Books

Novel Problems

I’m thrilled to be publishing my first novel. Except I’m doing it at HarperCollins, where there’s a strike with no end in sight.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 15: Employees of HarperCollins Publisher participate in a strike outside the company's offices in Manhattan on November 15, 2022 in New York City. The strikers, who work in a variety of departments at the company, have been bargaining for a union contract since December 2021. Salary, and a commitment to diversity and union security rights are some of the demands the workers have presented to the company. The union, Local 2110 of the UAW, represents more than 250 HarperCollins employees in the design, editorial legal, marketing, publicity, and sales departments. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
This image is from Nov. 15. There’s been no movement from HarperCollins since. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Today, my first novel is being published. It’s the culmination of seven years of work and, uh, a large number of years of dreaming of writing a novel. Publication day for a debut novel can be a little overwhelming, I’m told—you’ve got all those TV news producers begging you for interviews. (They haven’t called me yet, but I assume they will soon.) Overall, though, pub day ought to be a time of joy, if slightly nervous joy: A thing you made, and care deeply about, is finally making its way into the world!

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But for me, and for a lot of other authors this winter, publication day is feeling a little bittersweet. That’s because we’re being published by HarperCollins.

About 200 HarperCollins publishing employees, primarily younger assistants and associates, have been on strike since November. Their demands are not outlandish and reflect the issues facing junior employees across publishing: They want the company’s minimum starting salary increased from $45,000 to $50,000. They want the publisher to address diversity issues at the company. They also want to ensure all eligible employees are in the union.

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I’ve loved my publishing experience with HarperCollins. Everyone I’ve worked with has been a smart adviser and a fierce advocate for a slightly weird first novel in a challenging marketplace. And yet, since November, part of me has worried about today, knowing how conflicted I’d feel. Because the publishing company that’s set to collect money from the sales of my book has not budged. Directed, I have to think, by its owners, the corporate behemoth News Corp, HarperCollins hasn’t even sat down to negotiate since the strike began—despite the chaos that the disappearance of 200 employees has caused, despite the pleas of many HarperCollins authors, and despite employees walking the chilly picket line outside headquarters daily.

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So here’s my novel, which I’ve spent years on. And here’s my desire to feel joy and excitement about its arrival. And here’s my sadness that many of the assistants and designers and marketers and salespeople who have helped get my book into stores remain poorly paid and disrespected. It creates a real dissonance—and I’m not the only one feeling it.

“I feel the exact same way,” said Laura Zigman, whose novel Small World was published last week by Ecco, a Harper imprint. Zigman supports the strikers; she was a junior editor at a publishing house once upon a time, she said, and “can’t even imagine how much worse it is now.” And she feels her desire to help her book into the world conflicting with her concern for the young employees at the house who are walking the picket lines.

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“It’s a total bummer,” said Sean Adams, whose novel The Thing in the Snow was published earlier this month, even though his editor was on strike. “You work so long on a book, and you dream of putting it out—and your editor and your marketing person and your publicist, they’re all basically helping you achieve this dream.” It saddens him, he said, to know that for many of those people, working at HarperCollins is no kind of a dream at all.

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The problem is that authors, though the public-facing emblems of a publishing house, don’t actually work for the house and don’t know what’s going on there. “I support the union, and I want them to be paid more,” said Michael Schulman, whose book Oscar Wars will be published in February. “And I certainly think that News Corp has the money to pay people more. The tricky thing, though, is knowing exactly what to do about it as an author.

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“We’re stuck in the middle,” he said.

It’s a grueling feeling, one I share. “I put so many hours of work into this thing,” Adams said. “I want it to be a success! I want to be able to promote it. But I also want to show my support of the union.” This has led to authors trying to hedge a bit, combining self-promotion with overt displays of union support: tweets or Instagram posts supporting strikers, along with photos of book covers and links to the union Bookshop.org link. The union, knowing how important author support is to their cause, helps: They’ll retweet you and send out photos if you walk the picket line with them. Another example of such hedging might be, for example, publishing a whole essay about your strike-related feelings on your book’s publication date.

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Exacerbating those feelings (and enriching the essay!) is the fact that my novel is, in part, about the travails of young publishing employees, and the responsibilities of more experienced ones. Vintage Contemporaries follows an idealistic book lover, Emily, through her career—first as a literary agent’s assistant, and later as an editor at a publishing house. As an assistant, she’s overworked, underpaid, and dismissed. Through initiative and skill, she single-handedly raises a novelist’s career from the dead by selling their new book to a big publisher and, promised a share of the proceeds by her boss, is handed a $100 bill. When she can’t take it anymore, she departs for a job at a publishing house and never looks back.

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A decade and a half later, her situation is entirely different. She’s a senior editor at a New York house, where she has the ear of Peter, the brilliant editorial director, and a great deal of freedom. She also feels responsibility to the younger employees—her first job after the agency was as Peter’s assistant, and she thinks of herself as both a protector of and an inspiration for the women who have followed her in that chair. But she realizes, belatedly, that those assistants and other junior employees don’t view her, or the workplace, the way she does at all. What does she owe the company, and Peter, and what does she owe her younger colleagues, who are now going through their versions of what she went through long ago?

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So what do I owe the young striking employees of HarperCollins? Should I be delivering public statements about my support for the union? Sure, that’s easy. But is that enough? Isn’t the success of my book also success for a company that’s currently behaving in a way I can’t agree with? Should I be withholding my labor and refusing to promote my book entirely?

No, said Rachel Kambury, a striking associate editor at HarperCollins. “That’s not your responsibility,” she said. “We don’t want to harm HarperCollins authors.” Indeed, the striking workers aren’t asking customers to boycott Harper titles, and have even created a Bookshop.org affiliate page where you can buy Harper books (here’s a great example!) while also contributing to the union’s strike fund, which supports workers who haven’t gotten paid for two months now.

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“They’re not asking us to fall on our swords,” Schulman said. “What they’re asking is really easy to do.” Authors are encouraged to tweet, Insta, and email HarperCollins’ CEO to tell him we want the company to come to the bargaining table and not to hire temporary workers. I’ve tweeted those tweets and sent those emails.

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While our messages of support are surely heartening to the union, it seems unlikely that any one author has the power to change News Corp’s mind. “In the past, a corporation could be moved by shame,” Zigman said. “Now they don’t care how bad it looks.” I asked Jaime Green, series editor of Best American Science and Nature Writing and a former editor at Slate, if she’d sent those emails, and she laughed, telling me about the polite autoreplies she receives, promising a response soon. “Of course,” she added, “no human ever writes me back.”

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In the meantime, my launch proceeds apace. I’ve seen no evidence that the strike has affected my book at all; my editor and publicist are too senior to be eligible for the union. I do worry that they are being worked to death, soothing my neuroses and also tasked with the overflow surely resulting from so many of their colleagues going on strike. I worry, too, that other authors are in a worse position than I am. Less experienced authors are more likely to have junior staffers working on their books, meaning they’re more likely to bear the brunt of HarperCollins’ refusal to negotiate—just another way the inequities of publishing perpetuate themselves. “It’s impossible to tell if my launch would have gone differently,” Adams said, if HarperCollins had simply negotiated and ended the strike. “But I’ve been proud to show solidarity. I’m proud my editor is in the union.”

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I asked Kambury, the striking editor, how HarperCollins authors should feel about the strike. Enraged? Upset? Disappointed? “Emboldened,” she said. “Emboldened to demand what they need out of a book deal, to not expect anything less than what they deserve.” She pointed out that HarperCollins employees talking to one another, after years of silence, about their salaries helped inspire the labor uprising that led to the strike. “Authors talking to each other about their advances will help them stand up and advocate for themselves.”

Do I feel emboldened? I don’t know. I feel proud of my book and excited for its future and guilty about that excitement. But I’m trying to get over it. “The really sad part is that if you’re in publishing, you’re in it because you love it,” said Laura Zigman. “You love the books! Dan, you may feel guilty, but the best thing you can do is assume that all those striking workers want the best for you. Because they do.”

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