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Gig Work in the Publishing Industry


If you work within "the business of books," you've likely seen the incendiary and opinionated op-eds and news releases over the past weeks about whether the increasing reliance on "gig workers" is an ethical pivot for the publishing industry at large. Spurred largely by the March announcement for Authors Equity, a new publisher on the traditional market that offers no advance but significant royalty splits to authors founded by veteran Big 5 executives and with angel investing authors James Clear and Tim Ferris behind the endeavor. The publisher plans on keeping a stringent full-time staff and to supplement their editorial through marketing efforts with "bespoke teams."


Something about this change seemed to ignite a fire under many stalwarts of who I have long considered the old guard. These are the ones who relish the glory days of publishing, the stuff most recently seen in popularized fiction or through very polished media campaigns touting the "breakout success" of a debut author. (That wasn't a breakthrough, that was a tightly-run and full-force publishing to marketing operation with all key talent on deck at the author's publisher. Credit where credit is due.)


So before I hop on my soapbox, I want to emphasize that I would love to see the previously popular model remain the commercially lucrative and professionally fulfilling model that it once was. And I recognize that change is scary. No better word for it.


But the reality is that the New York state of mind publishing days of before have long experienced deterioration. And while we may not have seen this seismic shift prior to general operations prior to 2020, the onset of remote and hybrid workplaces accelerated the tectonic shifts that were already in play.


I'm of the mind that the lack of interpersonal connection we experienced globally during the onset of and quarantine for Covid-19 also spurred the consumer market's interest in memoirs and self-publishing. We became voracious, insatiable -- and we had a lot of time on our hands.


The industry changed. And where previously you may not have been able to get past the application screening if you had a zip code outside commuting distance from Manhattan, that's no longer the case.


The Debate For and Against Relying on Contractors


I'd even comfortably venture to say many don't want it to be the case. UpWork released their 2022 report on larger freelance trends that 39% of the U.S. workforce considered working freelance or on a contract basis last year. The report even continued to explicitly state that "seasoned freelancers can earn more than they might in traditional employment within their industry."


Of course, some do want the prior model to remain intact and the standard for the industry's operations. The author of that LitHub article "Publishing Models That Rely on Gig Workers Are Bad For Everybody" notably calls out that authors and freelancers "don't have a union...Equity for a small, select group of authors is simply not enough." Dan Sinykin, author of Big Fiction, even notes in his (rather glowing) coverage of Author Equity's formation that "conveniently, this move seems to defy the wave of organizing that has swept the culture industry in recent years. From The New Yorker to HarperCollins, bookstore employees to grad students, workers have unionized to demand better pay and improved working conditions in traditionally poorly remunerated jobs. It is more difficult for freelancers to unionize."


I have to give credit to Kathleen Schmidt for her argument on "Why Authors Equity Will Work" -- it's a disservice to call all independent contractors "gig workers." In direct reference to her own PR agency, she notes: "many of my peers and I do not consider ourselves gig workers. We have founded our own companies that provide services for authors and publishers." She further points out that by having a more flexible, responsive budget with less full-time staff, Authors Equity can take risks that others in the publishing industry cannot.


This cogent argument is not new: in August 2023, The Guardian wrote about the rising acclaim of titles and work done by indie publisher Bluemoose. The publisher, Kevin Duffy, argued the reason for his flexibility in taking risks to publish beautiful, otherwise overlooked work was the small size of his operation. When looking at those media conglomerates and international publishers, Duffy aptly stated: “They’re not going to take risks on working-class and diverse writers because they need to get their money back … when you’ve got a 40m-high steel and glass edifice on the Embankment, there are costs to be taken care of."


And despite your hardbacks rising 7.7% in cost since 2019, it's simply not enough to say that this is equitable with cost of living increases across metropolitan publishing hubs. This report by the New York Comptroller shows that average costs of living grew in that same period 13.3% for residents within the NYC Metro. And while we saw that aforementioned voracious surge in reader behavior during the pandemic, according to Publisher's Marketplace we're starting to see sales falter and dip. The first three quarters of 2023 had slower and lower sales than the years immediately prior, and many publishers are releasing statements on how to remain on the "offensive" during these declines.


How could we expect there to be money to throw around on the publisher's side -- which, I'll remind you, is a business -- when there is still so much shifting both in the industry and in the economy?


Compensation for Contractors


How many lean in either direction is unclear to me at this time. What I can tell you is that while I'm nervous for publishing's future amidst all these divisive but powerful changes, I'm also optimistic. We're decentralizing and opening discussions for what could be.


And yes, that means putting your money where you mouth is and investing in paying the talent that immediately fills and answers your current projects's needs.


I'll sidestep the "benefits" question that the LitHub article pointed out, since frankly the medical and longterm care of a people varies nation to nation. I don't think we'd hit an answer on that today.


But we can talk about the pay for freelancers and how to both recruit and hire these professionals strategically.


Below is a simple overview of the key considerations found by Foreword Literary Consulting during the most recent Rate Transparency Survey and the 2023-2024 Contractor Experience Study. The full findings are available for purchase at forewordlitconsulting.com/reports.

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Without a doubt, there is range available online. What I encourage everyone to consider while pursuing this work -- whether they're publishing their own book or on behalf of an author as their publisher -- is to not skimp.


While Upwork and Fiverr feature rates as low as $5.00 for many of the independent craft deliverables that make up the production process, the average cost of living right now in the U.S. is $7.25/hour for full-time employees. You know...the ones with benefits? The combined taxes for current self-employed citizens in the U.S. is approximately 15.3%. While the contractor cannot tax you for this explicitly, you can confidently bet that this amount plus any sales tax and processing fees is considered in their delivered estimates for any potential work. It's a matter of business, just like those Embankment-adjacent publishers.


You'll see rates change depending on the experience level and aligned availability of the potential hire as well as the scope of work included. The Rate Transparency Survey covers exclusively the minimum rate charged by a contractor for any of the following deliverables for a project that is no more than 50k words, unillustrated, and not rushed:


  • Book Coaching (sampled below)

  • Ghostwriting

  • Developmental Editing

  • Line Editing

  • Copyediting

  • Proofreading

  • Cover Design

  • Interior Layout/Page Composition







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