post about why I personally am behind the strike—and why I think all you authors out there should be, too. Before I barfed out all my own opinions, though, I thought we should maybe hear from one of the strikers themselves. Which is why—for the first time in the history of “Glow”—we’re featuring a paid guest columnist today.
My friend and colleague Rachel Kambury has worked in publishing for nearly 7 years now, first at Hachette and now for two HarperCollins imprints. Please listen to what she has to say.
Since November 10, the HarperCollins union—some 250 employees across production, marketing, publicity, editorial, design, legal, and sales—have been on strike, picketing outside our office at 195 Broadway in the financial heart of New York City. The day our strike began, the Times reported that our number “represents a small sliver of HarperCollins’s work force, which numbers around 4,000 globally,” which is a funny way of saying about half of the New York office is out on the street indefinitely until we have a contract.
“But if the workers are on strike, what happens to the books? What happens to the authors?”
Those questions alone should tell you everything you need to know about the deeply rotten state of publishing. We know a pause in production means books aren’t going to press when they’re supposed to, jeopardizing crucial on-sale dates and finely tuned rollouts. We know how hard you, the author, are working to meet our deadlines while juggling the rest of your life.
That’s a huge aspect of why the HarperCollins union is on strike. We want to be able to honor your work with our own. We want to bring our fullest and best minds to your your projects as we edit, design, launch, and publish them across formats and continents. But right now, and for many years, that is hard to do. Many of us make so little money that we have to work second and third jobs after business hours and on weekends to make ends meet. Many of us can only afford to pay for a couple of basic necessities at the same time—max—so we have to choose: safe NYC housing, nourishing food, student loans, adequate healthcare, or the occasional trip home to see our families.
No one is able to do their best work under these unsustainable conditions. Don’t get me wrong: all of us who work in publishing’s support positions are beyond proud of the work we have done and will continue to do for authors, often at great personal sacrifice. But working in books shouldn’t be a debt sentence, and the fact that it’s impossible for most of us to do this work for more than a handful of years says more about our employers and the system as it currently exists than it does about our work ethic. Because instead of building experience, growing in success alongside our authors, and fostering the long-term careers of the next generation of publishing pros, we’re burning out and quitting in droves, leaving authors without any consistency of care and robbing them of the experienced, passionate publishing partners they deserve.
While picketing in plummeting temps, the people who do the highly skilled and deeply meaningful work of making your book a reality are collectively fantasizing about what we would change about this industry if we had the chance. Namely, we want to make this industry more sustainable for authors, too. We dream of changing author payout structures, so you don’t have to sweat stretching your advance across 1-3 (or more) years. We dream of balancing the books so it’s not just a handful of particular authors getting big-money advances for their work while everyone else scrounges for pennies at the bottom of the pool.
Within our current ranks of young publishing professionals, we dream of hiring—and crucially, retaining—a workforce that reflects the real, modern world. We dream of seeing them promoted into management positions, where they will refuse to perpetuate old abuses that continue to result in the exodus of so many unique, talented publishing people every year (to the tune, I might add, of millions of dollars in wasted turnover costs).
Publishing’s current reality is a nightmare—for you, for me, for all of us. Editor turnover is so high right now that some authors have to cycle through several editors on a single book. Some have published their book with an entirely different team than the one that originally welcomed them: publicists, marketers, editors, subrights, and production.
No one appreciates how genuinely traumatizing this kind of experience is for you, the author, more than your team members who are at the ends of their ropes and have to leave (the company, sometimes the industry entirely) for the sake of their physical, mental, and financial wellbeing. I can’t stress enough the pain of losing your beloved junior publicist, who made the stars align and got you that critical media hit that made you a bestseller, or your young editor, who read your manuscript (or proposal) in one feverish night and pitched it to their editorial board the next day in the hopes of acquiring it before anyone else in town got a chance to even read the synopsis.
If you, our authors, are hurting in any way because of the strike, I’m sorry. We absolutely would much rather be inside, warm and working. But the fact of the matter is, we can’t fight for you if we’re not in the room. And we can’t be in the room if we can’t afford to be there. Prices are rising, but year after year, our wages stay the same and well below livable.
I can’t stress this enough: This industry is hemorrhaging employees. Good, talented, passionate book people who I am proud to call friends and who would love nothing more than to work with you and publish great books, and to stay at companies like HarperCollins and continue to help make publishing a better place to work, but simply can’t afford it. The HarperCollins union is on strike for the love of books, which don’t exist without the people who write them: You. Authors. Without you, we don’t just not have jobs—we literally don’t have books. And what kind of sad, bland, insufferable world would that be?
If you’re curious for more details about what the HarperCollins Union is striking for (spoiler alert: ludicrously minimal, eminently reasonable), check out this press release to start. And look for my own thoughts in a couple of days!
(I spent two hours today typing all of my thoughts out here and then accidentally deleted the draft from not just the screen but the entire version history of this post—kill me. So yes, they will be coming later.)
Feel free to ask any questions you have about the strike the comments and over email to me, too — just label your email “Glow question” or similar. I’ll do my best to answer your questions or find people who can.