The Burnout Bargain: Exploitation and Marginalization in the Publishing Industry

When it comes to publishing, I can think of no word more insidious than “overtime.”

Whether you’re a graduate student in a publishing program, an editorial assistant at a Big Five press, or an intern at a boutique literary agency, we are all expected to accommodate hours of unpaid labor, even to the detriment of our mental health. The proverbial hamster wheel that is publishing truly never stops spinning, and it’s often the most marginalized publishing professionals who reach their breaking point first.

Let’s start by establishing some context for this “no rest for the worthy” mindset that we see so frequently. It’s no secret that publishing is a predominantly white, capitalist industry. In a 2019 survey of the publishing industry’s demographics, researchers found that 76 percent of the publishing industry is white, and 74 percent are cisgender women.

In the four years that have passed since the survey was conducted, publishing has seen only marginal shifts in its diversity despite new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) campaigns and glowing promises of anti-racism programs. As a result, marginalized publishing professionals are often saddled with the emotionally and mentally draining work of educating their coworkers regarding their own humanity. This, too, should be considered unpaid overtime.

You may be asking how diversity is connected to the industry’s culture of overworking its employees. To that, I offer one word: exploitation.

Because the publishing industry’s moral compass is often in alignment with white supremacist ideologies, non-white, disabled, and queer publishing professionals are more at risk of burnout than any other demographic. In addition to shouldering the emotional burden of threats to their well-being and their identity within a homogenous industry, they are usually the first to feel the strain of publishing’s never-ending workload, and the first to fall under its wheel.

Just one chilling example of the industry’s failure to account for the unique needs of marginalized professionals became evident in early 2020. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter marches sparked by the murder of George Floyd, the publishing industry was spurred into action. We saw an upsurge of DEI announcements and widespread promises, both by individuals and by corporations, to uphold anti-racist sentiments.

During this time, numerous doors seemed to swing open for Black industry professionals: numerous internships for racially marginalized applicants opened, agents encouraged Black writers to send their manuscripts for critique, and white industry professionals across the world committed themselves to anti-racist book clubs.

Fast forward to early 2021. With only a quick glance at Book Twitter and the Apple News feed, one would think that the publishing industry’s earlier promises had been wiped off the face of the earth.

Simon & Schuster recently faced backlash after agreeing to distribute a book written by Breonna Taylor’s murderer. Though their agreement has since been rescinded, it begs the question: how much emotional labor was spent on the outcry against Simon & Schuster’s decision? How many racially marginalized publishing professionals expended more energy than they had to offer on just this one incident? How can marginalized workers be expected to perform their contractual obligations when they are simultaneously being asked to perform DEI education, keep themselves safe from threats against their identity, and help keep the industry in check?

One thing is certain: if the industry’s overtime culture isn’t solved, diversity will only ever be a pipe dream.

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