This is the house that oligopoly built…
When I originally set out to blog on this topic two weeks ago, I intended to write an explainer of WHY publishing is not okay. My first draft focused on professional burnout, the oligopoly of the Big Four, disruptive technology, and how labor exploitation lines the pockets of four extremely rich conservative families. Fun, right?
As I dug further into the topic, I just couldn’t bring myself to post it here. It was too explosive and too depressing. Plus, the idea of adding funny gifs and jokes seemed downright inappropriate. Part of my goal with the blog is to focus on the parts of writing that nurture my joy, so I decided to go with another, more positive topic at the last minute (outlining for pantsers).
Instead, I put my research together into a (very long) Twitter thread sharing what I had found. You can read the unrolled thread here.
Naturally, that thread of doom went further than anything else I’ve posted on the bird site. Now I want to buy all of Writing Twitter a round of drinks as an apology for depressing everyone. All the same, I wouldn’t take that thread back, because I think it’s important information for folks to have.
Knowledge is power. But the burden of that dark knowledge begs the real question.
The (billion dollar) question: what can we do about it?
In the wake of my thread and the commentary that followed, this question came up a lot. There were some great discussions and possibilities, as well as some arguments about right action. My thread only addressed the question briefly, because I had no good answers.
After reading the responses and marinating further, though, I do have some thoughts to share.
I titled last week’s post “here be dragons,” but I think perhaps the real dragons are here. So before I continue, let me set some parameters, define some terms, and issue a few disclaimers.
I am not a publishing professional, which to me means an agent, editor, or other employee of any publishing company. I am not an economist. I am an author with a single book in the world, published by a small press. I’m also a lawyer who works for a nonprofit anti-poverty organization. All of that colors my perspective.
In this post, I will primarily use “publishing” to mean the English-language, primarily American and British, publishing world, and unless otherwise specified the so-called Big Four traditional publishing companies. I’m primarily talking about trade fiction markets, because that’s what I know. By “we,” I primarily mean authors, specifically novelists, because again, that’s what I know.
In talking about solidarity around labor inequities, however, I want to widen that “we” to include agents and editors as well. Because, between authors working years on manuscripts that may or may not reach publication, agents with second jobs working on pure commission to filter, refine, and shepherd manuscripts to trad pub, and underpaid editors suffering from overwork, long hours, and intense burnout, this industry leans heavily on exploited labor at every level of book production.
Of course, authors are the original producers in this creative economy. But it takes a village to make a book. So I’ll say again that I believe we’re all in this together.
This is bigger than any of us standing alone.
I want to make this clear first off. It’s natural and right, upon learning hard truths, to wonder “What can I do?” At the same time, the issues with publishing are systemic, bolstered by the disproportionate political and economic power of the people at the top who benefit from the status quo.
That means it’s not on any one person reading this to change the way the system works. You can’t and shouldn’t carry that weight on your shoulders. Similar to other big problems facing our society, like climate change, nothing we can do alone as individuals will change the trajectory set by powerful, rich, amoral actors at the highest levels.
Overestimating the responsibility of the individual actor shifts focus from the corporate entities who drive the problem. People who drive their cars to work produce miniscule emissions compared to oil and gas companies. Likewise, customers who buy books from the river site are tiny drops against a torrent of price fixing and bad labor practices.
Our decisions can’t change the world on their own. We are not the main characters in this story. But there is hope. That hope lies in collective action, shifting mindsets, and the power of many voices joining together to demand change.
Authors aren’t responsible for publishing’s stress and overwork.
Yes, novelists can be a rowdy, impatient, emotional, and at times entitled bunch of folk. We don’t always understand the amount of work that agents or editors put into their jobs. We may seem self-involved and selfish, and sometimes we are.
But little bit of selfishness is required in this business. We’re artists, after all. If we didn’t have a single-minded passion for our made-up people and worlds, no books would ever get written.
Don’t forget that authors create the product that agents and editors sell. Without us, the rest of publishing wouldn’t have a job in the first place. We deserve to have that honored, valued, and respected.
Yet, in the current system, authors have the least power of all. As publishing is structured now, we depend on the goodwill of gatekeepers to access the big houses if we want significant compensation for our work. That means that we’re often afraid to speak up about abuse or inequity.
When we do express ourselves, whether imperfectly or uncivilly or even just in public, we often get pushback, mockery, and tone policing for our troubles. So I want to point out that when agents or editors target writers for feeling some kind of way about the industry, that’s punching down.
It’s a bad look, but worse than that, it’s a bad choice. Authors didn’t shape this industry. We didn’t decide that payments would trickle down in tiny installments, keeping agents and authors living on crumbs. We didn’t decide that agents would work on a commission-only model, largely unpaid until they make a sale.
This model developed to provide agents with an incentive to pick books that traditional publishing houses know how to sell. As a result, the vast majority of agent labor goes unpaid. This model exploits the work of both authors and agents, and the big houses ultimately benefit from that unpaid labor.
Recognize the true root of the problem.
Editors and publishing professionals at major houses also should recognize that agents and authors are not the ones driving their burnout. Yes, agents are wont to send requests for updates before editors are ready to provide them. They may send manuscripts at inconvenient times of day or night. They may demand timelines or advances on behalf of clients that seem unreasonable.
That’s their job. To do it well, they must zealously represent the interests of their clients, the authors. The role of the agent exists because editors at big houses prefer to choose manuscripts from a filtered talent pool.
Agents spend massive amounts of time reviewing manuscripts, editing client work to help it fulfill its full potential, and managing author expectations. They only get paid when the advance comes through. And they may send those emails at odd hours because they work a second job to sustain an agenting career.
Editors are not burning out because there are too many agents or too many manuscripts. Editors burn out because they are increasingly expected to do the work of multiple people for salaries that at lower levels don’t come close to the cost of living. Editors burn out because they’re hustling for an industry that doesn’t love them.
That industry hasn’t fully adapted to the digital world. It still insists on keeping its headquarters in the most expensive city in America. And like most industries, it hasn’t accepted that the future of work is remote, diffuse, and diverse.
Work toward mutual support and solidarity.
The vast majority of the wealth generated by the work of editors, agents, and authors does not go into the pockets of those workers. Most of the profit goes to enrich the executives, shareholders, and owners who employ them. Four multinational conglomerates helmed by old, conservative white families with massive amounts of generational wealth control the market, exploit the work of creators, and advance their own shadowy interests.
When the book makers—authors, agents, and editors—treat each other like enemies, nobody wins. Don’t get me wrong: the hurt is very real and the angry feelings are valid. But the resulting infighting distracts us from the underlying structural inequities at the root of the hurt.
This is not to say that we should avoid calling out abuse, bigotry, or injustice and calling each other in when appropriate to address it. We cannot and should not ignore the punches aimed downward, the microaggressions , the inequity, and the hurts. But when the hits start coming, it’s crucial to remember the ultimate source of the harm and who benefits from conflict within exploited groups.
How can we strengthen our solidarity with other creatives in this industry? How can we provide mutual aid and support? How can we learn to see one another as allies instead of factions aligned against each other?
It’s not easy. A competitive, adversarial mindset comes naturally in this environment. An economy of scarcity by design leaves us all fighting over the scraps.
There are only so many contracts, only so many editors, only so many agents, only so many lead titles, and only a small pool of cash allotted to paying for creative work. The structural inequities of the industry keep all of us in survival mode, ready to throw down to defend our tiny slice of the pie. Meanwhile, algorithms that favor outrage and news cycles driven by clickbait magnify and feed off any conflict.
In a battle royale, I don’t blame anyone coming ready to fight for their lives. But the only winners on this battlefield are the ones watching safely from their seats of money and power. When the game is rigged and the house always wins, the only way to beat the odds is to reject the rules—or refuse to play altogether.
Support indie publishers, authors, and booksellers when possible.
Many smaller traditional publishing houses aren’t part of the Big Four. That doesn’t mean small presses don’t suffer some of the same systemic problems we all face within this brutal system. But in most cases, they are still owned and run by people who love books.
To be clear, I am not advocating for writers to avoid signing with Big Four houses, buying Big Four books, or using a big distributer. I am a firm believer in people setting their own boundaries around what they are comfortable with as far as participation in a toxic system. I support writers getting paid and reject the idea that choosing a larger paycheck is “selling out.”
We all have our own needs, priorities, and dealbreakers. We all have bills to pay. And the major imprints do publish quality work by authors who deserve our support, discovered by agents who value their talent, and shined to a fine polish by skilled, passionate editors.
However, there is also a tendency for readers and the writing community to devalue indie contributions to the book world. A lot of writers and publishing professionals view a six-figure deal with a Big Four publisher as a status symbol and a guarantee of value that sets it above books with lower deals and smaller houses. Self-publishing and small presses often get treated as fallback strategies or second choices.
I believe we should actively challenge that status quo in our own thinking and in our communities. For one thing, it doesn’t reflect the reality or range of what’s available. I have read plenty of Big Four books I actively disliked and plenty of high-quality indie books that thrilled and moved me.
Yes, the production value, editing, distribution, marketing reach, and profits may not always equal those commanded by a large, well-known publishing house. But some remarkably mediocre books and authors get multimillion dollar deals and hit bestseller lists regularly. Meanwhile, indie authors in the small press and self-publishing realms often put out groundbreaking, exciting, and unusual work on which big traditional imprints would never take a chance.
Let’s stop trusting the Big Four to tell us what books are worth reading and stop treating Big Four authors as a cut above the rest. Just because an author gets a six figure deal doesn’t mean their work is good. Likewise, just because an author is indie published, self-published, or not published at all absolutely does NOT mean their work lacks comparative value.
Remember that you and your work have inherent value.
Writers, creators, artists, your work is worth so much more than the value assigned by the market. Art is a universal, foundational function of the human experience. From the moment hands pressed red ocher into the walls of caves, creative expression shapes our experience, expands our primate minds, and gives us common ground to share with one another.
The work of the words you’ve poured onto the page, refined in revisions, returned to despite naysayers within and without, has inherent worth. The market purports to set that value, but fails to adequately measure it. It fails by design, and it especially fails underrepresented voices, also by design.
In fact, I’d argue it devalues everything that truly sustains our daily lives. Meanwhile, the vast majority of capital collects at the top, where scions of generational wealth can simply sit back and watch the dividends roll in. Big advances are gambles made by corporations on whether a book can yield future profits for the shareholders and the super-rich.
My American culture and the English language in which I write trains people to equate money with worth. The myths of the overculture teach that if one works hard enough, becomes “good enough,” pulls themself up by their proverbial bootstraps, the invisible hand of the market will dispense fair rewards accordingly.
This is a lie. The lie originates from an oppressive Puritan value system that deified a joyless work ethic while its proponents built their fortunes with slave labor on stolen land. The lie persists because it teaches us to accept that if we get less, we deserve less.
In reality, the market rewards those with generational wealth and privilege first. It leaves marginalized people on the margins every time. It’s not about merit or hard work, but about protecting the existing power systems.
We can resist this lie, we storytellers. We can reject it. We are this world’s seers and truth speakers, the myth makers, the dream crafters.
Start envisioning a better way.
We can choose to tell ourselves and each other new stories in new ways. We can use our words to understand the world differently. We can use our voices to lift each other up.
Just because things have always been this way doesn’t mean that they have to be that way. As writers and artists, imagination and creativity are our superpowers. That makes us uniquely qualified to imagine a better world.
There are organizations like the Author’s Guild that provide some collective support for authors, but I find myself wondering if collective action could go further. Fueled by a worker’s market, other industries have seen a recent resurgence of the labor movement. Of course, collective action becomes harder in fields where labor is decentralized, with authors and agents working as independent contractors rather than direct employees.
After I posted my Twitter thread, several folks brought up the idea of a writing collective or cooperative, where the profits stay within the creative community. This is a very intriguing idea, and not a brand-new model. I’m not sure how exactly it would apply to publishing, but I want to see more of it.
Those of us with more privilege, like myself, can amplify the work of underrepresented artists in our communities. We can step back and make space for diverse books. We can put our money where our mouths are and support BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color), LGBTQIA+, neurodiverse and disabled authors, authors of diverse cultures and religions, and authors from the global South.
These are the voices some in power seek to ban because by merely existing, merely speaking their truth out loud, they can change hearts and minds. These books can change the world. They’re changing it already.
Don’t expect that you can keep your hands 100% clean.
With all that said, don’t beat yourself up over what you can’t change. You have to pick your battles. Given the system in which we all currently exist, you can’t avoid participating in capitalist oligopolies in some way unless you quit the business, go off the grid, grow your own food, make your own clothes, and isolate yourself entirely from the rest of humanity.
We can’t always do the right thing. All we can do is make the best possible choices in the moment, given our own personal capabilities, challenges, and needs. We can’t expect more from ourselves than that.
“Trying to do the right thing” means we are bound to fail. Even making our best efforts to be good people, we’re gonna screw up. Constantly.Michael Schur, How to Be Perfect (as excerpted in The Washington Post)
I’m not here to establish a purity test for publishing. There’s no moral perfection in this world. I’m not writing this to make anyone in the book industry feel guilty or ashamed of themselves, unless of course Rupert Murdoch or some other oligarch happens to read this, in which case fuck you in particular, sir.
I’m not speaking from some moral high horse, either. I am a participant in and beneficiary of unjust systems and hierarchies. The privilege granted me by those systems makes it possible for me to say some of the things I’ve said here with minimal risk. It makes it viable for me to place my books with a small press instead of holding out for a big advance, because I have other income.
That’s a very real consideration. I just got my first royalty statement, the first money I’ve ever received for my writing, and let me tell you, it is not a stunning sum. Talking about it with my spouse, I wondered out loud whether all the work I put into my books from drafting to marketing is worth it.
Then I stopped myself midsentence, because I’m not going to quit writing because it doesn’t pay the bills. That’s not why I started down this path in the first place. The same day I got my royalty statement, I got an extremely sweet comment on the first novel-length work I ever finished, a fanfic I posted over fifteen years ago, so long ago I occasionally forget it exists on the Internet.
“Maybe I’m years too late for anyone to read this, but I feel that I need to say something,” the commenter said. “Thank you is not enough, but thank you. Thank you so much.”
Our work doesn’t have to go big to hit home.
That’s it, right there. That’s why I write. I don’t know this other human, but the words I wrote all those years ago connected with them, brought them enough pleasure and joy to move them to reach out and say so. That’s the dream.
At the same time, I don’t write my books to change the world. I write succubus books and space books. Sure, the themes dip into the right and wrong use of power, because it’s a topic that preoccupies me, but I don’t have any illusions about their impact.
I’m not writing anything earthshaking. I write my little stories because they bring me joy, and hopefully bring a few hundred other people joy as well, or at least a few hours’ escape from a supremely unmagical reality. That’s all.
Here’s the thing, though: writing for joy and publishing with a small press is a luxury of sorts. While my privilege grants me the disposable income to write for joy, socioeconomic inequity ensures that underrepresented and marginalized authors are far less likely to have the resources to do the same.
Furthermore, when they do get book deals, those authors are likely to be paid less overall by traditional publishing. That’s why it’s so important that we collectively demand recognition for the full value of writers’ unpaid labor and continue to work for more equitable compensation from the industry.
So what I can do in the face of all that structural injustice? I can raise my one small voice to push back against the undervaluation of creative work. To push back against the devaluation of joy. And hopefully, to help my fellow writers, artists, creators, and book lovers to remember our true worth, the very real value of our labors of love, whether unpaid or otherwise.
If you don’t believe me, listen to Jorts, the adorable feline labor rights advocate whose humble yet powerful voice has inspired some of my more radical thoughts about work and its value lately.