NEW YORK — Can an aspiring literary editor find professional fulfillment at $14,000 a year? Can that idealistic young college graduate even find a place to live in New York on that salary? Can the publishing industry expect to attract capable and qualified editorial employees when an entry-level position pays less than an elevator operator?
In remarks at a luncheon here not long ago, Radcliffe College President Matina Horner voiced these very concerns, and charged that publishing is fast on its way toward becoming an elitist industry. Only those with trust funds will be able to step into ground-level positions as long as salaries stay so low and the industry remains rooted to New York, Horner admonished. "People can't live on $14,000 a year in New York," she bemoaned.
To support her theory that the Big Apple's usurious rents and publishing's tiny starting salaries are driving away talented people, Horner cited declining applications to Radcliffe's fabled publishing course, long a feeder for the book business. "It's getting harder and harder to get students," Horner complained.
At Radcliffe, Rachel O'Boyle, the assistant director of the publishing course, stressed that the drop in applications should be seen in the light of declining enrollment in liberal arts programs in general. Liberal arts majors are "way down" in recent years, O'Boyle said. Mirroring that decrease, she said, is a nearly 50% drop in applications to the Radcliffe Publishing course in the last eight years.
But executives at several top New York publishing houses disputed Horner's claim that the business was losing its future leaders. Publishing has always been an "apprenticeship business," they said. "You can't go to school and learn how to do it," one top editor who did not want his name used said. "Maybe they have MAs, maybe they know the complete works of Conrad, backwards. Maybe they've taken the Radcliffe publishing course, but so what," another high-level editor said. "That's like taking a driver's education class. It doesn't mean you're going to be a good driver." (Not surprisingly, this editor asked that his name not be used because he feared his remarks might sound callous.)
A senior book editor who has worked at his trade for eight to 10 years may pull in a salary of only $50,000, the head of one publishing house pointed out. Fledgling lawyers in New York use that figure as a base for their first out-of-school salaries, and may command twice as much when they hang up their first shingles on Wall Street. Bonds traders seem to take money home in wheelbarrows before they are 30, but publishing, said an editor who feels proud of a salary in the $50,000 range, "is just never going to be as attractive in terms of salaries as corporate finance."
"It's just not a high-paying business," a literary agent-turned-editor said. "It's not that we sit around in thread-bare tweeds with green eyeshades and ink pots. But you don't go into publishing because you want to make a lot of money."
In the tradition of medieval craftspeople, entry-level editorial assistants have always been viewed as journeymen, and paid accordingly. Until about five years ago, one medium-sized house saw nothing amiss at starting its young editors with four-figure salaries. They worked among books in a trendy, if dusty, downtown location and they earned about $8,000 a year. Pushing beginning salaries to $10,000 and $12,000 was seen as a stratospheric leap at this house.
But those young editors who do not end up homeless or die of starvation have a real chance of advancement, many publishing veterans noted. "Book publishing really does promote from within," said Stuart Applebaum, a senior vice president at Bantam Doubleday Dell who took his own pitifully compensated first job in publishing 18 years ago. "By and large," Applebaum said, referring to the top editors at Random House and Bantam, "the Joni Evanses and the Linda Grays were the young people of a decade or so ago. A lot of those people who are at the pinnacle now started out at ground level and worked their way up." Low salaries, said Applebaum, are at once "part of the romance and part of the reality" of publishing.
Another part of the reality is that publishing remains very much a New York industry. Housing is as expensive as it is scarce. Living costs are frightening. "They have to quadruple up, four people in one little apartment, to live there," O'Boyle said of the graduates of the Radcliffe Publishing Course who do migrate to Manhattan. "They tell us they hate it."
From survivors of this pecuniary punishment, such problems evoke little sympathy. "Hey, there's four other boroughs," Applebaum said.
"New York is where the action is," he went on. "If we're not necessarily attracting the same kind of individual who wants to get into investment banking," so be it.