A response to Maris Kreizman: publishing runs on gig workers — just like any creative industry

A recent piece by Maris Kreizman in LitHub bemoans the rise of “gig work” in publishing — and in particular the freelancer-driven model being pursued by the new publishing venture Author’s Equity.

What naive and misguided claptrap.

What’s Kreizman’s objection?

In an essay titled “Publishing Models That Rely on Gig Workers Are Bad For Everybody,” Kreizman pines for the days when publishing was made up of exclusive enclaves of classically educated literary wretches sorting through the slush piles and cleverly marking up copy with red pencils:

Authors Equity boasts a new business model that might appeal to a certain and select group of authors: instead of being paid advances on book earnings, authors will share in any profits their book generates. Regular publishers already make profit share deals with high profile authors, so what’s innovative about this new company? Minimal overhead. As the Times reported, “The publishing team for each book, including editors, publicists and marketers will be assembled from a growing pool of freelancers. Authors and their agents will help decide who gets hired.”

These lines stopped me cold. Rather than offering book workers the stability and benefits of full-time employment, Authors Equity will rely on the gig economy to get the job done. Look a little more closely, and “growing pool of freelancers” is a terrible euphemism for “jobs are disappearing and more and more of us are fighting for scraps by competing for freelance gigs.” Authors Equity wouldn’t be the first media company to choose to work with freelancers rather than a staff. I’ve watched such decisions destroy so much of the ecosystem of journalism and contribute to the length of a massive strike in TV writing and production, and I would hate to see it happening in the book industry too.

Regardless of how you feel about how such arrangements are detrimental to labor, these kinds of cost-cutting measures also very rarely make the finished output better. I absolutely believe that all authors, even the future wannabe kings of the Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous list who Authors Equity is clearly courting (Tim Ferris and James Clear are investors), will benefit if the people working on their books have job stability and healthcare. There’s also something to be said for the kind of institutional knowledge that only full-time employees can bring to the table.

Freelance talent abounds. Why insist on full-time workers?

The publishing industry has shrunk. It employs fewer people than it used to. Ask any publishing staffer about “the stability and benefits of full-time employment” and you’ll hear little more than a wry snort.

Structurally, the industry is struggling. The rise of Amazon has driven Borders and many independent bookstores out of business. It’s harder and harder to identify and publish books that will sell profitably.

Publishers have already abdicated responsibility for many of the tasks they used to do. Publicity is now mostly the author’s job, not the publisher’s. And many nonfiction publishers tell me they expect the author to deliver a publishable manuscript — meaning that it’s typically the author’s job to hire their own editor to punch the work into shape.

Those left in the publishing industry are likely to have had a long tenure. That often means traditional thinking. Top management at publishers in this challenging financial environment tends to be risk-averse. Ironically, this makes it even less likely that whatever the next breakout original idea is, that a publisher will embrace it and support it. If it’s got a high perceived risk, editors are unlikely to want to put their jobs on the line for it.

We can lament the bygone days of publishing innovation, as Kreizman clearly does. But we can’t bring them back.

In this environment, why are poorly paid full-time publishing workers inherently superior to a team of talented freelancers?

Like it or not, one effect of the shrinking of traditional publishing is that there is now more freelance publishing talent available than ever before.

The freelance developmental editors I’ve worked with — many who were formerly with major publishers — are amazingly creative and diligent. These days, if you publish nonfiction, you’re more likely to find a good editor willing to help you working freelance than at a publisher.

The best and most experienced publicists work for freelance PR firms.

Publishers already tend to outsource cover design, because there is so much top-notch freelance design talent available.

Copyeditors are often freelance. Page layout teams are often freelance.

Calling these terrific talents “gig workers” isn’t really fair. They may be part of services collectives, or they may be independent, but they’re typically making a fine living doing excellent work. Established publicists, freelance developmental editors, copy editors, and designers aren’t starving.

I do a developmental edit on about five books a year at around $25,000 a piece, and ghostwrite one a year at about $90K. I pay my own health insurance (thank you, Affordable Care Act) and support my wife, an artist. And I only work about half-time. You can call me a “gig worker” if you want, but I think of myself as a top publishing services professional with a highly flexible schedule, working only on projects I believe in.

According to her own site, Maris Kreizman is an “essayist and critic with a bi-weekly column at Lit Hub whose work has appeared in the The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The LA Times, Vanity Fair . . . and more.” In other words, she’s a freelance writer, also known as a gig worker. If gig workers are inferior, why are so many writers working this way?

There are thousands of writing and editing professionals like Kreizman and me. Why wouldn’t a publishing house embrace the value we provide?

About the Author’s Equity model

Author’s Equity is a combination publishing services company and publisher. It shares more of the risk and more of the reward with the author. That’s part of a trend in publishing, and it’s a model that’s ideal for authors who already have a big name and ability to promote, or those who want more control over their process.

As Kreizman notes, publishers who offer minimal or zero advances and profit sharing are not new. One author I advise just got a contract worded exactly like that.

Such an offer may still be worth taking, because the publisher is still paying for book production, manufacturing, and distribution.

Hybrid publishers — those that you pay to publish your book — are rapidly growing because many nonfiction and how-to authors want more control over their process. If you are an author with the ability to drive sales of your book and profit from it through, say, consulting or speaking, you can often make more money in a hybrid model. I’ve done this for my latest book and three books I ghostwrote, and it worked great. I made back the fee I paid for my latest book with just one ghostwriting gig that the book landed for me.

Author’s Equity occupies a space between traditional publishing and hybrid — where the author and publisher are partners who share both risk and reward. And speaking as an author, I find the opportunity to have more control alluring.

For many authors, a publisher like Author’s Equity may be just what they need. Why would you give up control and profits when you could have a partner that gives you more of both?

From the author’s perspective, the publisher’s job is to help the book be great and get it out in the market. If it uses freelance talent to do that, why would that even matter?

This freelance-focused model already works in other creative industries

Let’s say you want to make a movie. What do you need?

You need somebody to run the project: a producer. You may hire this person freelance, or they may work for a studio.

You need financing. You may raise that money yourself, or work with a studio. And you need to partner with a studio for distribution.

You need talent: writers, actors, set designers, costumers, cinematographers, sound people, editors, special effects, and so on. This team likely assembles just for this project. They’re freelancers. “Gig” workers.

All of this comes together for the project. And when the project is done, much of the talent moves on to other projects.

If you’re creating music, you’re probably doing something similar.

There’s nothing nefarious or evil about this. It’s just a more efficient way to produce movies and music than having a bunch of resources employed by the studio and waiting around between projects.

Could publishing work this way?

It may not be only way to make a book. But it certainly is one way.

And it’s going to be more and more prevalent in the times to come.

You can fight it. Or you can embrace it.

It’s a shame that that a job in publishing is no longer the comfortable and traditional way of life that it used to be. But that’s no reason to hide from innovation, or be afraid of working with freelancers.

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One Comment

  1. Good commentary on this, including your analogy to “Indie” music business. That’s why I think “indie publishing” is a better term than self-publishing. Relatable and connotes a more professional product.