Pursuing the Creative Career, and Getting Paid for it Too

Around ten minutes into an amiable chat with my friend Steve about my new editorial job, he accidentally insulted me. We had both left university a year before, and were moving slowly up the ranks of our chosen professions in London. I was earning £19K ($30,880) at the time, and Steve was earning £40K ($65,012).

I was alluding—self-deprecatingly, but also with quiet terror—to the fact that I wasn’t making much money. I didn’t go out much, and I ate a lot of toast, but I was sliding further into my overdraft. I hadn’t bought new clothes for months, and so I was turning up to my mid-level job (in an admittedly casual publishing house) in threadbare jeans and dirty Converse. Worse, I was constantly anxious that I was wasting the valuable currency of my excellent degree—basically my only asset—by trapping myself in an industry where financial expectations are low and progress up the ladder is traditionally slow. Steve, who was at Oxford with me and works in finance, was not sympathetic. In fact, he was amused. “The thing is, H,” he smiled, “your job is fun. I go to work every day, and I’m bored. I make a lot of money, but it’s really hard, and boring.”

My company makes a lot of money. I don’t make a lot of money. When speaking to graduates and students on publishing courses, I used to make light of the fact that the starting editorial salary is paltry and that moving up is a struggle (see the sweet Tumblr blog Life in Publishing for inspiration). It’s a powerful narrative and most graduates are happy with it: one part manic pixie dream girl, one part Matilda, the modern lady editor who loves books, knitting, cocktails and cats, and can’t expect money on top of all that.

“We’re so lucky,” we tell each other. “It’s such a nice industry.”

The thing is, though, we’re no longer just editors. Twenty-first century editors are mostly project managers, as well as data-miners, coders, and graphic designers. We maintain sprawling, complicated financial systems. We fight, daily, with Excel. We prepare ever-shrinking budgets and make the necessary cuts to stick to them. At the most mundane level, we pretty much sit at computers every day sending emails and mediating disputes. We do not nestle in the trunk of the Story Tree, listening to authors spin golden tales out of magical dust.

Steve may have been three pints down and in an aggravating mood, but he wasn’t trying to wind me up. He was voicing the same opinion that I’d heard over and over from both peers and superiors. It was a dismissive, indulgent attitude to “creative” professionals that implies one or several of the following:

1. We are somehow childish, and perhaps immune to the concepts of flat-buying, or family-raising? We were definitely too naïve to have considered these concepts when planning our careers.
2. We’re not really hard up. We probably have secret money, family money, or similar. We’re middle class, after all (or not, see this), and so eventually we will be “all right”.
3. Since we have chosen to do something “rewarding,” we do not also deserve meaty salaries. Many teachers I know have heard this one. Doctors, not so much.
4. We’re often women. In flexible, female-dominated industries that champion creativity, perhaps we’re playing at work until a spouse comes along, or perhaps we’re in it for the home-working and the longer maternity leave. It pains me so much to add this point, and I wish I could edit it out.

When I was finally offered a publishing job that paid well, the relief was incredible. It widened my future, released tension I felt with my parents and partner, and also gave me a huge boost of self-respect. Getting that job attracted plenty of support from peers and mentors, but also some snark. It was implied that I was cut-throat (though I had done nothing that negatively affected my colleagues) and overly ambitious. It was suggested that I was “more money-focused” than expected. Even within the industry, this same double standard prevailed: Yes, your company makes a lot of money. Yes, profits are at all-time high, even during a recession. You’re so lucky. What do you mean, you want a piece of it? Editors don’t make a lot of money, you know. These criticisms came exclusively from people who had attended university for free, and bought houses for less than £100K. So I ignored them.

In the four years since leaving university and taking my first job in publishing, my attitude to salary has evolved fairly dramatically. When I speak to publishing students and graduates about their future careers now, I make a point of asking whether they’ve thought about money. When they tell me it doesn’t matter to them, I tell them about Marjorie Scardino, Britain’s highest paid woman director of a FTSE 100 company. I tell them about Gail Rebuck, the chair and chief executive at Random House. It is absolutely, absolutely fine if money doesn’t matter to you, but you should also know that it’s an option. Regardless of what the fair price for your work is, you should never sell yourself short.


Harry Ayles is an editor in London. She likes films, cooking and bikes.


18 Comments / Post A Comment

Vicky (#2,266)

This is wonderful.

LaNocciola (#2,880)

I applaud the effort to speak about money to those looking to enter publishing. I logically knew that editors didn’t make much money, but I didn’t really consider the implications of this. The reality is that most people in publishing (whether in editorial or otherwise) do have family money or spousal support. For those of us that have student debts and come from low-income working class families, it can be depressing and frustrating to see your colleagues in expensive quirky clothing and heading out for cocktails while you’re trying to figure out some freelance proofreading to pay rent in the overpriced city you live in (because publishing can apparently only function in overpriced cities). I ultimately quit publishing because the job wasn’t as creative or fun as I’d hoped and been led to believe it would be, the potential to move up was extremely low (and the salary for an editor with 15 years experience who worked 60+ hours a week was only $50k), and I wanted to do things that my $30k salary wouldn’t allow me to. I now work in an unrelated, uncreative job but do have extensive benefits, free transit pass and $45k salary. Still not huge, but it allows me time and space to consider what I really want to do and the income to try new things in the pursuit of it.

julebsorry (#1,572)

@LaNocciola A-to the-men. Worked in publishing for 4.5 years. Originally accepted a non-creative position (operations & sales support) with the promise that I’d get to branch out and explore other departments. Opportunity for more creative work never came. Workload tripled, with only small increases in pay and no change in title. Finally got fed up with working 4X as hard as those in upper management, who enjoyed huge bonuses from my profitable department that were certainly not shared out.

Took the skills I learned and moved to finance. Substantial increase in pay, better benefits, and none of the “ooh, you’re so LUCKY to work in this industry!” guilt. The job is a just job to most people here, which is sort of refreshing, actually.

LaNocciola (#2,880)

@julebsorry It’s such an emotional/psychological issue for me. Now I’m in a job that I don’t love but that pays OK I guilt myself for not sticking it out in a “creative” field despite not really loving publishing as I thought I would. Jobs are so tied up in our self-definition. I loathe saying what I do for work now, despite it being the right choice for me right now. Too long… I need to work on my self-confidence and find a creative outlet :)

@LaNocciola @julebsorry Agreed 1000%. I worked in publishing for a couple of years after college, and had to get out. The publishing field turned out to be so disillusioning, so disappointing. I thought the work would be creative; it wasn’t. I thought it would be fun; it wasn’t. I thought it would be possible to survive on publishing’s entry level salaries, or at least to move up eventually; it wasn’t. I also thought I’d have enough spare time left over to write a brilliant novel in the off hours; I didn’t! The work was grueling and tedious, and it was incredibly frustrating to see all the other entry level publishing workers somehow affording to live in nice neighborhoods and wearing nice clothes, while I was practically destitute, and finally I figured out that most of them had a secret parental source of extra money which made their lifestyles possible. Now, ultimately, I’m done with the creative fields. Done done done. I’m in nonprofit now, and while I still don’t make very much money, it certainly pays better than publishing did, and the work is oddly a LOT more satisfying.

@werewolfbarmitzvah I never understood the allure of publishing — it seems like all the negatives of both the private sector and the nonprofit world rolled into one. Journalism I can certainly understand, but seriously, what is the allure of publishing? I like cheese, doesn’t mean I want to work on a dairy.

@stuffisthings In my case, at least, the allure came out of pure youthful/immature naivete, not at all the reality of what the 9-to-5 desk job world actually entails (I was 22, fresh out of school, and all I knew so far were retail jobs, internships, part-time clerical jobs where I rarely had to do anything more intense than filing or occasionally breaking the fax machine, etc.). I wanted to be a big important novelist, and I somehow got it into my head that 1) publishing houses were populated entirely by people who simply loooooooved books and held hands while dancing in a circle talking about their very favorite books all day, occasionally taking breaks to work on bringing new, undiscovered, brilliant books to the public, and 2) if I wanted to become a writer myself, working in publishing could put me in close proximity to people who could make that dream a reality, while also immersing me daily in a creative, book-loving culture that would set my writerly juices a-flowin’. As it turned out, publishing is a BUSINESS, not a book-reading lovefest. And in the publishing business, most of the books being published were crappy inspirational career guides, disposable chick lit novels with pictures of shoes on the cover, a thousand interchangeable books about vampires, and really very few things that were anything other than cringeworthy (there are some publishers – tiny independent publishers and university presses – that publish really great books, but those places pay you even less than a regular publisher will). And when a job in publishing entails a 12-hr day trying to sell the book-buying public on crappy career guides and interchangeable vampire books, you can very quickly start to feel less like a person with a satisfying, creative career, and more like a used car salesman.

In comparison, working in nonprofit isn’t perfect, but at least at the end of the day I feel like I’ve been somewhat useful, instead of feeling like a tired huckster shilling carefully polished turds.

So if it’s not creatively or finacially rewarding, why choose to go into/stay in that field? I feel like what the friend was trying to say was “You’re doing a job you love, and that’s worth some sacrifice.” I tend to agree with him. I have a liberal arts degree and a masters in library science, so my desired field is also a low-paying but “rewarding” job. But I think one thing you fail to consider is a supply v. demand arguemnt. There is a glut of graduates who are interested in my field and in publishing. Why should they pay more for a starting editor or librarian I when there is so much competition to even get in the field? People will literally work for free just to get experience. Morally, for the reasons you listed, maybe they should offer more, but I have a feeling the reasons they don’t are more economical than moral.

@Punk-assBookJockey The second part of your argument (supply v. demand) makes sense (although I would guess that the author is well aware of the competition for a job in that field).

I don’t agree, though, that because doing something you love is worth a sacrifice, that means you should morally be willing to settle for getting paid less than your work is worth. There are economic reasons that the salaries are low, but that doesn’t mean that people who like their jobs deserve to get paid less (otherwise, when I worked at [major family restaurant chain], I would have been making BANK).

EM (#1,012)

@Punk-assBookJockey This is a good point, but the author did point out that there are well-paying jobs in publishing, and money in the industry (although I am surprised to read that profits are at an all time high– really?).

I also liked the emphasis on telling students that they should consider the money question. A lot of people are told that creative careers will be fulfilling, moreso than earning money, but then when they’re actually struggling with the day-to-day realities of making little money for a lot of work that isn’t as fun as they believed it’s a lot harder than they anticipated. Maybe if students were better informed about the difficulties and uncool realities of glamorous sounding creative careers we would have fewer liberal arts grads getting smacked in the face with a reality check.

LaNocciola (#2,880)

The author is in educational publishing, which is perhaps not what most readers think of when they hear publishing in London.

cwmilton (#2,953)

@LaNocciola Having worked as an editor in both educational publishing (where I currently am) and trade publishing, I think that neither is what most readers think of when they hear “publishing in London.” At least in education I get paid slightly more and work more e-Books, websites, and interactive activities that accompany textbooks these days. I find that it’s fun to get creative with new mediums even if it’s not the Maxwell Perkins-esque career I imagined.

la_di_da (#1,425)

THIS. I am leaving publishing. It’s not just the low salary, which I was willing to accept in the short term. It’s that there’s no way to move up coupled with absolutely no room to negotiate in most cases, because you’re a dime a dozen. Everybody wants your job so we pay you crap. Fine. Supply and demand, I get it, but there’s something to be said about a fair wage for an educated worker who consistently works overtime.

LaNocciola (#2,880)

@la_di_da Woo! Former publishing minions unite! What will you do next?

Megano! (#124)

Huh, kinda funny when you look at the ratio of women in a field and the salary. And by funny I mean incredibly depressing.

Flora Poste (#2,586)

I found this article especially interesting, as I have just moved to London (Zone 6 though) for my first job, and am on only a slightly higher salary. I definitely don’t feel the financial stress that you did, in fact I feel like it adequately pays for my lifestyle, although I suppose a potentially big difference in rent would explain that.

I am interested in working in publishing myself (I am currently in quite a different field), and you have definitely given me some food for thought before exploring that any further.

Replace every instance of “publishing” with “museums” and that’s my life. Whee!

cmcm (#267)

YES. THIS, except I’m in academia. Sometimes I do feel the need to brag about my 35 days annual leave a year and flexible working schedule because I feel so shitty about the amount of debt I’ve accumulated and how low my salary is.

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