Do you pay an enjoyment tax?
Why are more and more creative professionals leaving their jobs?
When I chose to do my BA in English Literature, I knew I was signing up to make less money than my peers in STEM or Business. But, I was okay with that. I thought passion would fuel me; who needs money, right?
Then I spent a bucketload of money on an MA in Creative Writing. An experience of a lifetime but a degree not a single company or client has asked to see. Not one of you newsletter readers either, and now there's enough of you to comfortably fill a middle-class Indian wedding celebration.
As I did internships and placements throughout my BA and MA, I was very consciously aware of how little money was being given to people in creative jobs. Like exposure, passion was expected to feed and shelter us.
When I told people I wanted to work in publishing, I'd often hear, "That sounds like so much fun — working with books, how nice!" And it is, it's fun and nice, but also, publishing pays absolute peanuts.
I am not exaggerating even a little.
The Great Resignation: Publishing Edition
Two weeks ago, nearly 1% of those working in book publishing quit their jobs en masse. Of course, the actual figures don't include those who didn't share their career change on Twitter, so it's definitely higher than we know. These are brilliant editors, marketers, designers, production folks who've worked on global bestsellers — they're the ones responsible for finding your favourite book and bringing it to life from the author's laptop.
Seems like a small number, no? But when you consider that most folks choose to enter publishing out of a desire to work with books, it becomes a bit too real. Publishing is most definitely not where the money is, not unless you're somewhere reeeeally high up (and also white and/or cis-gender — most likely a male).
So many of those who quit did so because they realized (the hard way) that publishing isn't sustainable in the long term. Entry-level salaries have been the same for decades. A job that paid £18k in 1994 should pay £36k now, but only pays £20-24k (the higher end is only if you're in London or NYC).
Love what you do and you’ll never be paid well
It got me thinking about how I wanted to be a full-time author as a teenager, expecting that authors get paid reasonably so they can live. But, of course, that was before I found out that six-figure advances are super rare, especially for WOC and Black authors.
Even then, I'd realized that I wouldn't be the next writer billionaire. So I thought I'd write books during my free time and work with books and help them reach readers as my job. Turns out, all roads in publishing lead to the same broke(n) house.
There is absolutely no solace in the fact that almost every person in a creative job I know is struggling. Designers who make those stunning graphics and visuals you scroll past, painters, illustrators, writers — anyone who's creating stuff from their brain seems to be getting paid lesser than everyone else.
Because we seem like we enjoy our jobs more? Because they seem fun and nice to anyone not in the industry? Or does it seem so easy compared to finances or heart surgery?
Maybe it is easier than heart surgery, and perhaps we enjoy our jobs more, but does that mean we should get paid less? What do we need to compare salaries and choose which profession gets how much based on that? Heart surgery keeps the person alive; creative, artsy stuff is what'll help them live again. Imagine not having a book to read or a TV show to watch as you recuperate? And your walls are also a dull white because the painters and designers didn't get paid enough to make them bright and happy— nothing fun for you.
Whether it's books, movies, or paintings, creating anything from scratch takes time, effort, and money. Writers are holding down two, three, four jobs as they write into the wee hours of the morning. Editors, agents, designers, marketers have to freelance after work to make some more money, so they're not just barely getting by.
The invisible tax on your salary slips
None of this is made up. I make more as a freelancer in publishing than a full-time employee. I've spoken to several publishing hopefuls like I used to be (now I have no hope 💀) who pivoted because being a marketer for SaaS or tech paid more than marketing the current NYT bestseller.
"Paying "creatives" or anyone for that matter "poorly" is taking advantage of a person. Regardless of intrinsic love for a job, money must still be made. People still ought to be paid what they deserve.
There seems to be this invisible 'enjoyment' tax on creative folks' salary slips. Along with your pension contribution, we've also deducted $$$ because you love what you do.
I can speak best for publishing since I've been a part of that industry for almost a decade now. First as a reviewer/book blogger — zero money to be found there. Why would anyone pay you to review a book? (laughs in derision) Don't worry about those getting paid to review gadgets or promote the new iPhone — we know that reading a free book is reward enough.✨
Then, I did a placement and a temp job. They were phenomenal, but the pay was so bad that I didn't save a single pound despite crashing at my cousin's and living in a hostel to lower living wages. Imagine that!
If you're a movie production assistant, an illustrator creating artwork for a company's brand book or an editor at a publishing job, you can expect to be paid the bare minimum (and lower than that) because your creativity is free and you're having fun!
So, what should publishing do to prevent some of their most creative and brilliant minds from walking out and choosing another industry?
(Notice I say should not could, because they know this already.)
Pay Transparency: Publishing salaries and book advances are murky as hell. One company's entry-level is another company's intern salary. There is no standardization. We cannot wait and depend on people to share their salaries on Glassdoor or follow the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag to find out which author got paid how much for their advance.
Pay folks fairly: Salaries have only increased 6% — that's not an increase, that's barely keeping up with inflation. We know they have the money. There are multi-million dollar book advances and unnecessary acquisitions taking place so we can afford to pay folks literally bringing life to books better.
Promote folks quicker and value them more: Imagine being an assistant for 10 years and then being told that you'd need another five to move from your current position? At this point, you've already worked on bestsellers, and if merit were a consideration, you'd be higher up than you expect to be. Ridiculous.
No matter how much fun it is writing copy for bookish emails or how nice it is to work with fellow book lovers, my work is still work. It's high time we respect and pay creative professionals properly.
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