Industry Insights: Aki Schilz
Aki Schilz is the Director of The Literary Consultancy, the UK’s longest-standing consultancy for writers, offering professional feedback on all kinds of writing, from novels to non-fiction. She is also the founder of #BookJobTransparency and advocates widely for inclusivity and transparency in the world of books. Her most recent project, ‘Being A Writer’ is a low-cost online platform for writers; it prioritises creativity and resilience, providing a space for writers to find joy in the process of writing, rather than focusing solely on the ‘product’.
You set up the #BookJobTransparency Campaign in 2017, and it’s received renewed attention these past few weeks. However, in a recent Bookseller article, Niamh Mulvey warned against the superficiality of some publishing houses’ concerns and actions regarding this. How much real progress do you think there has been?
#BookJobTransparency has been going as a campaign since 2017, and we have seen some impact with job ads being changed and policies introduced, but the fight for salary transparency in publishing has been going on long before us. The official BookCareers Salary Survey was set up in 1995, and recently an anonymous #PublishingPaidMe Google spreadsheet about disparities in pay between Black and White authors in the industry has set off a Twitter storm.
Ultimately, this is a cultural question. Is working in publishing sustainable? If it is not, what does this say about the financial model, and what in turn does this say about who gets to work with, represent, edit, sell and write books? If the answer is only those who can afford it, we have a cultural crisis.
There’s a lot of talk about diversity (though not enough about equitable models of inclusion), with some excellent work, but just as often, the well-meaning diversity initiatives set up can act as a smokescreen. They deflect attention away from the root cause: a toxic work culture which mixes systemic low pay, and an over-reliance on (not to mention exploitation of) unpaid labour, with ahistoric ideas of ‘good literature’ and an equally prehistoric understanding of audiences and readerships, i.e. the market.
The result? An overworked, under-valued workforce mostly made up of passion-driven white middle-class people who end up feeling so hard done by that they cannot accept challenges to the system they are complicit – even with the best intent in the world – in upholding. When we throw our entire selves into our work, it’s really hard to separate systemic challenge from personal attack, but we must. It’s an amazing industry in many ways, but there are real systemic issues at play. Pay transparency is one of the many heads of the Hydra, but it’s the one I’ve chosen to tackle.
You have drawn a lot of attention to the need for salary transparency – do you also feel it is important for employers to be open about banded pay grades so applicants can have an idea of what their progression could look like?
The campaign – for now – is focussed on entry level salary transparency, because we need a much clearer idea of where we are with what we offer to entry-level staff. We can then start to have the necessary onward conversations about the more granular detail, which includes career progression and retention. We need to look at pay review clauses in contracts, salaries and inflation, and slow in-house progression (partly, I suspect, to do with the fact that in some cases there aren’t fixed salary bands – I’m not actually convinced they are the answer but there isn’t space here to talk in detail about why).
Mid-range salaries, when examined, are most likely to be extremely uneven. And we haven’t even started to talk about director-level pay and how this compares with the median salary in each organisation – which again we can’t establish with the information we have. We can’t start to have those conversations without the requisite transparency first.
You have worked a lot towards inclusivity within publishing. Your foundation, the Rebecca Swift Foundation, is just one example. Are there any other organisations or resources that also work towards inclusivity in the industry that you would recommend following and getting involved with?
Thank you for mentioning the Rebecca Swift Foundation! Our free-to-enter Women Poets’ Prize opens 2 July which you can find more about at www.rebeccaswiftfoundation.org Here are just some of the people doing fantastic work on the ground—some for a very long time:
#BAMEinPublishing (community network)
#PrideinPublishing (community network)
SYP (membership group)
BookCareers (careers consultancy)
Jacaranda Books (Black-owned publisher)
Knights Of (diverse children’s books)
Cassava Republic (African literature)
Bitter Melon (Asian diasporic poetry)
OWN IT! (storytelling brand)
Re-Write (writing opportunities for Black women)
Dialogue Books (part of Hachette UK)
Creative Future (exploring barriers to creativity in collaboration with artists)
Shape Arts (opportunities for disabled artists)
Spread the Word (literature development agency, partner on #RethinkingDiversity)
TLC Free Reads (bursaries for low-income writers)
And finally, what would you say to publishing hopefuls who want to join the #BookJobTransparency campaign but are nervous about jeopardising their job prospects?
If you’re job-seeking, find the relevant person to email privately and politely to ask for salary transparency in the job ad if there is none. And please don’t share any details without permission. If you’re in-house and new, you are never too junior to make change. It’s an exciting business and there’s always room for growth. Something ‘just being like this’ is never a reason not to do something; if you don’t ask questions, you’ll one day be the person saying to someone more junior than you, ‘That’s just the way it is.’
Challenge politely. Join a committee. Join the NUJ. Do your research. Frame it positively. Do you want a thriving, diverse workforce working on a range of amazing books and stories? Great! Let’s talk transparency, and if we’re not there yet, let’s make sure our messaging reflects where we want to be.
A massive thank you to Aki for chatting to us about the industry and the importance of salary transparency in publishing. You can find out more about Aki’s work and how to join the campaign at www.bookjobtransparency.co.uk.