Are We Seeing a New Movement to Organize Publishing?
On @PublishersWeakly and Book Worker Power
In late April, a new account emerged from the recesses of Book Twitter: It was acerbic and funny, tweeting complaints that seemed lifted from covert Gchats, the messy tail end of publishing happy hours, and nightmares that end with someone getting fired. One of its tweets caught the attention of writer and organizer Amy Wilson: “RT if you really miss the ambience of a bookstore. The smell of the pages, the hushed conversations, browsing the tables and seeing that big 5 publishers routinely give six figure book deals to fascists.”
As the account gained about 3,000 followers in a day, Wilson created a survey to gauge other people’s responses to what it was saying, along with their interest in building collective power in the industry. About 100 people filled it out (full disclosure, myself included), after which Wilson created Book Worker Power, an organizing Slack where they and others could connect.
I interviewed her by email to ask about addressing long-standing labor issues in publishing, coalition-building during a pandemic, and what lessons other industries hold for book workers.
What is your personal connection to the publishing industry, and how did Book Worker Power begin?
Book Worker Power grew out of the overwhelming response to the anonymous Publisher’s Weakly Twitter account. I saw an early Tweet of theirs that made the very bold statement “big 5 publishers routinely give six figure book deals to fascists” and my instant reaction was “I need to talk to the people behind this!” I was struck by the courage it took for the account’s owners to make such bold statements about the publishing industry. Through networks and a little bit of Twitter sleuthing, I was quickly able to track down the authors of the account and talk with them about their goals. Because they wanted to remain anonymous, I offered myself as a contact for people who liked the account (which was quickly gathering momentum and attention). Within less than 24 hours, over 100 people filled out a survey I created with the title “Building Worker Power in the World of Books.” That swift, mass response showed me right away that there was an enormous amount of energy and a hunger for these conversations in the book world, defined broadly.
I am a writer, a volunteer organizer, a student in Labor Studies at CUNY, and a member of the volunteer leadership team for a small literary journal. In 2014, when I had just moved to NYC, I started working as an assistant in the public programs department at Housing Works Bookstore. During my first year in NYC, I worked every literary event that the bookstore held, which at that time was scheduling three to four a week, every week. In that capacity I interacted with a lot of fellow assistants to coordinate the administration of author appearances, book donations, et cetera. I met a lot of famous (and cult-famous, and emerging) writers in a short period of time, serving them beer and seltzers and asking them to sign audio release forms. I also became close with the staff of the bookstore and cafe, some of whom were later involved in the unionization efforts at Housing Works through RWDSU.
These experiences amounted to a crash course in the literary world of NYC. I met a lot of wonderful people and saw great literary talent, but I also experienced first-hand what I would later come to understand as an elitist closed culture pervasive in publishing. I cleaned up empty bottles and cake plates after book launch parties. A famous critic peered down my blouse. At the age of 26, having spent my early working life at a literary nonprofit in the Detroit area, I was told those experiences meant nothing because I had acquired them outside of NYC. At the time, being new in NYC and eager to find my way, I didn’t feel I had others to discuss my observations with and internalized a message that I wasn’t good enough (well read enough, well dressed enough, thin and beautiful enough, attended the right schools enough) to succeed.
After leaving the bookstore I worked in a series of retail and customer service jobs, but I retained my interest in publishing and in the literary culture of NYC and nationwide. In early 2020 I started having a series of one-on-one conversations with others I knew personally or through networks on what they saw as the main issues in publishing. Everyone agreed that something must be done, but no one knew exactly what would be right. Those conversations shaped my understanding of the ongoing issues in publishing and reinforced my belief that organization in this industry is long overdue. The idea that a small group of us were tossing around was to have a book workers’ town hall in New York City to start a collective conversation. In a way, the Book Worker Power space is that town hall.
Right now is a particularly challenging time for publishing along with many other industries, with everyone feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. How might those circumstances affect an organizing process? (Are there any opportunities afforded by the timing?)
I think the events of the last weeks would not have been possible under normal circumstances. One hallmark of the Book Worker Power group that is forming so far is that it truly is a nationwide, mixed group. Our members’ willingness to join a digital organizing space was definitely influenced by the move of so much of many people’s lives to virtual contact.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not good for anyone other than capitalists who profit off human disaster and suffering. Sources say Jeff Bezos’ wealth has grown by the billions in 2020 alone. Although our intermediate targets of organizing might be employers or others who hold power in the publishing industry, a true workers’ movement must keep in mind the larger social dynamics and material conditions it moves within. The United States working class is up against a very small number of very powerful people, known and unknown, who have a wildly unfair degree of control over our daily lives. We must not lose sight of that truth.
Although everyone is feeling the coronavirus pandemic, we are all experiencing it in different ways based on our social position. As book workers, we recognize that retail and warehouse workers are those among us most directly threatened by the pandemic. Organizing to support them has been an early priority and we are continuing to build our power to take action on that front. I encourage those reading this who have a platform in the book-making industry of any sort to use that platform to uplift mutual aid funds run by laid-off or furloughed booksellers. As a community this is the least we can do.
Your initial Google form asked book workers who were interested in organizing to respond with their contact (an email, phone number, or social media handle) and a general idea of the issues they would like to address, and the responses ranged widely, from unionization to addressing diversity and inclusion and de-centering New York City, etc. How do you identify priorities and places for immediate action?
I’d like to clarify that the initial form also allowed respondents to indicate that they wanted to be anonymous. I wanted to be as sensitive as possible to the varying needs of those who might respond to such a survey and have committed to keeping the personal information that was shared by that method private. I feel that as a responsibility and it’s one I take very seriously.
After I closed the survey, I anonymized the responses to my question about priorities and sent them out as a PDF to the respondents. I did this because I wanted to be transparent and also because I wanted to demonstrate to all those who had put their trust in me by filling out the survey that they were not alone in their concerns. That PDF is the first thing I encourage new people to read when they reach out to me asking about how to join the group. Our conversation about priorities must be collective and that’s a lot of what we are doing right now in our organizing Slack.
Our first campaign came together quickly. On May 1, International Workers’ Day, we ran a campaign on Twitter encouraging book workers to stand in solidarity with retail and warehouse workers taking action in their workplaces. Some ideas that have already come out of the group are a letter-writing campaign to ask review sites to discontinue using Amazon affiliate links, a social media campaign highlighting the material effect of low starting wages on the publishing industry’s diversity, and a project that would connect unions and labor groups collecting stories of front-line essential workers with high-profile outlets like Lit Hub and Electric Literature.
One of the themes that is readily apparent in the responses is a sense of deep dismay and concern about the book world’s entanglement with Amazon. This is such a large question that it’s easy for individuals to become discouraged. It is bigger than any individual can address on their own, and it is bigger than even a very large, well-organized group could address on its own. But, as an organizer in the left movement of NYC, I am very aware that there are multiple organized groups working against Amazon—from immigrant justice groups highlighting Amazon’s collaboration with ICE, to tenants’ rights organizations who opposed the development of Amazon’s HQ2 in Long Island City, to warehouse workers who are self-organizing at their worksites. My personal hope is that Book Worker Power can become an active participant in these deep coalitions for social justice here in NYC and in other cities across the US.
While a variety of issues and priorities have been identified by Book Worker Power’s early members, I wouldn’t say they range widely. These issues are all connected. We are talking about how low wages in publishing, combined with historically racist urban practices like redlining, contribute to the crisis of ethnic diversity and decision-making in this industry. As book workers, we are also tenants facing predatory landlords, immigrants under siege from ICE, students and patients burdened with debt. A 21st-century organizing model incorporates all of these different identities rather than seeing them as separate.
“Book workers” can mean everyone from editorial assistants to warehouse workers and retail booksellers, which covers a wide variety of labor experiences. It seems like many of the initial responses to your efforts (on Slack and social media) are coming from people on the editorial and publicity side of publishing. Have there been other union movements to successfully organize across a supply chain like this? If not, how do you address the hurdles of doing so?
Thank you for asking this question! “Book workers” is a deliberately broad framing and I’ve been delighted at the response our early organizing has received from all across the industry. Editorial and publicity workers have been involved heavily, but we’ve also seen a strong response from booksellers. Members of the Book Workers Union, the independent union that just formed at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, were early supporters of this effort and have taken a leadership role in sharing experiences from their own organizing process. Most excitingly to me, I’ve also heard from a lot of people who (like me) have held peripheral/supporting roles in publishing or have left publishing, due to economic hardship, alienation as a minority, or other factors that directly speak to the changes we hope to see in this industry.
I am inspired by union movements that take an expansive vision of organizing. One wonderful example of that from the recent past is the “Red for Ed” movement of teachers in West Virginia. Those teacher-organizers were deliberate in seeing a school as a diverse work-site, having conversations with para-professionals, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers, and encouraging solidarity among these disparate groups. Teachers and teachers’ unions have also been leaders in involving community members (parents, neighborhood groups, faith groups) in their worker organizing and in advocating for social justice demands, as in the recent example of the Chicago Teachers Union who successfully struck for reduced class sizes and wraparound social services for their most vulnerable students.
Another recent campaign that inspires me is the 2014 “Hands Up, Don’t Ship” action by UPS workers in Minneapolis, wherein workers refused to ship packages for a law enforcement company that sold police targets with images of black men. This was done in solidarity with the Ferguson protests after the police killing of Mike Brown. Solidarity among a broad class of workers, up and down a supply chain, or from a warehouse to a bookstore, is not the same thing as saying “we all have the same problems.” It is an acknowledgment that our struggles are connected and an embodiment of the phrase “an injury to one is an injury to all.” An important first step in this challenging, long-term project of organizing the book industry is first raising our collective consciousness and understanding of the entire ecosystem through which books are written, produced, sold, marketed, and read.
How would you advise early-career workers in publishing who are interested in these efforts but don’t know where to begin? How about those who want to join this effort but are worried about retaliation?
The fear of retaliation is very present and for good reason. Workers have faced serious consequences for organizing. That to me is in itself one of the biggest factors proving the necessity of a supportive organizing space and networks in this industry. The intense fear I have encountered among young book workers when faced with even the slightest hint of organizing activity is among the strongest condemnations possible of this industry. Workers have the right to organize. I’m not the first to point out that the book industry likes to see itself through rose-colored glasses as a liberal industry with good values. Yet how can that be true when its own workers live in fear of challenging the status quo?
In specific terms, I’ve tried my best to give appropriate direction and set boundaries for the space while also letting it develop organically. Some within the group have raised concerns that it may not be a safe place for those who are at risk of losing their jobs if they participate in organizing. Sadly, that is true and I encourage all those who may be considering joining to carefully weigh their level of risk and make the best decision for themselves, perhaps in consultation with a trusted coworker or mentor. Some have also expressed reservations about the open nature of the space, in that it may include managers and supervisors as well as hourly waged workers. That is a fair criticism. That said, there is strength and safety in numbers and in the work of building a community with relationships of trust. Many social justice movements use the phrase “we keep us safe” to encompass this idea, which I think is a truly powerful one.
This question also leads again to larger conversations about workers’ movements and social justice in the United States. The leverage an employer has over its employees is a job, but in this country jobs are tied to healthcare for many. That raises the stakes enormously for individuals, who cannot afford to lose health coverage for themselves and their dependents. Book Worker Power, as an organized group, can participate in organizing toward Medicare for All and other universal social programs that will empower the working class as a whole and, in the long-term, mitigate the potential consequences of workplace organizing.
When people hear “organizing” they tend to think “union” and that’s fair, but can be limiting. I’m personally open to a diversity of tactics in organizing and hope that, as it grows, our Book Worker Power project will be too. A traditional union drive is just one tactic in a modern organizer’s toolbox. Union drives are complicated, often messy, and always take time and deep work to accomplish. Because it is quite a public effort, open to anyone who can find either the link to the Slack or my email address, Book Worker Power cannot be the space where unions are formed—but I hope that it can be a space where disgruntled workers encounter experienced organizers, get connected to resources, work together on projects, and develop their own sense of what might be possible at their work site. Worker actions like the recent Hachette walkout protesting the acquisition of Woody Allen’s memoir provide a blueprint for collective action around and outside of unions. A young organizer at a Big 5 publishing house, facing enormous pressure not to discuss salary information with her coworkers, started an anonymous salary transparency spreadsheet that has received over 100 responses. Using power builds power.
Building power through alternative institutions or what a Gramscian scholar would call “counter-hegemony” is also an important potentiality of the Book Worker Power conversation. We can work to reform traditional literary publishing and also envision alternatives to the past models and practices that have led us to this current moment. One of the conversations I’ve been excited to see take off in our space is among workers in distribution, discussing alternatives to the corporate behemoths of Amazon and Ingram. I’m also excited that we have workers in our space with direct experience of worker-owned cooperatives, such as Pilsen Community Books in Chicago.
Workers are hurt in material ways by vindictive and retaliatory practices, and they are also hurt by the conditions that lead them to want to organize in the first place. I urge those with hiring and firing power in publishing and bookstores to behave with compassion and respect for workers’ right to organize.