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‘Do what you love’ the maxim goes, ‘and you’ll never work another day in your life’. What’s missing from this overly optimistic sentiment, though, is any notion of the economic disadvantages of working for love, not money. It’s this economic reality that is at the forefront of Books + Publishing’s recent report on employment in the Australian book industry, which shows that despite high levels of job satisfaction (83 per cent of book industry employees said they enjoy their jobs ‘to some degree’), a majority (61 per cent) of respondents also feel that their wages do not reflect their skills and experience.

This news will surprise no one currently employed in the industry, where low wages are the source of many a mildly despairing joke at the office Christmas party. Still, the figures in the B+P survey are sobering, if only because they lay bare that which we’ve long suspected. The average reported full-time wage for non-managerial publishing staff ranges from $52,265 per year for production staff to $62,347 per year for editorial. Things are even worse for booksellers, who reported an average full-time wage of $49,433 per year (an 8 per cent fall from the previous 2013 survey).

In contrast, the average full-time adult wage in Australia is $82,472 per year.

The self-reported figures in the B+P survey tally with a recent IBISWorld market research report into the Australian publishing industry, which estimated the average annual wage of a publishing industry employee in 2018 at $58,682. Yet the same report also debunks another pervasive rumour about publishing: namely, that it is a cottage industry, incapable of supporting higher wages.

There is a sense among well-meaning, book-loving publishing workers that low wages are indicative of a struggling business model, and that to ask for more, collectively, would be to further imperil the structural integrity of the industry – and thus literary culture itself. But, while Australian publishing is certainly facing challenges, the assumption that low wages are the only thing keeping the industry afloat is not supported by the numbers.

There is a sense among well-meaning, book-loving publishing workers that to ask for more, collectively, would be to imperil literary culture itself.

In fact, the Australian book publishing industry is predicted to earn $1.4 billion in revenue for the 2018/2019 financial year, with a profit of $109.7 million. Internationally, the world’s largest trade publisher, Penguin Random House, reported revenue of €3.36 billion in 2017 (around A$5.3 billion), with a pre-tax profit of €521 million ($825 million).

The IBISWorld report notes that in the publishing industry as a whole, ‘wage costs are moderate compared with purchase costs’ – in other words, staff are cheap compared to paper. In the 2018/2019 financial year, the report estimates that wage costs will account for only 19.43 per cent of total industry revenue, or $280.5 million. On average, publishing industry staff generate $302,000 of revenue per employee.

In this sense, compared to other creative industries, book publishing employees are uniquely good value. A similar market report into Australian art galleries and museums found wages accounted for 30 per cent of industry revenue, with an average wage of $60,942 and revenue of $202,000 per employee. The contrast with newspaper publishing is even more stark: there, wages account for 47 per cent of revenue, with an average wage of $93,729 per employee (!), and an average revenue of only $197,330 per person. This isn’t to suggest that any of the workers in these other industries have it easy, but it does show how deeply the ‘do more with less’ mentality has become entrenched within the book industry.

Outside of the creative industries, the same unfavourable comparisons still hold true: the average wage in the plumbing industry, for example, is $75,096 per year, while each employee accounts for only $269,3000 in revenue.

This particular comparison stings all the more for those of us sitting on large HECS debts, having assumed that our tertiary education would increase our value on the labour market. According to the B+P survey, 93 per cent of respondents in the publishing industry have a tertiary qualification, with 45 per cent having completed some form of postgraduate qualification. As I’ve written previously, on an average salary of $60,000, it will take many new graduates until the end of their working life to clear the HECS debt accumulated via a postgraduate qualification.

Being able to accept lower wages in order to do more creative work is a privilege, and not in the ‘we should be grateful’ sense.

Some of the downwards pressure on publishing wages can be attributed to the Book Industry Award, which sets the salary for ‘trainee’ book editors at $45,448 per year, while acknowledging that ‘persons at this level would normally be graduates or have previous experience in the publishing industry’. The award starting salary for fully qualified editors is $50,856. Contrast this to the figures in the most recent ‘Graduate Salaries’ report, which claims that the median starting salary for Bachelor-qualified graduates in 2015 was $54,000, while postgraduate diploma holders earned a median starting salary of $75,000, and masters graduates attracted a median salary of $80,000. (The survey also highlighted some fairly stark discrepancies between the salaries of men and women, despite the industry’s overwhelmingly female workforce – but that’s for another column.)

Despite these figures being common knowledge, there is very little in the way of agitation amongst publishing industry employees for higher wages on a collective scale – as of writing there has been no official comment on the B+P report from the industry’s union, the MEAA. Some of this silence can no doubt be attributed to job insecurity, and the niggling worry that being labelled a ‘troublemaker’ can only do more harm than good in an increasingly small, insular industry. Even I, writing this, worry a little about what being too outspoken might do for my future job prospects.

But being able to accept lower wages in order to do more creative work is a privilege, and not in the ‘we should be grateful’ sense. It is a privilege in that it is a luxury reserved for only those who can afford it, a self-selecting system that ensures that disadvantaged members of society never even make it into the interview rooms. For an industry that purports to understand the need for diverse voices, it is remarkable how non-diverse we remain: 93 per cent of respondents to the B+P survey were white. In this sense, once again, diversity is a class issue: by making a career in publishing possible only for the comparatively wealthy, we exclude the voices of those we most need at the heart of our cultural production. Asking for competitive wages is not just about adequate compensation, it about ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to choose to ‘do what they love’ and contribute to our literary culture, rather than just those who can afford to.