Our guest speaker for this year’s RWA/NYC's Spring Brunch was Melissa Ann Singer, a senior editor at Tor/Forge with over 40-years experience in the industry. When she stood up and announced she would be speaking about cultural changes in publishing, the room fell silent to listen.
She started with an anecdote about nearly being fired her first day on the job—for refusing to get someone coffee. (Now, she says, everyone gets their own coffee.) At the time, she knew all the women in publishing, because there weren’t that many. And the women who’d risen to the top? They had to be hardasses, because the only way to make it big was to be tougher than the men. (And there were inevitably rumors that you’d slept your way to the position.) Judith Regan was the first woman to get an imprint named after her, and it was a big news item when it happened.
This has, thankfully, changed a lot. Now, there are lots of women in positions of power in publishing, although the really high levels are still male-dominated. (This is changing, she says.) But there are still other challenges to be tackled within publishing culture.
She talked candidly about diversity in the workplace (or lack thereof) during her 30+ years at Tor, and the effort being made to improve—although they still have a ways to go. Publishing as a business is more than just words on the page, so when she’s hiring, she looks for other skills in a person’s education and resume—not necessarily an English degree, but experience in areas like marketing, or even retail. She’s encouraging Tor to do more outreach at the high school level, and the publisher is also reaching out to historically black colleges through job fairs. One of the difficulties is turnover rate for entry level positions—it’s only every two to three years.
Another difficulty is the pay that’s offered for these positions. A position that paid $8,000 per year in the 1970s now pays $30,000, which is about the same when adjusted for inflation. She says that won't change because the business runs on a tight margin, but the benefits are much better these days, even if the pay is not.
Tor/Forge is owned by Macmillan, which is privately held. This makes a huge difference, as they don't have to satisfy all the stockholders, and it’s not as driven by hierarchy. Editorial is run like an apprenticeship business, but these days, Macmillan is doing more to train management and regulate training, without removing creativity.
The biggest worry right now is the death of the mass market paperback. There was always a 60% return rate on mass markets. (I worked at a bookstore for six years, and I’m very familiar with “stripping” mass markets.) Before, it was normal to print half a million copies, and it was a waste of time to print 20,000. Now, 20,000 is a big deal. Mass markets have lost lots of the outlets that carried them, thanks to the collapse of the magazine industry, which took mass markets with them. Most supermarkets and other such retailers only take bestsellers, and don't want to take a chance on genre fiction—even though genre drives the industry.
She says the people writing articles and think pieces slinging mud at genre fiction don't get the impact of pop culture on society. Fiction broadens the horizons of writers and readers. How else do you imagine a culture not your own if you're not introduced to it? The more you read, the more you open your mind. Studies have shown that people who read fiction have more empathy. And she believes that people who write genre fiction are going to change the world.
It was an honest talk, inspiring in its candor, with an underlying tone of “we need to do more.” And it made me wonder: what else could we be doing as authors to support cultural changes in publishing? In the meantime, we can continue to support groups like We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), who are doing a lot of the groundwork, and boost the signal of existing own voices titles.
Big thanks to Melissa Ann Singer for coming to speak at our brunch. You can find her on Twitter at @maseditor.♥
Alexis Daria’s Golden Heart®-nominated debut contemporary romance will be released in 2017 from SMP Swerve. On Sunday evenings, Alexis co-hosts #RWchat, a weekly Twitter chat for romance writers. She also serves as PRO Liaison for the New York City chapter of RWA, and Municipal Liaison for the NYC region of National Novel Writing Month. She loves social media, and you can find her as @alexisdaria on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, @alexidaria1 on Facebook, and follow her blog, alexisdaria.com.
PHOTOS FROM THE BRUNCH
A Good Time Was Had By All