Publishing Exodus: Why so many are leaving the industry – Natural Self Esteem

Cropped screenshots showing people exiting the publisher in front of an exit sign.  Image: Tony Webster via Flickr and Screencaps.

On March 11, 2022, a torrent of news from the corporate publishing world swept Twitter. People in middle and lower positions in the publishing industry announced their resignations en masse. Many also did not disclose that they were moving to another major publisher. Instead, they said they’re pursuing a combination of freelance editing, moving to indie presses (very few), or exiting the industry entirely.

Literary agent Dana Murphy put it somewhere in between 0.5-1% of releases remained that day. This number only makes accounts those who leave that one day and to post publicly online about the decision.

As I follow many in publishing on the SFF and Speculative Fiction side, a majority of the episodes I watched came from Orbit (under Hachette) and Tor (under Macmillan). However, the magnitude means that this likely stems from the “Big Five” publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Penguin Random House) and their dozens of imprints (genre and/or age dependent).

Alongside the publishing staff publicly discussing the exit, many authors and those working close to the industry (like me) are at a loss for words. We’re both glad they’re finding peace and sad it’s come to this.

Molly Mcghee and Olivie Blakes The Atlas Six

One of the most talked about resignations comes from former Tor editor Molly Mcghee simply because she wrote an entire letter explaining why she had to leave. Mcghee noted that despite eight years as a junior editor and her first book purchase (Olivie Blake’s The Atlas Six) placed third The New York Times Best Seller List, supervisors told Mcghee that she needed more experience (at least five years) before she could be promoted. Many in the publishing industry supported her claim that a book purchased was the NYT Best-seller list was a “career high”.

To add insult to injury, this acquisition was a big deal in the industry. It was a significant move to leverage BookTok’s influence. Atlas Six went viral on TikTok as a successful self-published novel before Mcghee acquired Blake’s novel for Tor (aka Tom Doherty Associates and Macmillan). There is now a bitter bidding war for the film/TV rights to this first novel in the trilogy.

Mcghee not only detailed her refusal of a promotion, but also bemoaned top management for overhauling her and other junior executives across the publishing industry. She argues that many in the managerial positions are “technically illiterate” and therefore shift work to the junior staff “who are expected to do full-time administrative work alongside their full-time job”.

Why are so many leaving?

Mcghee’s particular circumstances reflect larger issues of exploitation in the publishing industry. Despite record sales (particularly the surge since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic) across ALL age groups and media (print, e-book and audio), wages are stagnant. The routine mergers (including the Penguin and Simon & Schuster mergers now under investigation by the US Department of Justice) will make this situation worse.

On March 12, author Ken Carter reported on this exodus medium and noted that this issue is not US native or even new as it was published. No matter how many times we see ill-planned, industry-led initiatives to get marginalized voices in this space, the publishing industry is already broken and not tackling these problems meaningfully. Many point to corporate publishing as another industry devalued due to its female dominance (like education, libraries, healthcare, etc.). Women, and women of color in particular, were the majority of people who said they were leaving the industry last week.

Twelve days before this significant exodus, The Print Run Podcast discussed this topic in terms of mass departures of editors between the time of admission (around February) and September 2021. They discussed the way editors who left the publishing company felt the need to explain themselves because the industry and positions are romanticized despite exploitation.

Another problem is that despite all the technology we have today and two years of remote work, the publishing industry insists on being based in New York. The housing crisis is happening across the United States, but NYC remains one of the most expensive places to live. So, as in many other situations where wages remain low, there is little to no room for advancement or job location flexibility – people are leaving. Economists and CEOs can argue about whether to call it “The Great Resignation” or “The Great Reshuffle,” but it happens regardless of how it’s phrased, and is now a very public issue in the book world.

(via Twitter, Image: Tony Webster via Flickr and screencaps.)

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