Multiple resignations from the editorial departments at two big houses caused an online reckoning on Friday. Four editors, Angeline Rodriguez and Hillary Sames at Orbit, Erin Siu at Macmillan Children’s, and Molly McGhee at Tor all announced their resignations, leading to a discussion about the workload of junior and mid-level employees and the difficulty of advancement across the industry. The online exchange brought into the open the frustrations of increased workload, burnout and turnover that have been brewing as the pandemic continues. Those feelings are intensified as big publishers report record sales and earnings, even as multiple people report on Twitter they believe their employers are not sufficiently reinvesting those proceeds in additional staff, systems and raises.
At the heart of the discussion was McGhee’s resignation letter which she posted on Twitter. McGhee, who was an assistant editor at Tor/Nightfire, writes that after ten years in assisting roles, she requested a promotion when her first acquisition debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times Best Sellers list. She says in her letter that she was told she needed “more training” before being promoted and she could not expect to be relieved of administration duties “any time within the next five years.”
McGhee pointed to “the invisibility of junior employees’ workload” as a major issue, asserting that “many executives in the publishing industry are technology illiterate” and rely on their assistants to manage databases, pull manuscripts, and navigate new technology, on top of the duties outlined in their job descriptions.
McGhee’s letter opened the floodgates to other people who have left editorial positions recently speaking openly about labor issues. As part of a thread, one former Penguin editor flagged “the fact that editorial productivity ONLY survives because of the exploitation of assistants.” Many others pointed out that the same pressures and frustration are being felt across all departments at publishing companies, though there may be less public awareness, and smart managers and veterans offered empathy and tips, and opened themselves up to consultation. A number of agents also underscored their own difficulties in establishing sustainable careers and keeping up with the workload and representing clients without overburdening editors, while emphasizing the broad financial hardship of converting “advances” into extended “guarantees” that are not paid in advance.
Former editor at Avon Books Elle Keck posted, “As one of the editors who left publishing this year, every editor you know, you’ve seen on Twitter, you’ve heard of: they are miserable and struggling. They’re tired of working all day, working at night, and feeling guilty if they take a weekend off.” Julie Rosenberg, formerly of Razorbill, also noted the “crushing guilt and anxiety” caused by the workload.
Speaking to PL, McGhee described this workload: “I worked with five editors during my time at [Tor parent division Tom Doherty Associates]. I always supported at least two editors, in addition to the publisher, all while building my own list. What this means is that I did all administrative work on my editors frontlist and backlist…. At one point in time I was tracking 150 frontlist titles across four seasons in one calendar year…. On top of doing this I was managing company calendars, scheduling my publisher’s meetings (publishers take a lot of meetings), reading my editors’ and publisher’s submissions, drafting contracts, executing deal memos, writing copy, positioning novels, networking to get to know agents as I chased my own submissions, training other junior employees, creating work flow systems to manage cross department care,” and much more.
McGhee emphasized that she loved working at Tor, but the amount of work was unmanageable, especially in light of the compensation. She said, “I think a lot of folks will view this as a disgruntled employee situation. It is not. I never thought I would leave TDA. I loved my editors, I loved my authors, and I loved my coworkers. But unfortunately the workload expectations and the pay were untenable. There was no way to communicate this to my managers in a way that was not seen as ‘poor time management,’ as they had never assisted/started in the technological environment junior and mid-level employees now face.”
On the topic of possible solutions, she noted that “admin assistants that work interdepartmentally (that is, who work with marketing, publicity, ad promo, production, contracts) will do a lot to alleviate the burnout across all departments and increase communication interdepartmentally.” She added that “investing in managing editorial will go a long way towards helping editorial assistants and editors focus on the actual art of acquiring and editing books.” Update: Moving forward, McGhee says she doesn’t know what she’ll do next. “I have a book about debt on submission, but I’m trying not to kill the editors it’s with. I might walk some dogs. My plan is to just see what happens next.” A spokesperson for Macmillan told PL the house “respectfully declines to comment at this point.”
We are continuing to report on this story. Feel free to share information with us in confidence through our Newsbox.