Quote card by Opinion.

I was raised to be a firm believer in passion-fueled education and bold aspirations. Coming from a family full of dreamers, I was never told who I could or could not be. 

My passions have certainly evolved as the years have gone by, but I have been tied to passion-driven endeavors for as long as I can remember. My young mind was convinced that, no matter the field of study, I would pursue a college education rooted in my passions. Unexpectedly, my view in favor of spirited education leading to a passionate career was challenged when I recently stumbled upon information regarding the HarperCollins union strike. The more I read about the strike, the more I was driven to reevaluate my fervent opinions regarding the indispensable nature of passion. 

When following one’s passion for books and publishing results in hungry nights, unfair wages and a blatant disregard for basic human needs, it becomes time to recognize that, for most, passion isn’t enough. Not only are underpaid employees working overtime, many within the publishing industry face overt racism. This is a highly prejudiced workplace for people who are just as skilled as their more privileged peers, but suffer as a result of factors that lie outside of their control.

The American publishing industry is largely dominated by a set of publishing houses commonly referred to as the “Big Five.” Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group and Macmillan have a chokehold on the publishing industry. Their domination of the industry has led it to become an oligopoly of sorts and, even if this isn’t unique to publishing, these giants have perpetuated a systemic lack of diversity and employment opportunities. Instead of lifting up new and marginalized voices, the industry remains in a vicious, albeit comfortable, cycle. Publishing companies avoid the risk of betting their money on books they’re not convinced will become bestsellers and, in their place, invest in new releases by established authors and publications, leaving close to no space for up-and-coming writers and editors to find their place within the industry. 

It is not an unknown fact that the publishing industry is predominantly white. In a study conducted by Lee & Low Books in 2015, it was revealed that 79% of the industry identified as white. Thus, it is undeniable that specific groups of people in publishing get an upper hand. Perhaps for some, it’s easy to claim that following one’s passions is the career path to follow. Opportunities are made available to them as a result of their inherent privilege, and their reluctance to admit this worsens the issue. 

Best-selling American thriller author James Patterson, for one, once claimed that white men face a form of racism within publishing, making it hard for them to find work. Claims like these seem almost laughable when expressed by a white man who has had more than 200 novels published since 1976. His claims were rebutted by other white male authors like John Scalzi and Jeff VanderMeer, who both admitted to facing minimal difficulty when searching for book deals. Roseanne A. Brown, a young adult and science fiction author, also opined on the situation, tweeting in a sarcastic manner about how she “(wishes) to struggle” as James Patterson does.

Evidently, when it seems like the industrial giants that dominate the career path you desire to follow will never give you the time of day, working in writing and publishing becomes a different story. The aforementioned author Brown, for instance, is a best-selling HarperCollins author, but to get to where she is now, she had to start writing without the security of having an agent or a book deal, as she mentions in an interview with WNDB. She had to believe that her innate passion and talent were enough. Luckily, she was able to work her way up, but rags to riches stories are extremely hard to come by and, honestly, kind of disturbing due to the conflicting values that often accompany them.

Seeking to quantify the unequal demographic distribution in publishing, McGill University professor Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek, a New York Times graphics editor, published an opinion column for the Times on “just how white” the book industry is. After compiling a data set of around 8,000 fiction books published by Big Five American publishing houses and identifying the race of the authors of 7,124 books, it was revealed that only 5% were written by non-white people. To worsen the situation, only two out of the five big publishing houses have ever released author diversity statistics, those being Penguin Random House and Hachette Book Group.

Jobs in publishing are frequently cited as highly enjoyable, both by personal testament and public claims. If you don’t want to or can’t be an author but have a love for words, editing is promoted as the next best thing. What is hidden behind this wall of seemingly perfect employment is a shocking, unknown truth for most.

Workers in the publishing industry are highly qualified. What many don’t know is that 93% are women, and that they are often overworked and underpaid. These were the primary motivating factors for the HarperCollins union strike, and the situation is not expecting a resolution any time soon.

HarperCollins is the only large-scale American publishing house to have a union. The recent strike was motivated primarily by desperation, after 11 months of fruitless negotiations with the company’s management for a new employee contract. The union is demanding higher pay and increased diversity within the industry — improvements that are long overdue

Even if workers continue to spearhead efforts to fight for their labor rights, HarperCollins is anything but receptive to the protests, a disrespectful and disheartening reaction for all unionized workers — and all employees in publishing, for that matter. As passionate as one can be for one’s job, having to compromisingly fight for basic human respect would lead anyone to become unmotivated. Especially if many prosper within the industry that so ignorantly disregards the rights of some while favoring the privileged positions of others. 

I am constantly in debate with my inner conscience over whether or not following an education and a career propelled by passion is worth it. I burden myself with questioning my abilities and evaluating how far they will be able to take me. I now understand that, because of the inherent privilege available to some members of society at the expense of others, the publishing industry is difficult, if not impossible, to break into. This is not because of a lack of passion and drive, but because of a biased and unjust system. The belief that passion compensates for need is by no means a universal truth. 

Graciela Batlle Cestero can be reached at gbatllec@umich.edu