When Major Publishers Underpay Editors, They Shoot Themselves in the Foot

What is the point of a corporate trade publisher’s existence in the 21st century?

Great editorial support. That’s it.

And the large English-language publishers are pissing their editorial departments away.

Editors have been leaving large corporate trade publishers for decades. To a large part, this was because of mergers. The new, consolidated, corporate-owned publishers laid off ‘surplus’ staff. Unfair as this was to the people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, this didn’t harm the editorial power of the publishers as long as the editors they kept maintained a high standard. Conceivably (though I don’t believe this actually happened), reducing the number of editors could even improve quality if it solved a ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ problem.

Recently, a bunch of editors have quit their jobs at large English-language publishers, most notably Molly McGhee, who quit because her publisher overworked and underpaid her. Here’s a summary of what happened.

Great editorial departments are the only reason to keep these large trade publishers around. Others can do everything else cheaper and/or better.

If Molly McGhee’s claims are correct, the publishers are under-investing in their editorial departments. That’s the road to failure.

The marketing abilities of big publishers? Ha ha ha. Okay, being able to provide a marketing budget is nice, and they have good publicity connections. But even the biggest publishers depend on authors for much of their marketing. This makes sense. Authors are more effective than publishers at marketing. What’s more likely to persuade you to buy a book—hearing an interview with the author, or hearing an interview with the publisher’s spokesperson?

Are the large trade publishers prestigious? Sure. But that prestige is brittle. Literary agents discovered that in the 1970s/1980s. They pressed for better terms for their clients because they knew that authors’ brands are more powerful than publishers’ brands. People buy books because they see the name ‘Danielle Steel’ on the cover, not because they see the name ‘Random House.’ In fact, based on my reading of the cultural zeitgeist, I suspect the prestige/brand of the large publishers is fragile indeed. But that won’t matter if their editorial departments stay strong.

Some things Big 5 editors let slip through recently published books have shocked me. Things I wouldn’t have expected editors let through twenty years ago.

It used to be that literary agents would send rough manuscripts with great promise on the expectation that the editor would work with them. Now, literary agents have to send manuscripts that are almost ready to publish (save for copyediting) because the editors are too overwhelmed to give manuscripts tough love, and why do they have to when they can pressure agents to send almost-ready-to-publish manuscripts instead?

Many literary agents are former editors who either quit or were laid off. Thus, they have the skills to edit the manuscripts themselves. But this is more work for them. Some literary agents also advise their clients to pay for developmental editing—at the client’s expense—because they don’t believe the manuscript will have a chance otherwise.

You know what else literary agents are doing more and more? Publishing. I don’t call it ‘self-publishing’ since the agents are publishing their clients’ writing, not their own, but literary agents can publish just as well, or better, than self-published authors. If they have to take on most of the editorial burden themselves, it makes sense for them to cut out the big trade publishers and just become their own publisher. Then they’ll get more of the profits.

The one thing other than editorial support that large trade publishers can do to entice agents to send their best manuscripts is to pay high advances. But advances are going lower, and payments are being delayed further. Literary agents are struggling more than they were twenty years ago. It’s making more and more sense for them to transform into indie publishers.

The ‘Big 5’ trade publishers in the U.S. and U.K. are complacent because they are an oligopoly. They believe they have immunity from the blowback of cutting editorial costs. They don’t. Customers are noticing (and not just me). Hungry literary agents will learn how to make more money through indie publishing. Then the ‘Big 5’ will lose the manuscripts they depend on to stay relevant.

Molly McGhee says she doesn’t know what she’s going to do now that she’s quit. I don’t know either, but I won’t be surprised if she becomes an indie publisher.

3 thoughts on “When Major Publishers Underpay Editors, They Shoot Themselves in the Foot

  1. I’m an author, so work on the writing end of things. I was somehow not surprised by this when it showed up on my Twitter feed. Everyone in writing and publishing is underpaid and overworked.

    • Yep.

      Working in publishing is a ‘dream job’ so workers are expected to accept high workloads and low pay in exchange for ‘getting their dream.’

      • Yep. (Both from the writing and from the (copy-)editing end of things.)

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