Why we won’t be reviewing Babel this issue

Image Credit: congerdesign on Pixabay

On the day this article was originally released, HarperCollins union workers were on strike for 56 days.

The strike was called on the 17th of October, with 195 of the approximately 250 voting to engage in strike action, which began on November 10th, 2022. The striking workers, who fall under the Local 2110 UAW, are calling for livable wages, diversity initiatives, and greater union protections. Staff across HarperCollins Publishing and its imprints have been picketing outside of their workplaces, and several authors who publish through HarperCollins are withholding manuscripts until a settlement is reached between HarperCollins and the union. The company is currently attempting to continue operations with a mixture of non-union and scab workers.

HarperCollins publishing is largely based out of Manhattan, widely considered to be one of the most expensive cities in the USA to live in. MIT’s living wage calculator puts the current living wage in Manhattan, for a lone adult with no children, at $25.42/hr, or a yearly wage of $52,873.60, assuming a 40 hour work week. If you add a single child to the equation, that annual figure jumps to $89,814.40.

The current starting wage at HarperCollins is $45,000 per annum, with the average wage across the company coming to $55,000. This is barely livable for a lone adult in Manhattan, and is over $30k off what is needed for a worker with a singular dependent.

The company is also the sole unionised publishing company in the US, which means two distinct things - the first being that HarperCollins union workers set the standard for what is considered ethical working environments in the US, something which other presses have begun to raise concern about due to the consistent sympathy and solidarity with the striking workers. Since the launch of the strike in November, there have been persistent murmurings on social media of other presses discussing the potential of unionising. The second aspect of why this is notable is that it entirely rules out the option of sympathy strikes - other workers in the same industry or union also laying down tools so that not only workers, but competitors and industry leaders are putting pressure on the company to accept union demands.

It is worth noting that HarperCollins is claiming that they are bargaining in good faith with workers during this time, including an alleged new starting wage of $50,000 p/a, however the union maintains that they have received no direct communication from HarperCollins in this time. It is also worth noting that HarperCollins has seen record levels of profit for the past two years.

All of this is to say that HarperCollins is clearly starting to feel the burn of this industrial action. Being without the union workers can put a strain on any industry, but publishing in particular is known for having close relationships between authors and editors, graphic designers, publicists - essentially any worker who would have to deal with an author directly, a relationship is formed. Changing out the employee that the author is dealing with can lead to delays at the best of times - when it happens as part of industrial action, and the replacement workers can sometimes be entirely new to the industry, it's no mystery as to why a slate of the 2023 HarperCollins releases have either announced delays, or made it clear that there will be delays soon.

Aside from the delays of having to work with a new editor or publicist, which has the potential to delay publication simply based on personal disagreement on the direction taken by who was previously in the role, many authors are withholding their work from publication until the end of the strike in solidarity with the workers. It genuinely cannot be understated how close a relationship authors can form with the team who puts their book on the shelf, and many are unwilling to see the company continue to profit off of their work while their workers are struggling to pay their rent. Rachel F. Kuang, author of the recent HarperCollins smash hit Babel, said as much while speaking on the HarperCollins picket: “I wrote one of HarperCollins’ best selling fiction titles this year. It happens to be about the power of strikes and collective action. HarperCollins wants me to keep writing books for them, they should treat the folks who put my books on shelves with dignity and respect.”

Many other authors represented by HarperCollins have spoken in favour of union action, frankly too many to list in this article, but you can see a full list of authors who have pledged solidarity with the workers via the letter in their linktree, which includes 37 pages of signatures across industries.

This delay is also not the only issue ongoing strike action has created. As highlighted by Jake Maia Arlow, who’s novel How to Excavate a Heart was published by HarperCollins at the tail end of 2022, a month into the strike, some of the workers that have replaced the union staff have made changes to the originally planned publicity without factoring in the author at all. Arlow’s novel, a Young Adult romance novel which they describe as a “Lesbian, Jewish, holiday YA romcom” in their TikTok about this issue. The novel, which is set over the characters winter break, was originally set to not be marketed as a holiday novel (think books like Let it Snow or Lock and Key, where the holiday season is a backdrop to a larger plot). Without Arlow’s knowledge or consent, the title of the novel was changed to How to Excavate a Heart: A Christmas, Hanukkah and Holiday Book, which is how it went on to appear on all online marketplaces. The book centres on two Jewish leads, in a timeline wherein Hanukkah fell early in the year, and so does not appear, and neither character celebrates Christmas. The issue was resolved, and the original name was restored, but it’s not an issue that would have occurred at all if not for HarperCollins refusing to engage with the union.

As for the title of this article, highlighting a notable release that we at the University Observer have not covered. The reason is simple. There are many ways that consumers and members of the public can stand in solidarity with a union on strike, people can join picket lines, they can boycott products and services, they can spread awareness and donate to strike funds, which help union workers survive while on strike. In the case of HarperCollins union workers, they have asked that no reviews go out of work published by HarperCollins, or any of its imprints, while the strike is ongoing. Reviews are the lifeblood of the publishing industry, with books being a form of media that demands a high time investment. BookTok, BookTube, Goodreads and Storygraph are all constantly promoted as being the driving force behind any surge in book buying. By withholding reviews at the behest of publishing house workers, it reminds the company that the readers are on the side of those who make the book possible outside of just the author. It also has the potential to create an impact on sales, although the union has specifically not called for a sales boycott of HarperCollins novels.

The University Observer remains a union-owned, union supporting newspaper. We will not be reviewing another HarperCollins novel, or a novel published by a HarperCollins imprint, until the strike action has ceased. We would encourage all reviewers, either professional or casual, to do the same.