An Optimist's Take on the Trade Publishing Strikes and the Growing Freelance Workforce
"No one chooses to leave a job to go freelance. You end up there by circumstance."
Oh, to have a penny for each time I heard this in my first five months of self-employment. I'd be able to pay off my quarterly taxes with ease.
To be clear, I needed to hear this and it certainly made the sting of building a business portfolio from scratch easier to bear. There's power in community, comfort in treading paths carefully worn by others in their journeys. That's our human nature, and it's the essence of what makes stories an evergreen commodity. We learn through the mistakes of others from fables, allegories, and (more recently) true crimes of others, and we take refuge in knowing that we aren't alone in the world by seeing ourselves reflected on page, on screen. There is someone out there, somewhere, that gets it.
This need and desire for confirmation and communion doesn't always work in our favor though. If we rewind to four years ago, we'd see me sitting in a gray office, learning the operations of an established Manhattan literary agency and being told:
"It [publishing employee expectations] is definitely behind the times, but it's where we are right now. Hopefully, our generation of agents will change this."
And so I sat, and I waited, and I ground away at a job that couldn't pay my part of a split rent with the hope that one day I'd move up the ladder enough to save another from that expectation of invisible labor and sacrifice.
In 2021, I decided I couldn't wait anymore. I was tired of expecting things to change on their own, so I sought work that I believed would offer equity, fair pay, and progress for the industry. (Spoiler alert: it did about 30% of that, at best.)
But the world kept shifting too, and for the first time in years, I am unabashedly hopeful for Publishing as a whole. Because amidst the turmoil, turnover, and unrest happening in the headlines, there's opportunity brewing. We're on the precipice of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" profession.
Come daydream with me for a minute?
A Quick Recap of Industry Headlines
Since each of these could warrant at minimum two blogs on their own, we're going to hop, skip, and jump through the chilling and illuminating reports of employee unrest through many publishing sectors.
Publishers: If you've read 4%* of industry headlines this year, you have seen the word "Strike" or "Unionize" at least twice. HarperCollins got hit the hardest, with strikes beginning in 2022 leading into early this year. The publisher was making headlines as late as July 2023 thanks to the Unit Chair for the union being let go. Across many of the Big 5, the minimum compensation has only just passed the $50,000.00 mark, which is only a bodega bagel and a dollar slice higher than the minimum wage for New York City (where many employees live thanks to onsite work requirements). And, thanks to the lack of opportunity to move above this first rung afforded to newer hires, voluntary separation packages became a near-normal offering to more tenured staff.
*I made this number up on the spot, but honestly, it's more likely to be an undervaluation rather than an exaggeration.
Booksellers: On the bookseller's front, Barnes & Noble workers unionized to fight for higher pay. Similarly, employees at independent bookstores nationwide are unionizing to standardize benefits to employees and fair pay. The list includes Portland's Powell's and Denver's Tattered Cover.
Writers: And lest we forget the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes that put our favorite TV series on hold. While it appeared Hollywood-centric on many levels, you don't have to sleuth far to see that there are clear ties to all writing professions. I mean, hell, we had to put audiobooks on hold until receiving union approval for its members to continue any concurrent narration and production efforts.
Agents: This one particularly hit home for me. In late September, the Association of American Literary Agents reported the results of their bi-annual membership survey which highlighted that 69% of agents felt low salaries to be a critical industry issue, with 55% of respondents reporting burnout. Perhaps the most troubling result: despite all the talk and reported efforts to increase representation through DEI across most workforces in the U.S., 21% of BIPOC respondents to the survey reported burnout to the point they worry whether or not they can continue in publishing. Not agenting, publishing as a whole.
Freelancing Growth in the U.S.
Freelancing is having a moment. Whether you call it "contracting" or having a "portfolio career," it's at the forefront of many business discussions.
And with good reason. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of freelancers in the U.S. increased over 20% YoY to the point that freelancers made up 36% of the domestic labor force (70.4 million out of 164.3 million). And 2021 was pivotal on its own for the freelance market, representing the shift to a predominantly skills or labor-focused freelancer market over the consulting and knowledge-based model of years prior. The majority of freelancers work within the Art & Design fields at a whopping 77%.
This isn't a strictly U.S.-based phenomenon. Freelancers, or "self-employed" workers, compose 46.4% of the global workforce (equalling 1.57 billion professionals).
At the time of this article being written, there are a reported 73.3 million freelancers in the U.S. This 3-million increase is expected to reiterate through to 2028, at which point we'll have a project 90.1 million freelancers in the U.S.
In terms of demographics, women are more likely to freelance in the U.S. and Hispanic and Black individuals are more likely to freelance compared to their white or Asian counterparts. Additionally, 51% of freelance professionals have post-graduate degrees. (16% higher than any other education level!) Nearly 50% of Gen Z report previously or currently working freelance, with the preceding generations steadily dropping that rate until reaching 26% of Baby Boomers. As Gen Z composes more of the workforce, we can expect more growth in the "portfolio" career model.
Most impressively, in my opinion, 36% of freelancers are statistically considered "successful," meaning they earn $75,000.00 or more annually, a figure that only 15% of individual earners in the U.S. achieve annually.
And if the pay wasn't alluring enough, freelancers report a higher satisfaction across all major work considerations.
In their "Freelance Forward 2022" research, Upwork cited the spur for freelance work as:
"Over the past two years "quitting" has dominated the headlines. Some professionals were quitting their jobs in search of more flexible and fulfilling work, others were prioritizing a greater balance between work and life, and some were exploring their entrepreneurial side and starting new side businesses."
And they're spot on. Acknowledging that the Coronavirus pandemic disrupted all work patterns and forced everyone to re-evaluate their day-to-day lives, we're more willing to think about freelance work than ever before, let alone pursue it. And with the continual rise of inflation and baseline cost of living three years later, many at least supplement their income with freelance "gigs" to make ends meet and prioritize their financial goals.
What This Could Offer Publishing
To be clear, I'm not recommending everyone in Publishing pack up their desks and pivot to a full-time freelance career. I'm not going to sit here and say that I figured it all out in five months. I'm not going to say that the security of employment benefits isn't incredibly appealing at times.
But I do think there's something to be said about the issues at hand and the narratives we tell ourselves about working in Publishing and freelancing.
If we're seeing the largest companies -- those who have historically monopolized applicant interest -- increasingly unable to provide fair compensation, equal treatment, and growth opportunities to employees because of ultimate overhead costs at the same time that the freelance community is becoming more skills-based, more fulfilled across all measurable factors, and more prominent in the labor force...why wouldn't we capitalize on this for the benefit of all participants?
In my opinion, independent and hybrid publishers are the most poised to benefit from the current trends. Those teams that rely on freelancers to supplement or wholly complete editorial or production elements will see an increase in talent on the market. And those looking to gain entry into the industry will be able to cut their teeth within the freelance market.
In my "Choose Your Own Adventure," Publishing adopts the versatility of the current market to foster talent not only among the writers deciding between trade, hybrid, and self-publishing models but also among the talented workers who commit their careers to making it all possible.
What would yours look like?
Additional Data re: U.S. Freelance Labor Force sourced from:
Zippia. "How Many Freelancers Are There In The U.S.?" Zippia.com. Feb. 27, 2023, https://www.zippia.com/advice/how-many-freelancers-in-the-us/