Publish and perish

Overqualified and underpaid, publishing industry workers labor for love -- or something other than money.

Published October 31, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Sixteenth-century Indian street sweepers probably made more than the poor souls who venture into entry-level publishing jobs. But thousands of college grads are undeterred -- bringing forth their fancy pedigrees each year to battle for the chance to work long, thankless hours at one of New York's trade publishing houses. Once there, hapless editorial assistants may or may not rub shoulders with distinguished men and women of letters or revel in the glory of language and the wonder of the word. Certainly they will come to understand the full meaning of the word "inequity."

The concept of a salary pie chart is rendered absurd by the disparities in salaries paid those who work different jobs in publishing. Imagine glam editor Gary Fisketjon's wedge next to an editorial assistant's stray-hair sliver: You'd need a microscope to find the latter's portion. While editors with their own imprints command six-figure salaries, editorial assistants start in the $18,000 range. If they stick with it, they might be promoted -- after five or so years -- to an associate editor's job, which pays a whopping $28,000 to $34,000. According to Publisher's Weekly's latest salary survey, the next job up the publishing ladder, editor, pays between $49,000 and $54,000, though I personally know editors who, after six years on the job, make barely more than $30,000.

Publishing salaries, at all levels, fluctuate greatly depending on the size of the company in question. According to PW, a senior editor at a small company can expect to make $51,483; at a mid-size house, $86,264; at a large house like Random House or Doubleday, $123,832. An editor at Putnam admitted the current salary structure is "frankly, just totally fucked up."

Lowly editorial assistants frequently augment their pitiful wages with proofreading, freelance writing and copy-editing jobs. Generous parents and trust funds help. So do trips to the Strand to cash in on "product" swiped from lobby display cases. "Publishing assistants will tell you stories about going to every book party in town just to get food," says an insider who remembers her befuddlement when, 14 years ago, Farrar, Straus and Giroux offered her a job that paid $8,400. ("Eighty-four hundred a what?" she said, gasping when personnel kindly explained she would get $8,400.00 "per annum."

One editorial assistant who started at $18,000 had the following pedigree: B.A. from a Seven Sisters school (Thesis topic: "Macbeth: The Intersection of the Sacred and the Profane"); Departmental Honors, cum laude; M.A. Poetics, fellowship, University of Chicago. On her first day, her boss, a prominent Gen-X acquisitions editor, called her into his office: "Good news -- because of your Master's I got you an extra thou." After taxes, the month's earnings came to roughly $990. He said: "Well, you chose this bohemian lifestyle. What did you expect, editing by candlelight in a tweed jacket with elbow patches?" But even he wasn't making a living: "Don't look to me for sympathy. This weekend I was reduced to bottle returns."

Another editorial assistant, a Harvard alum and graduate of the Radcliffe publishing program, landed her third job in publishing as the personal assistant to a well-respected literary editor-in-chief. It was considered an excellent job. Still, after four years in the business she was only making $24,000. "One day he called me into his office, which he never did; I thought maybe he was going to give me a promotion or compliment me on some flap copy -- something," she remembers. "Instead, he pointed to the ceiling and said: 'Can you get me a light bulb?'"

The meager pay was once thought of as part of a genteel book training camp, in which bright young minds were groomed for better -- and more remunerative -- jobs. Judging from a recent New York Times article bemoaning the "brain drain" in the publishing industry, however, the system no longer makes much sense. "We lose about 25 percent of the people we hire," says the head of a small but distinguished publishing company, "A lot of the brightest kids find it easier to go into debt as a grad student -- where they at least get low-interest loans -- than to stay in this business and try to pay their rent."

The truth about publishing now is that the only sure way to get a raise is to leave your job. Getting yourself "hired away" is also probably the quickest route to promotion. "It's sad," says a prominent New York editor, "the more you've settled into a job the better, but this isn't an industry that rewards loyalty." Jordan Pavlin, who started as an assistant at St. Martin's Press six years ago, was made an editor at Knopf after being plucked from the editorial ranks at Little, Brown. Her trajectory was swift. Rumor has it she now makes $75,000: an atypical sum for an editor her age and experience.

Meanwhile, the salary disparity is just as wild at the top of the field as it is for associate and junior editors at the bottom. PW suggests the highest paid editorial workers are editorial directors, editors-in-chief and editors who have their own imprints. These editors have fancy lists and usually earn their salaries several times over by churning out bestsellers or attention getting titles. However, an editor at a large house who was responsible for bringing in more than $9 million to her company last year didn't see any direct benefit on her under-$90,000-a-year paychecks. Sadly, hers is probably not an anomalous case.

One of the best-paid people in publishing is Judith Regan, president and publisher of Regan Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. Never a conventional editor, Regan has styled herself into a media phenomenon. One source close to her said, "She's got a complicated contract, with the television stuff ["That Regan Woman," Fox News Channel]. Her contract could be for close to a million a year." And while Sonny Mehta, president of Knopf, Harry Evans, president and publisher of Random House, Laurence Kirshbaum, chairman of Time-Warner, and Irwyn Applebaum, president and publisher of Bantam, are "certainly seven-figure guys," VPs and executive editors can only dream of these salaries, no matter how much revenue they bring to the company.

Colleagues speculate that Jonathan Galassi, senior vice president and editor in chief at FSG, makes around $200,000, though it is said he cashed in FSG stock worth more than $2 million when the company was bought by the German company Von Holtzbrinck. Ann Godoff, editor in chief and executive vice president of adult trade at Random House, is said to make more than $200,000. Even Nan Graham, vice president and editor in chief of Scribners, with Don Delillo's "Underworld" and Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" under her watch, was earning only $175,000, according to industry insiders.

Editorial salaries seem to depend on buzz, in a way that makes little sense. A senior editor at Random House explained: "There is no rhyme or reason. Editors' salaries are like advances. Books get attributed a certain kind of hype. So do editors." Editors like Michael Peitsch, vice president and executive editor at Little, Brown, is "very sought after, definitely a six-figure guy," while Rob Weisbach at William Morrow has his own imprint, Weisbach Books. His salary is said to be in excess of $250,000, an unheard-of sum for someone in publishing in their mid-30s. Compare these people to editors like Alan Peacock, a senior editor at Holt, or John Glusman, VP and executive editor at FSG, who, colleagues speculate, don't make over $100,000.

But there's hope for those who stick it out from lowly serfdom to editor. Just as author contracts have special sweeteners and escalators built in if the book hits "the list," editors too receive bonuses if one of their books hits. There are calculated incentive "profit basis bonuses" -- though it's unclear who gets the "kicks" -- the editors or the publishers. (The former chairman of St. Martin's, Tom McCormack, referred in his Oct. 13 PW column to a possible $700,000 "Angela's Ashes" bonus to be paid to the "boss" -- leaving it unclear whether Graham or her higher-ups would pocket the extra loot.)

In the recent New Yorker publishing issue, Alberto Vitale, CEO of Random House, was quoted as saying, "We're not losing money, but we're not making money commensurate with the effort. We are in the single-digit profit margins ... Everyone in trade publishing is hurting." "Not being commensurate with" is the operative idea when it comes to publishing compensation. Most editors are underpaid; rarely is one's salary commensurate with his education and experience, let alone his sense of loyalty and devotion to the trade, his authors and their work. One editor groaned: "Ahhh shit, it's like an orphanage over here. We're like a bunch of Sherpas. Nobody knows how the business works anyway. Half of the books printed end up as firecrackers in China. Who's kidding who? No one reads books any more. The only people who make money are in management."

They may bellyache, but many of the overqualified people who work in publishing have come to terms with the fact that serving as a midwife for cultural artifacts must have other rewards than money. As a satisfied Crown editor put it, "I've given in to the notion that I love what I'm doing and I'll never get paid what I'm worth in this industry."

By Morgan Cast

Morgan Cast is a pseudonym for a three-year publishing veteran.

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