You’re a recent literature graduate or someone pivoting in their career who wants to acquire an entry level publishing position. However, entry level publishing position requirements far exceed entry-level. You continuously encounter entry-level positions, with meagre pay, that require or implicitly request previous experience. Phrases like ‘3-5 years of publishing experience required’ or ‘contracts experience is not necessary but highly valued’ are a familiar advert.
Unfortunately, this job advertising strategy is commonplace in both the US and UK, and indicates that despite its low pay and entry level categorization, genuine entry-level is rapidly disappearing within publishing. A recent analysis of over 95,000 job postings found that 61 percent of all full-time jobs seeking entry-level employees required at least three years or more of experience. Even in 2014, economic studies showed that employers were raising experience requirements for entry-level positions within the US in response to the Great Recession that made entry-level positions scarce. Today, the acceleration of this employment tactic is apparent in many advertised publishing positions, requiring not just a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, but equivalent experience to boot.
Many struggle to enter the publishing industry as ‘organizations transfer the competitiveness of the industry into the selection and hiring process of entry-level talent, which can be seen as unrealistic and limiting,’ says Lọ́lá Béjidé, an early careers strategist and founder of the Soluman Consultancy. Interindustry competitiveness produces a Catch-22 scenario; people struggling to enter the publishing sector must do so by obtaining work experience, but cannot gain work experience as they are unable to enter the industry without it.
Internships make publishing go ‘round
Internships are one avenue through which many try to obtain publishing work experience. But publishing internships are scarce, many unpaid, impeding lower socio-economic people from obtaining work experience to enter the industry. A 2021 Publisher’s Association report indicated the socio-economic demographic within publishing remained largely middle-class and continued ‘to represent major barriers to inclusion’. 74 percent of respondents had a ‘middle class’ determinant, compared to only 55 percent in the UK population. The persistence of unpaid internships or poverty wages within publishing not only exploits its workers, but bars ‘graduates from poorer backgrounds, whose parents [could not] afford to subsidize their experience’. Consequently, the publishing landscape is manufactured to produce an inequitable playing field that prohibits, as Béjidé describes, ‘individuals from ethnically diverse communities as well as those from social economically challenging environments’ from entering the industry at all, despite publisher’s woefully insufficient diversity schemes.
One could argue that if the industry allowed only paid work experience, it would decrease the amount of work experience aspiring publishers could obtain. It is a pervasive industry myth that while many publishers cannot afford to pay interns, the experience interns gain is sufficient enough to get their foot in the door. However, this assessment does not consider that unpaid labour does not increase the likelihood of work experience for the average person looking to enter publishing, but rather produces a socio-economic stratification. Publishers reliance upon unpaid labour under the guise of creating a proliferation of industry ‘opportunities’ is more exploitative than it is altruistic as ‘companies can save money by using interns to do that work without having to pay junior employees…the more interns a company has, the fewer entry-level jobs it’s likely to open’. When asked if they had ever felt overwhelmed by the workload of their unpaid internship, a Scottish interviewee, 23, replied:
Yeah 100%. Because they didn’t give us set working days or hard deadlines it was difficult to balance the many tasks we had to do. They told me I’d have to commit to 12 hours a week but it wasn’t set days. And also they gave us multiple tasks so some weeks two would be like expected of you so there’d be weeks I spent more time or less time at the internship and that overwhelmed me, it would’ve been easier to go into an office two days a week to do as much work as possible in your 6-hour shifts then come home and that was it, done with till the next week.
The interviewee knew their tasks were beyond the scope of internship work, stating that they were involved in multiple lead roles such as lead editor for a book, proofreader for two novels, representative for two authors as well as their events coordinator and a stage reporter for multiple books. A 20 hour job, dissertation and extracurriculars precluded marketing duties.
Even in contexts in which interns are paid, many have reported feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work demanded of them. An American interviewee, who has been struggling to break into publishing beyond entry-level work for three years, described how their initial internship was more than they knew they were getting into, especially for the pay provided. They were offered a full-time position, however, a previous employee of the company discouraged them from taking it due to the exploitative nature of the press.
I didn’t end up taking the position with [publisher] but even as an intern…I didn’t think minimum wage was enough; after the person I was reporting to left I was basically the only editor that was working full-time. There was another intern working with me but she only worked full-time two days a week. I was doing the work of an intern and of the editor and most of the time it was completely overwhelming; I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I were to have taken the position.
Within the US, interns are significantly more diverse than the industry as a whole, with 49 percent identifying as BIPOC; 49 percent identifying on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum; and 22 percent identifying as disabled. However, with little to no support to retain these diverse interns or protect them from burn out once they enter the field, the industry shows very little potential for growth.
Comparably, with the UK’s demographic of 74 percent middle class respondents, it is clear that only people who are financially capable and stable enter the workforce to gain work experience and industry knowledge. This is a benefit that does not extend beyond itself when unpaid internship experiences offer only a one percent bump over no internship experience at all (36 percent vs 37 percent). This pales in comparison to the prospects of those who participate in paid internships, whose experiences transform into a job 60 percent of the time. Worse yet, the Sutton Trust found that not only does completing more unpaid opportunities not lead to ‘a greater likelihood of a paid opportunity’, but that many interns who undertook more than three unpaid internships resulted in the individuals being ‘stuck in a cycle of unpaid opportunities’.
The reality that individuals are statistically likely to become stuck in a cycle of unpaid opportunities is made inevitable as applicants with one or more internships on their resume are both commonplace and unexceptional. Even with work experience, many aspiring publishers are forced to continue unpaid or low-paid internships hoping it will improve their resume for entry-level work.
Because of intense competition and the obscuration of entry-level positions, even experienced applicants find themselves struggling to break into the industry vis-a-vis entry-level positions. An American interviewee, 46, discussed how despite previous work experience with both Penguin Random House and a smaller educational publisher, as well as a Masters in Library Science, is still not enough to catch the industry’s attention. ‘I haven’t been able to get a single response. I even came back to the industry with a Master’s in library science…I’m most definitely trying for entry-level jobs because I know the industry has probably changed a bit and I would rather start at the bottom and relearn the new ways’.
The system’s configuration not only ignores those who do not have or could not afford internship experience, but both mystifies and, in the end, repositions the categorization of entry-level work. ‘Internships are now the entry-level’, states Alan Seales, an associate professor of economics at America’s Auburn University. Although, even now, it is common for internships to require previous experience as well, demanding that candidates possess experience with database management (e.g. Airtable), inventory management systems, bookselling, and/or editing and copyediting (all of these requirements were, in fact, pulled directly from an internship listing).
A Scottish interviewee, 28, detailed how their entry-level job threw them into the proverbial deep end without any further assistance. The position distressed their mental health so much, they left the industry and took a part-time position that paid the exact same as their entry-level publishing job. ‘I always felt like I wasn’t getting the help I needed despite being new to the company and the role’, they explained, which later led to resentment as the publisher never assisted them ‘personally or professionally’.
Entry-level salaries within publishing are yet another obstruction. Salary transparency within publishing is notoriously obscure, however, recent studies have helped to demystify wages. In 2017, an online survey run by bookcareers.com founder Suzanne Collier found that the average salary for Editorial assistants came in at £23,385, while literary agent assistants averaged £27,431. Rights assistants wages were calculated at £23,967 per year, and marketing assistants were £22,722. In 2020, an anonymous salary expose began to circulate in the industry, inviting staffers to share their salaries in the name of salary transparency. What was revealed was the bleak percentage of staffers who worked for low wages, many of whom had worked for large companies for many years but still did not see raises in their wages or upward mobility. One of the lowest disclosed salaries belonged to a digital marketing assistant working full time at Pan Macmillan with an annual salary of £18,000, a conglomerate whose generated revenue for 2020 scraped just under €1.04 billion, up from €1.01 billion the previous year.
Entry-level pay begins staggeringly low, ranging from £18,000-24,000 GBP within the UK and $45,000 USD within the US; while these salaries could perhaps be feasible in smaller towns if remote work was sustained ‘post-pandemic’—though that is arguable as well, especially for people who are not just supporting themselves—, the disappearance of remote work and the insistence of ‘back to work’ rhetoric more often than not requires people to either move to or be already based in major metropolitan areas like London and New York City. One agent described the job search as ‘near impossible’ outside of major metropolitan cities like London.
While £24,000 is deemed a livable wage in London, the average rental value for new tenancies in London currently is £1,898 with rent having increased by 10.8 percent compared to last year, bringing the £24k annual salary to £2,000 per month prior to taxes and living expenses like utilities, groceries, and transportation. This data also does not take into account the imminent energy crisis that threatens to plunge thousands into fuel poverty this upcoming fall and winter because prices increased by 80 percent on October 1, leaving thousands of vulnerable people to potentially freeze to death. Presently, even without the looming threat of fuel poverty, many in London-based publishing find they cannot afford to live comfortably on their salary, with a Big Five staff member stating that ‘sometimes I have to skip meals to pay my bills’, while others confessed they were dependent upon a secondary income or partner’s financial help to keep themselves afloat.
Even outside of London, people struggle to find entry-level publishing jobs that would allow them to cover all their living expenses. One Scottish interviewee—a mother of two teenagers in her mid-30s—has been struggling to enter publishing for approximately a year; she responded how ‘absolutely disgusting’ it was that she kept seeing entry level jobs advertised for £16,000-19,000. She explained how such low wages prohibited her from applying for jobs, especially when those jobs were based in locations with higher rents like Oxford, as she could not support herself and her family on such low wages.
Across the pond, an American interviewee struggling to make do in New York City scoffed at entry-level salaries of $45k, claiming that ‘it is literally not enough to live on in New York if I want to leave my parents’.
What qualifies as an entry-level position?
So if entry-level jobs are quickly transforming into roles that exclude people with little training and experience, what signifies an entry-level position?
Simply put: pay disparity.
As entry-level jobs have expanded their expectations and job specifications, pay has remained stagnant, not taking into consideration either the increased workload or inflation. Collier’s study found that though the average salary in UK publishing has increased by 6 percent since 2017, the gap between that and entry-level pay has widened to 49 percent. Since 2017, the average starting salary increased by 11 percent, however, this did not account for inflation or the difference between early career earnings. As one such study respondent stressed, ‘Overall the low salaries for assistants are concerning to me, as I don’t think I could do the amount of work I currently do for less money’. However, by recategorising internships as entry-level positions, publishers have increased the workload and experience necessary for ‘entry-level’ positions while maintaining its associated low pay.
Ultimately, entry-level publishing jobs seek to underpay and exploit workers with experience as it is expected that those entering the industry are to perform a sheer amount of extra work outside of business hours, with no overtime pay. In essence, it is a duplication of a tactic that already exists in the industry against many senior publishing workers, many of whom are equally overworked and underpaid with little to no upward mobility while the Big Five generate hundreds of millions, if not billions, in revenue. Despite workers’ calls for increased pay, unionization, or general strikes, publishing continues to push forward at its own—and more importantly, it’s workers’—expense. As the publishing industry continues to deteriorate into a full-fledged monopsony, one question remains: is it too late to save publishing from itself?
Ella Gallego is a freelance editor, writer, and digital designer. She has worked at various traditional, independent publishers on a multitude of projects, from cook books to literary anthologies. Ella is currently writing a non-fiction, analytical book about popular culture monsters in media.