How to instantly make people in publishing uncomfortable? It’s easy: talk about money! Want to turn it up a notch? Talk about money as if it’s important, or if you really want to be disapproved of, talk about it as a positive thing.
Lately my ear has been attuned to mentions of money in publishing — whether pay or book prices or something else — and I’ve come to the conclusion that money is one of the most difficult things for publishing people to talk about openly and constructively. It probably has to do with the fact that we’re typically romantics who just aren’t that interested in financials, or the fact that we associate money with money worries, declining sales and the risk of losing your job, and avoid the topic so as not to get too depressed. We are also aware that most money matters in publishing are nothing to write home about — it’s not a multi-billion industry and the pay is modest, so it’s perhaps not seen as a very fruitful topic.
I want to list a few money-related opening lines here that have demonstrable ability to make your conversation partner hear alarm bells and retreat swiftly. I’d like to encourage you to press on, however. They’re all topics that will be big issues sooner or later, so we might as well try to get comfortable talking about them now.
1. ‘Why are publishing salaries so low?’
It’s hard to avoid hearing the phrase, ‘none of us are in it for the money’ or ‘we all know we wouldn’t be here if we cared about money’ at career talks. This is true — most of us love books and feel so privileged to be working in books that we’re willing to overlook the money side. Still, I think we should stop repeating these phrases as a matter of urgency. To keep drilling into our heads that we shouldn’t expect to earn a good salary will eventually turn into a self-fulfilling mantra; it’s the road to burning out at age 40 because you have a busy job with lots of responsibility but you’re still flatsharing in Zone 9.
Being in denial obviously isn’t good, either. We should acknowledge the facts — publishing salaries are low — but leave off with the self-deprecation and the jokes. Let’s talk about what needs to happen for salaries to go up instead, or which other industries could use our skills.
We’re already losing good employees to other sectors, by the way. I personally know two great, book-loving people whose first choice of career was publishing, and whose number one reason for leaving it was being underpaid. Publishing salaries will start to go up when we start to seriously recruit for digital staff, because people with those skills will often need convincing to leave high-paying jobs as consultants or entrepreneurs. It’s okay for us bookish people to be motivated by money too.
2. ‘Isn’t it great how cheap books are on Amazon?’
Okay, this one is asking for trouble — I know from personal experience! Book prices are a sore topic for many of us because we instinctively feel that prices going down is a very bad thing. It seems to make us trot out the stock responses to reaffirm our support and faith in the industry — such as:
- ‘I believe books are valuable, and their price should reflect that.’
- ‘Low book prices are devaluing the authors’ work.’ (I’ve written about this before here.)
- ‘I boycott Amazon because their low prices are harmful to booksellers and publishers.’
- ‘I pay the full RRP for books because I want to support the people behind it.’
These statements are always made by people who love books and want to see authors, booksellers and publishers get paid for their work. That’s very commendable. But I think our discomfort with money talk is such that even to consider whether the above statements are justified feels like betraying those values. I think the opposite is the case — to try to understand and come up with solutions is surely what book lovers do. When you next see me, I invite you to discuss one of these statements with me instead:
- It’s natural and right for consumers to pay the lowest price for an item, and books are no exception
- RRPs are a way to enforce a value, but a book’s real value is determined by the market
- Amazon has made books affordable to more people
- It’s not the responsibility of consumers to keep books profitable
I promise I won’t think you’re a dangerous force for evil.
3. ‘Graduates are smart enough to know when they’re being exploited financially.’
Most publishers have unpaid interns and have figured out a way to get around the letter of the law, if not the spirit. Many of us have been unpaid interns ourselves, but it’s easy to forget that, at the time, we were rational adults who made a decision to accept an unpaid internship and presumably thought it would be worth it. After landing a job, many automatically become very anti-unpaid-internship, though, and condemn publishers for exploiting these innocents.
The unwillingness to talk about the financial sense of having unpaid interns (for both sides — publisher and intern) perhaps arises from other taboos than the money one. Possibly it comes down to laudable motivations, such as wanting to make publishing a better experience for new joiners. At least one graduate-related topic reveals the old aversion again, however, and that’s the issue of paid career advice for graduates.
Agencies that offer career consultation and advice for graduates can get a very bad rap. Even though publishing recruitment agencies rarely invite new graduates in to talk about their CV and experience for free, offering this service for money is seen to be worse. Graduates are so desperate, apparently, that it will cloud their judgement and they are in danger of forking over hundreds of pounds without assessing the risks. And that’s the fault of the agency. (I’ve written about how nonsensical this is here.) I think comments like this are symptomatic of the unease with money we have – the belief that it’s wrong to try to turn a profit, essentially.
Publishing is a business — let’s behave like it
Publishers desperately need to get over their aversion to making and talking about money. We’ve established that many publishing people are romantics who just want to make great books. I think that’s not good enough. If we’re really invested in the future for books, we should start thinking and talking business.