We salute members of the industry’s workforce, who faced unprecedented challenges in 2020—both in keeping the gears turning and in pushing for change.
By John Maher, Andrew Albanese, Alex Green, Jim Milliot, and Karintha Parker | Dec 18, 2020
At 8 p.m. on March 22, the capital of the American book publishing business all but shut down. Two days earlier, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York had announced stay-at-home orders that would temporarily shutter all in-person businesses throughout the state that were not deemed essential—bookstores, libraries, and publishers among them—in order to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Soon, similar orders were put in place across the country, affecting employees of book-related businesses from coast to coast.
A mere two months later, following the May 25 killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, bookstores in Minneapolis rushed to aid protesters and salvage what was left of their businesses following fires started during the civil unrest. For months afterward, Black booksellers at Black-owned stores across the country worked overtime to put copies of anti-racist literature and other books by Black authors into the hands of readers hungry for them and eager to patronize Black businesses. Months after that, booksellers on the West Coast scrambled to serve their communities and save their shops as massive wildfires blazed across the countryside.
All the while, workers in libraries and warehouses, like booksellers, put on their personal protective equipment and reported for duty. Publishing workers endeavored to make some sense of their new employment situation, isolated at home and making books alone together from behind screens. And authors and employees across all segments of the book business, frustrated by the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in publishing, made their frustrations heard, prompting the first concerted industry-wide effort to address these issues.
There’s an old proverb that says, “Many hands make light work.” This year, for the book business, that wasn’t quite true: the work was never light. Still, without many hands, there would have been no work at all—no books made or sold or read, no milestones achieved. No individual could stand out in such a year, and no individual should be honored in it either. Instead, it is the collective of book business workers, often overworked and underpaid, that kept the industry afloat and challenged it to live up to greater standards.
The most important people in the book business in 2020 are not the powerhouse agents or the megabestselling authors or the Big Five CEOs. They are the booksellers, debut and midlist authors, editors, librarians, printers, publicists, sales representatives, and warehouse workers, to mention just a few—the workers, who have been the most important people in the business all along. What follows are some reasons why.
Illustration: Madeline Gobbo
This year in the book business was marked by major shifts and major actions, which often went hand in hand. Younger workers became much more active and made companies—mostly publishers at this point, but also some booksellers—take concrete steps to broaden diversity and stand on principle, all while working around the challenges presented by Covid.
The first such action came on March 5, three days after Grand Central Publishing announced that it would publish a memoir by Woody Allen, who has been accused by his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, of molesting her in 1992, when she was seven years old. Employees at Grand Central and Little, Brown (which published Allen’s estranged son, Ronan Farrow, who severed his ties with the imprint two days earlier), as well as at other imprints at parent company Hachette Book Group, staged a walkout in protest of the acquisition—an extraordinarily rare and risky occurrence in the corporate publishing world, in which most workers are not protected by unions.
“I think all of us, especially the younger people at Hachette, feel very strongly the burden and the enormity of being gatekeepers,” says an HBG employee, who spoke with PW on condition of anonymity. “It felt pretty amazing when people were actually standing outside, finally, in Rockefeller Center—we weren’t all sure if we were going to do it—and it was pretty jubilant, to see how many people had chosen to walk. But I felt more sad than anything in the larger sense, especially for my colleagues who work at Grand Central, that it had come to this.”
That walkout, however, would not be publishing’s last of the year. On June 8, the day New York City began a partial reopening, more than 1,300 book business workers, from editors and publicists at major houses to literary agents and book critics, stepped off the job in protest of racist state violence and white supremacy under the banner of Pub Workers for Justice. The group says its mission is to “build a community that will protect us from the inherent exploitation and racist practices of the publishing industry.” The action was taken in direct response to emails CEOs of the Big Five publishing companies sent to their employees following the killing of George Floyd—statements the workers considered inadequate.
The effort was initiated by five junior Macmillan staffers, four of whom identify as BIPOC and one of whom is white, who drafted the initial language for the action. By the time the industry was made aware of the action, however, more than 1,100 individuals had taken part in shaping the message.
Collective action was the whole point. “Together, we disinvested from the industry for a day and invested instead in our communities,” the group later wrote on its website. “In doing so, we demonstrated what is possible when publishing workers come together for the common good—when we take ownership of our labor, stop outsourcing justice to CEOs, and start erecting our own systems of support and accountability.”
These actions forced changes at the publishers that prompted them. On March 6, Grand Central dropped Allen’s memoir, though it was published shortly thereafter by the independent house Skyhorse Publishing. And in September, Penguin Random House and Hachette Book Group each released reports on their employee demographics and pledged to take steps to diversify their workforces as well as their publishing lists.
Later in September, Macmillan announced that it will raise its entry-level salary to $42,000 on December 27. In October, Beacon Press bumped its starting salary to $44,600, Simon & Schuster increased its starting pay to $40,000, and PRH told employees that it will up its own to $45,000 in January. Then in December, Hachette announced that it will do the same “in its most expensive locations” in February. And in the six months since the June action, the Big Five launched several new imprints dedicated to diverse voices and hired a number of people of color, including former Pulitzer Prize administrator Dana Canedy (at S&S) and National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas (at PRH), for positions of authority.
These are stopgap measures, not long-term solutions. Salary increases of $5,000 won’t make much of a dent in the disparity between publishing pay and New York City cost of living, hiring well-established figures from outside of publishing’s ranks will not solve the book business’s problem with retention of workers of color, and dedicating boutique imprints to the publication of diverse books is no replacement for diversifying the flagship imprints that already exist. Still, changes were made—changes that would not have been made without worker outcry.
“It’s been a wild year overall, really apocalyptic and maybe a little bit inspiring, which is probably the perfect cocktail for kicking off organizing of any kind,” says editor Ben Mabie at Verso Books, which just voluntarily recognized its staff’s decision to join the Washington-Baltimore News Guild. (Mabie was on the organizing committee and is now the shop steward.) “This seems like really the perfect year for organizing to happen, between the mergers happening among the Big Five—now Big Four—and Amazon’s increasing grip on the industry and the more meager profits that bricks-and-mortar bookstores are able to kind of eke out and the kind of challenges and inequalities that come with working from home for extended periods of time.”
Julia Judge, a senior publicist at Verso and a fellow member of its new union’s organizing committee, adds that, though the industry has recently seen a move toward diverse hiring practices, “the broader structural issues that are present in publishing, such as the low pay, the precarity, the gender issues—all of these things need to be fixed before we can talk about hiring and the other steps that we can take internally to address what are really industry-wide problems. I see unionizing as one small step that we can take to fix some of those issues.”
Meanwhile, the same workers who have been pushing for systemic change have also spent the year adjusting to the world of work-from-home publishing. In New York, most houses’ headquarters are staffed by skeleton crews and only intermittently visited by other employees, who have been encouraged to stay home even after lockdowns were lifted in late June. This has prompted major changes in how publishing, a business that relies on interpersonal relationships, gets done.
Perhaps no employees have seen greater changes to their working methods than those in marketing and publicity departments. With physical galleys severely limited, bookstores closed to the public, and in-person events canceled until further notice, marketers and publicists have had to effectively reinvent their roles. That meant doubling down on direct-to-consumer marketing programs, increasing podcasting and video efforts, launching virtual book clubs and holding author events over Zoom, and even holding entire fan conventions digitally. It also meant, according to May-Zhee Lim, a publicist at Riverhead Books, working to find ways to make virtual events stand out in a newly saturated landscape.
“It’s been a wild ride of a year for sure,” Lim says. “I remember sitting in front of my computer in a dress with a homemade cocktail in one hand and a photo of Akwaeke Emezi’s cat in the other. I was running the Zoom for our first ever virtual cocktail party—back in April, no less, when everything felt so new and surreal. I was all nerves!”
Despite being “deprived of our usual publicity tools,” Lim says that when she looks back at the event, “I mostly remember the interesting stories that people felt like they were able to share because we had created an environment for them to do what they would do at an in-person cocktail party. That’s what excites me about these new digital projects that we’re rolling out at Riverhead. I love that we’re making the world feel more human, one virtual cocktail party at a time.”
Warehouse workers are pivotal in getting books from publishers to readers. Without them, the supply chain would not function. And since the pandemic hit, warehouse employees have had to cope with new protocols developed to provide protection from Covid.
Sara Point has been working at IPG since 2006, the last six years as manager of the distributor’s 200,000-sq.-ft. warehouse in Chicago. She says that when the pandemic hit she was concerned about her safety and that of her staff. “Everything was happening so fast,” she recalls. “Everything was so new. There was a new development every day.”
To help provide the proper social distancing, IPG added a second shift. It also instituted temperature checks, a mask mandate, sanitizer stations, and protocols to ensure that those known to be exposed to the virus or presenting symptoms stayed home. As a result, the distribution center has had “minimal” positive cases, Point says.
“Things can feel relatively normal, then you may hear of a new case and you get a jolt,” Point notes. Still, she feels safe coming to work and believes her staff of 100 does too. “Everyone has stuck it out,” she adds. In spring, business had slowed down, but the volume is now back to what it should be for the holidays.
Like everyone, Point eagerly awaits the day when things at the warehouse can return to normal. “I miss seeing everyone’s faces and their smiles,” she says. With everyone wearing masks, “you forget what people really look like.” The pandemic also forced the cancellation of IPG’s annual holiday party. “I can’t wait till 2021,” she says. “It has to be better than this year.”
As stay-at-home orders came down in states in mid-March, most of America’s bookstores closed their doors to customers while taking up the challenge of online bookselling. At Cellar Door Bookstore in Riverside, Calif., online sales went from a small portion of the store’s revenue to its sole source of income in a matter of weeks. But like hundreds of frontline booksellers, Cellar Door’s Elisa Thomas was furloughed. She watched the store make that transition from her home, hoping to see it emerge from the swirling uncertainty of the first months of the pandemic.
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When Thomas returned in May, she found a store with enormous community support. But much had shifted. Her brainchild, the store’s Drag Queen Story Hour, had ceased. Cellar Door’s many book clubs were just beginning to transition online. Staff picks on its website became a substitute for in-person interactions. “The entire face of the store had changed,” Thomas says. “It was almost all online orders and processing phone orders.”
Around the same time, Malik Thompson was returning to work at Loyalty Bookstores’ Washington, D.C., location following his own furlough. Like Cellar Door, the vibrant Black-owned shop had gone from being what Thompson calls a “cultural hub” to being a digital operation. He did what many other booksellers did: he pushed ahead, meeting the needs of a customer base that grew swiftly following the killing of George Floyd.
According to Thompson, who is Black, Loyalty owner Hannah Oliver Depp prioritized employee health amid the trauma of the events in June, telling booksellers she was “not going to abuse her staff so that people can get things quicker.” But they still faced the demands of new customers, many of whom were angered by shortages of key titles like White Fragility owing to circumstances beyond the bookstore’s control.
In the worst instances, customers took out their frustration on Thompson and his colleagues in ways that repeated racist tropes about the inadequacy of Black businesses. “With half-baked practices around anti-racism,” he says, “there’s often this notion that ‘I’m going to throw my money at Black-owned bookstores for a product. However, if they don’t meet these standards that I’ve set for them, then it’s going to fit into these preconceived narratives I subscribe to about the inferiority of Black-owned businesses. And this is just further justification for my unwillingness to support them.’ ”
Thompson says he often thinks about a key question, “How do I nurture and nourish the community I’m dedicated to?” Then, he adds another: “How do I also navigate being patronized by outsiders?” His answer? To give the work all the energy he can. Along with filling customer orders, he hosted two online poetry readings through the store. He also applied for a Tin House creative writing fellowship this winter, and when Depp saw on social media that he was accepted, she offered to pay the cost.
Meanwhile, at Cellar Door, the influx of orders for anti-racist titles was accompanied by community requests for the store to hold conversations about Black Lives Matter. Cellar Door met those needs, and at first, Thomas and her colleagues were gratified by the increased interest. “Those are books that we were selling before, but everything became so much more visceral,” she says. “It was interesting to see all of the sales, but the change that comes with those sales was what was really important.”
Still, Thomas—who is Black and Mexican—wonders whether the spike in sales was a kind of “performative allyship.” For self-care, she took moments to step back. “It does become a question,” she says, “of, ‘Do I have the mental capacity to have this conversation right now?’ and, ‘Do I have the wherewithal to... maintain a professional presence in this moment?’ ”
When it came to balancing self-care with advocacy in support of their bookstores, Thomas’s and Thompson’s experience paid dividends. At the close of an unprecedented year, their stores are open and meeting their financial goals. Thomas and Thompson are also aware of the recognition frontline booksellers have gotten from within the publishing industry for their crucial role in keeping stores afloat.
But both booksellers want more from the industry. Thompson would like to see greater respect for the long lineage of Black-owned bookstores that, like Loyalty, serve as vibrant community, cultural, and industry leaders. He says the continued existence of these businesses requires sustained investment, not just a sales bump from liberals when tragedy strikes.
Thomas wants publishers to take steps to ensure that the books that are the lifeblood of Cellar Door are available when she needs them. “We’re faced with so many difficulties with getting certain titles in, especially being at a smaller store,” she says. “That in and of itself directly affects us as frontline booksellers.”
Thomas says the shortages stem from a pervasive belief in the trade that sells indies short. “We eat, breathe, and sleep books,” she notes. “So to underestimate us or to not give us the appreciation that we deserve is honestly disheartening sometimes. And I know that there is only so much publishers can do for us. But I feel like there is room for them to invest more in us than they do in these big monopolies.”
From the start of the Covid crisis, the nation’s 300,000 librarians and library workers quickly pivoted to provide new services to the reading public, including a rapid shift to digital. That shift, however, was not limited to providing more e-books and digital audiobooks. It has also meant virtual storytimes for kids, Zoom book clubs, online author events, and other digital programs and events ranging from knitting clubs to language classes. It has meant creating and marketing beefed-up resource guides, virtual reference services, online instruction sessions, and new programs for students and teachers as schools nationwide were forced to go remote. And it has meant boosting libraries’ Wi-Fi signals, as library parking lots have become refuges for some of the more than 20 million Americans who still lack access to broadband.
As weather improved over the spring and summer, many libraries undertook some form of curbside service, where patrons could check out books, devices, and other physical resources online and pick them up outdoors. The Denver Public Library set up an outdoor laptop rental service, allowing those without access to technology at home to sit at properly distanced tables and use library computers. And like a number of libraries, Denver used its bookmobile to bring food and other necessities to its patrons, in addition to books.
These changes have required library workers to build the proverbial airplane as it is flying, securing their own appropriate personal protective equipment, crafting and enforcing new social distancing policies, and reconfiguring libraries with less furniture, more space between computers, hand sanitizer stations, spit guards, and plexiglass dividers. Libraries now have contactless checkouts, new cleaning procedures, and materials quarantines, and have undertaken efforts like OCLC’s Project Realm, which delivered key research on how long the virus can survive on various surfaces, including wood and metal shelving, plastic CD covers, and, yes, books.
And Covid wasn’t the only major challenge librarians took on in 2020. Amid the anger, outrage, and protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, the library community stood up to acknowledge systemic racism in the U.S.—including in public libraries—and then went to work. Libraries and library organizations across the country issued statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, provided expanded access to racial and social justice collections, and offered safe spaces for community conversations on race and equity.
More importantly, librarians have put libraries under the microscope. “Libraries as an institution are taking a stand against systemic racism, making books about anti-racism and the African American experience available to readers—and this is good,” Carmi Parker, ILS administrator at the Whatcom County Library System in Washington State, told PW over the summer. “But libraries are also recognizing that we, like the police, are an institution embedded with systemic racism. We say that the library is for everyone, but that won’t be true until our staff, patrons, and collections reflect the populations in our communities.”
While library workers have stood up for their communities this year, they also stood up for themselves. As the Covid crisis hit, an idealized narrative of selfless hero librarians began to take root in the media. The reality on the ground, however, was grim: too many librarians and staff were being asked to work without proper protective equipment or safety precautions, were terrified of becoming sick, and were facing uncertainty and economic ruin as layoffs and furloughs mounted. Some public library workers were even ordered by their municipalities to redeploy from their closed library buildings to shelters, makeshift testing facilities, or other frontline, high-risk jobs.
“The flipside of all of these feel-good pieces on digital story time, backyard summer reading, and boosted Wi-Fi signals in the parking lot is library workers forced to do jobs they never signed up for [and] scolded for their attempts to fight for their well-being,” wrote Massachusetts librarian Callan Bignoli in a May editorial in Library Journal. “It’s time to say, ‘Not anymore.’ ”
In response, library workers organized to shift the focus to issues of worker safety and well-being. It started with the #CloseTheLibraries campaign in early March, which raised critical awareness of the dangers facing library workers in the early days of the outbreak. That campaign soon expanded into two more: #ProtectLibraryWorkers, which advocated for the safety and fair treatment of library employees, and #LibraryLayoffs, which created a crowdsourced list of library layoffs and furloughs.
With a vaccine in sight, there is finally a light glinting at the end of the tunnel. But, as the rising case numbers suggest, it’s going to be a long one. In 2021, as the extent of the economic damage done by the pandemic comes into focus, libraries—like bookstores and other small businesses—remain vulnerable.
“Let’s be clear: when you hear there is a debate in Congress about whether to ‘bail out’ states and cities, that is a debate about whether your local library stays open, or closes,” sociologist and bestselling author Eric Klinenberg told PW back in May. “And American voters are going to need to connect the dots, or we could soon find ourselves without many of the institutions that keep us stable.”
The book business worker of the future
Just as there would be no book business without words, there would be no book business without workers. This year, book business workers reminded their industry both of their import and their influence. What remains is to meet the standards they demanded and deserve: to pay them better; to hire them with a mind toward diversity, equity, and inclusion; and to provide them with more power to make a difference in the publishing process.
If this year has proven anything, it’s that those who make up the backbone of the book business are more than up to the task. As long as they are adequately empowered to change the business for the better, better days for the business will always lay ahead.
Notables of the Year
In addition to naming the book business worker as our person of the year, PW selected nine industry members who had notable achievements in 2020.