HarperCollins strike could decide what you read for years to come



It’s been more than a month since Laura Harshberger, a senior production editor at HarperCollins, stopped producing children’s books and went on strike with more than 200 colleagues in New York City.

“We are not striking against our job, but for our jobs,” she told The Washington Post. “We want to work for HarperCollins, but we want to work for them with dignity, respect and fair wages.”

The striking workers who are from editorial, sales, publicity, design, legal and marketing departments have three demands: HarperCollins should raise the minimum starting salary from $45,000 to $50,000; the company should address the lack of diversity in its work force; and it should provide more security for unionized workers.

In an open letter to authors and agents, HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray said that the company’s current compensation offerings are consistent with peers in the publishing industry.

Workers say that is precisely the problem. “The industry has long been notorious for low salaries. But while the world has changed and the cost-of-living increases, publishing has not changed with it,” said David Palmer, a senior production editor at HarperCollins.

HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., is one of the five top publishers in the United States.

The outcome of the strike, which began Nov. 10, could go well beyond whether junior editors can afford to live in New York City, and may have a ripple effect on jobs across the publishing industry. Its impact may be seen in the quantity and diversity of books that are published for years to come, including whether a book is published because it is good, novel and unique, or whether it’s just a book that CEOs believe will make money.

On their way into the industry, young staffers are told about low pays, long hours and that they are replaceable. PEN America recently reported that “the publishing industry, and the books it puts out, remain disproportionately white,” and people of color who are part of the industry are overwhelming bundled at the bottom of the ladder. As rent in New York City, the heart of publishing, rises, the question of who can afford to work in publishing looms large.

“No one is doing their best work when they are worried about making rent,” said Stephanie Guerdan, an associate editor at HarperCollins. “Without a fair contract, only those who can afford to work in publishing will stay.”

Guerdan has been at HarperCollins for six years. She juggles 25 books and their authors on her own — editing manuscripts, coordinating with marketing, and more — and assists her editors with scores more. She describes being an associate editor as a “dream job,” but adds: “No one should have to put their life on hold and make financial sacrifices to do the job they love.”

“I wish I could be editing right now,” she said. “Instead, the management’s refusal to negotiate with the union has led us to stand outside in the cold.”

Some of the striking workers have been in the industry for decades. Palmer, who has been in publishing for 30 years, said he decided to strike “primarily to help the people who are starting their careers, and who hopefully won’t have to put in 30 years before they can live in NYC without a roommate.”

Outside of HarperCollins, industry professionals such as Molly McGhee believe that the result of the strike will set a precedent for the type of books readers will get to read for years to come.

“In the last decade, book outputs have increased and editorial staff has decreased,” said McGhee, who has worked for various publishers for eight years. “Unless enough diverse editors have the time to read and push forward unique books, CEOs will only greenlight the types of books that have previously made money.”

The skewed ratio of books to editors leads to “crashing” — a term used describe the process of rushing books through production. Sometimes, crashing can be planned, but more often it happens because editors can’t spare the time a book deserves.

“One out of every 20 books can be ‘crashed,’ but right now, the statistic is closer to 10 out of 20,” said McGhee.

“Reading is a love that is cultivated, and right now, publishing houses are disrespecting readers by putting out books that are being rushed through production,” said McGhee. “It’s an open secret that agents are filling in editorial roles because editors are swamped.”

Striking workers said that readers are also being adversely affected in the short term.

Readers are not learning about books the way they did a month ago because most of the social media team is striking, said Harshberger. “They will also not have access to as many reviews because we have asked reviewers to hold publishing reviews until the strike is over,” she said.

Another concern for readers is that some agents and authors are not submitting new projects to HarperCollins until the strike ends, and this will delay production for readers, said Harshberger.

A HarperCollins spokesperson said in an email to the The Post that the protracted strike has not impacted book sales, marketing plans or publishing timelines for the company. But striking workers said that their non-striking colleague have told them the company is scrambling for temps and interns.

These are the busiest weeks of the year because editors try to wrap up as much as possible before the holidays, said Guerdan.

“Instead of spending money on temps, it would be smart for the company to get us back to the bargaining table and back to work,” she said.

HarperCollins workers have had a union since before the company was bought by Murdoch in the 1980s. When workers last went on strike in 1974, it went on for almost three weeks before a new contract was agreed upon.

Olga Brudastova, the president of the Local 2110 of the U.A.W, which represents HarperCollins’s unionized employees, remembers two “particularly long” strikes from the past: one at Barnard College in the 1990s and the other at the Museum of Modern Art in the 2000s.

“Workers prevailed in both strikes,” she said. “Once a contract is successfully bargained the positive effects last for a long time.”

Many of the striking workers said that this strike is larger than HarperCollins and that it will cause a ripple effect throughout the industry. “There is so much at stake for the publishing industry,” said Harshberger. “When we defeat these artificially low wages, the entire industry will be guaranteed a living wage.”

HarperCollins told The Post that it has been negotiating in good faith for more than a year with the union and agreed to numerous proposals that the union is seeking to include in a new contract.

“We remain ready to continue our negotiations with the union and to reach agreement on a contract that is fair to both employees and the company,” HarperCollins spokesperson Erin Crum said via email.

Guerdan said that it was the union that made the last move. About a week before the strike began, the union put a proposal on the table, but the company walked away and later said they would be rejecting the offer, she said.

“The ball is in their court. We can’t be bargaining against ourselves,” she said. “They can call us back to the table. Until then, we will be here in the cold for as long as it takes.”

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