December 15, 2022
For Immediate Release
NEW YORK, NY – As the strike by members of the HarperCollins Union, representing more than 250 employees, approaches its sixth week, 79.1% of literary agents in a poll conducted by the Association of American Literary Agents say they support the strike. Among the supporters, 74.4% back the strike unequivocally while 4.7% are positive with caveats. Meanwhile 9.3% say they are neutral and 11.1% feel they need more information about the issue to form an opinion. Fewer than 1% of respondents say they do not support the strike at all.
A total of 215 members responded to an AALA online anonymous poll from December 13-14. 2022. The poll was conducted to understand where agents stand on the issue and whether the work stoppage has affected their plans after the Union asked agents to refrain from submitting new projects to HarperCollins until an agreement is reached. “We heard from members that they wanted to know more about the position of other agents. As the AALA we are in a unique position to find out and convey the thoughtful and nuanced perspectives literary agents have on this issue that is affecting all of us within the industry. By publicizing a summary of the results,we are able to give HarperCollins and the Union a glimpse into the challenges agents and authors face as they find themselves in the middle of a conflict they didn’t create.” says Jennifer Weltz, AALA’s president.
As a whole, agents express deep support for the Union’s stated goals to raise the minimum starting salary and to meaningfully address the lack of diversity. “Workers in publishing deserve a living wage. Period full stop,” says one agent. “If we truly care about sustainable wages in the industry, agents must stand strong with the strikers,” says another. Respondents characterize the strike as “a watershed moment for labor rights in publishing” and “the single most important thing we can do at the moment to support the diverse voices found within the assistant and associate levels.” Over 80 agents report having provided financial or other support to the Union.
It is not business-as-usual for the majority of respondents who say they have changed their dealings with HarperCollins in some way as a result of the strike, from delaying deal announcements, to only submitting option projects, to withholding all business with the publisher, including meetings. As one agent puts it, “Never cross a picket line.” Nevertheless, agents remain extremely mindful of their responsibilities to clients, regardless of their personal feelings. “We’re not submitting new projects to them (HC), though also making sure clients are comfortable with this,” says an agent. Similarly, another agent says, “I’ll be strongly advising my clients that we do not submit to HC per the union’s request,” adding, “If a client insists despite my advice that they want to submit to an HC imprint, I will feel ethically obligated to do so.” After discussing the strike with two authors, an agent reports that both agreed to omit HarperCollins from the submission list despite it potentially having a “material effect” on the outcome. Therein lies the rub. “I feel I have a fiduciary duty to my clients to continue to try and get them the best deals. Omitting one of the Big 5 substantially interferes with that fiduciary duty.” In the end, “we represent our clients’ interests not our own.”
The Union comes under fire from many respondents who point to the call for reviewers and blurbers to withhold participation with HarperCollins books as an ill-advised tactic. “I understand the Union’s intention, but a poor sales record could meaningfully damage an author’s future career,” says one agent. Others express skepticism of UAW (United Auto Workers, which is affiliated with the HarperCollins Union), direct lobbying of authors and illustrators, and more fundamentally, the benefits of striking. “I definitely support higher pay and better family leave benefits for publishing employees. I just don’t know if a unionized strike is the most effective way to get there.” On the other hand, some agents think the Union hasn’t gone far enough. “The Union’s asks are well within reason–one might even say that they’ve asked for too little. I’m so, so tired of slow, incremental changes for employees when profits have been rising.”
Respondents save their strongest criticism for HarperCollins management. The company’s responses to the strike are characterized by respondents as “unnecessarily condescending” and “highly misleading.” “The industry and writing community has watched how poorly HarperCollins has handled this situation,” notes one agent. Other commenters add: “It is disturbing that this has gone on so long,” and “its (sic) as if the company’s head is in the sand.”
The poll comes at a time when many agents are winding down for the holidays with an eye towards the new year. An agent reports awaiting a rights reversion that is being held up and a picture book in need of an illustrator that hangs in limbo because designers are on strike. Another agent worries about the potential of clients’ books being handled by “scab freelancers and temps.” As one agent notes, “Authors are the most vulnerable group in publishing and I’m concerned that their careers and financial security are being impacted by this strike.”
The hope among agents is that conditions ultimately improve not only for employees but also their clients. A respondent states, “It would be better for our authors if publishers paid better.” Another elaborates on that sentiment: “Livable wages and protections for editors will mean better, more consistent, more enthusiastic support for authors and their books throughout the publishing process, with fewer authors and books getting orphaned.”
Despite widespread concern about the continuing effect of the strike, not to mention frustration with HarperCollins—”Give them what they want so we can all get back to work!”—agents acknowledge the long-term stakes. “I would rather have an uneasy six months followed by a rise in the standard of living for my publishing colleagues than have this strike fall through.” As one agent notes, “Don’t think other publishers aren’t watching with keen interest,” while another is “surprised this isn’t happening in other houses.” Ultimately, agents see the strike as part of a bigger picture. “This was long overdue, and I hope that this is the beginning of the change this industry needs.”
About the Association of American Literary Agents
Since its founding in 1991, the Association of American Literary Agents has been a leading force in furthering the interests of agents, authors, and other rights holders. Through regular educational programming, community-building initiatives, and advocating for agents and authors alike, the volunteer-run organization is dedicated to helping our members maintain and broaden their professional skills in a fast-changing publishing environment. Recognizing the historically exclusive nature of publishing, AALA is committed to engendering a more diverse, equitable, participatory and inclusive publishing community. Members of AALA must agree to adhere to its widely-respected Canon of Ethics, thus ensuring that our membership maintains the highest standards of ethics and integrity in dealings with and on behalf of our clients and our publishing colleagues.