When unions don’t fight for pay and conditions, they are pushed down, because there are lots of people wanting them pushed down. And if they’re pushed down in one industry, they will be pushed down in another.

Don’t believe me?

The main argument you’ll hear against the [striking] Tube drivers is that other people in other industries don’t earn that much. Because their pay hasn’t risen in line with inflation since the seventies, whereas the RMT has made sure Tube drivers’ has.

The low pay of others is used as a stick to lower the pay of everyone else.

However, in a world where everyone has decent pay and conditions is much more difficult for employers to make people accept painful changes in working conditions because there are lots of other places they can go. Well-paid work that offers good benefits is contagious, it gives you options.

–Nathaniel Tapley on the point of unions.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because I have, not to put too fine a point on it, been thinking about trying to get a job outside of IT. The problem? I get paid too damn much, because I work in goddamn IT. And while I’d really like to maybe transition sideways into something less technical and more creative, those jobs? Those jobs would mean something like a 50% pay cut. And a 50% pay cut doesn’t pay off our mortgage.

I know, right? As far as 1% problems go, this is not the worst one to have. But it has made me think a lot about relative pay and conditions in other industries, rather than just following the CompSci grad party line of expecting money to fall out of the sky and land in my lap like the 1990s promised it would

One of the things about where I work, is that we’re all on a common enterprise agreement; both the technical staff and the non-technical staff. Which means any one staff member can know roughly (give or take about $10k) what any other staff member is earning. There’s a constant gripe in the IT areas that we’re “underpaid” compared to industry; that our “specialist skills” don’t attract a special award like, say, our organisational lawyers do.1

When I was younger, I used to believe this. “Pfft. I could just go contracting and get paid like $150 an hour!” I would say, echoing the comments of the men around me, naive in my assessment of how inviting IT contracting is to women, amongst other things.2

I still hear comments like this from peers, and I do still sometimes see it happen; tellingly both with young, underperforming-but-over-assessing men and, more rarely, older-but-actually-skilled-men. Mostly, I hear people who deal in one particular specialist technical area–in the BAU administration of that one particularly area, in fact–griping that they deserve to be promoted to the entry-level manager level, not because they do any kind of entry-level management, but because they’re really awesome at turning a server off and on and have been awesome at it for x number of years.

This, too, is a thing that happens. Or rather, used to happen more frequently–some lucky people even got to the equivalent of a mid-level manager–and now the organisation is having to deal with the consequences of its own mushy middle. Because I work in a highly unionized industry, it’s almost impossible to fire or demote people, and because “cost efficiencies” are the name of the game, almost all promotions are dead man’s boots. What this means is that there are a lot of people sitting on six figure salaries, in jobs they’re under-qualified for, and whose performance levels they don’t meet, relying on the effort of people organisationally under them to pick up the slack they should be doing but couldn’t be bothered to. These slack-picker-uppers are the very same people, it should be remembered, that can’t get the promotions they’re trying so desperately to earn because the people they’re compensating for aren’t doing the work in the first place.

This happens everywhere, but it’s particularly noticeable in IT, and particularly when comparing IT to people out in the non-technical areas. The skill gaps here are enormous. Out in the non-technical areas, managers are expected to actually, yanno. Manage. They have teams. Or projects. Or programs. Or budgets. Or all of the above. They have to write reports and plans and papers. In IT, most people sitting on the same wage level just have to occasionally show up to meetings and prove they know about the operational function of one (or, if we’re being adventurous) two or three systems. They’re often actively hostile to the idea they might ever have to (ew) plan something, or manage staff, or handle a budget. And because IT is nothing if not a sheltered workshop, they tend to get away with it, and have done so for a good few decades.

There’s a reason very few IT executives in my industry actually have a background in IT. Or feeder streams simply don’t prepare people for it.

This is what I tell my staff when they come to me wondering how they can progress their careers. If they want opportunities, they have to do what, in IT, is too often considered “scutwork”. That is, they have to do the project management and the customer engagement. They have to prove they can write a coherent sentence.3 They have to think organisationally; not just about the one system that is Their Turf. They have to know how that system fits into the wider goals of the organisation, given that we work in corporate IT, and the provisioning of IT systems is not our organisation’s business driver. We are a support function, and that means realising that the priorities of the business take precedent over our own personal Thoughts and Feels over the Way Things Should Be Done.

I’m not making all these requirements up, incidentally, or being extra harsh on people. There are universal performance metrics for the award levels in our organisation, about things like exactly how strategically staff should be thinking at each level in order to be considered working at that level. They apply to IT as much as they apply to non-IT, and yet I rarely ever see them enforced, let alone see any acknowledgement that there’s even any difference between “strategic thinking” and “operational thinking”. IT is almost entirely operational, even through middle-management. And hence the cycle perpetuates.

Basically, what I’m saying, is that IT staff–including yours truly–are really fucking overpaid, when you compare the work we do versus the work done by our salary-equivalent peers in non-IT roles. The fact that my organisation has a universal and transparent award wages system makes this observationally obvious, but–and this is the key insight, particularly for any Americans reading–doesn’t do anything in-and-of-itself to alleviate the problem.

The reality is, our organisational IT is still recruiting out of the pool against every other organisation, and if every other organisation is also overpaid, then what are we supposed to do? Our wage inflation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And for me, personally, it means contemplating a sidewards move would involve both a pay cut and an increase in work-level expectations. Talk about a Do Not Want, and my feet aren’t that itchy over my current position.

That’s my day job. Somewhat ironically, I have the exact inverse problem when it comes to my real job, a.k.a. authoring. Being an author is decidedly underpaid, and it’s underpaid for reasons that have to do, at least in part, with the quote at the top. When everyone else in your industry is prepared to work for shells, how can you expect to be paid peanuts?

In part, this is a supply-demand problem. In IT, if I need, say, a network specialist, there’s only a limited pool of people I can hire to be qualified to do network specialising. I can hire outside of this pool, but I probably won’t, because I kinda need my network for my business to function, and I’ve got a lore more confidence Vy the CCNA can do this than Jack the kid from the high school down the road. Jack might be brilliant, and Vy might be terrible, but on balance of risk–the risk of my business failing due to network fuckery–it’s not one that’s very attractive to me.

The book market does not, to put it bluntly, work like that. There are certainly qualifications you can get as an author–MFAs, workshops like Clarion, industry awards–and these matter to, in particular, publishing houses. But they tend not to matter too much to readers. When publishers are acting as the “hiring department” (a.k.a. gatekeepers) between potential authors and potential readers it’s one thing, and had been that one thing for a very long time.

That one thing now no longer exists, thanks to the rise of self-publishing. Publishing houses still have their own hiring risk–publishers invest real-deal cold hard cash into the books they buy, and they expect to make returns on it–and still hire (read: sign authors) based on this assessment. The disconnect is that the risk of readers no longer matches that of the publishers. If a reader buys an ebook for $0.99, and it’s crap, the so what? They move onto the next book. And the next. And the next. And if 90% of every $0.99 book they read is crap, then still so what? All that means is they’ve spent $9.90 to find the one book that isn’t, and that $9.90 is still lower than the cost of the average paperback.

This is why the maths of book pricing is so fucked up right now, incidentally.

So how do publishers deal with this? First of all, they offer premium service. The bestseller end of the big publishers still functions like this. The Stephen Kings of the book world4 are still the Apples of the tech world; that is, brands people know and trust. When I crack open a King novel I’m as confident in the product I’m getting as when I unbox a new iPhone. I’m confident not just in the writing, which is provided by the author, but also in things like the marketing and the editing and the packaging, which comes from the publisher. I know the book’s going to look and feel nice in my hands. I know I’m going to have heard of it. I know it’s not going to be filled with typos. I know the plot is going to make sense. I know I’m going to get some kind of emotional fulfilment from my invested time. Publishers still do this and do it well, and despite a bunch of people invested in predicting otherwise, I think this is still an important function, both to readers and to authors themselves.

If you’re already a big fish, in other words, the ocean is still pretty sweet.

It’s the rest of us that are having a hard time. Because it’s here, down in the mushy midlist, that the devaluation of content hits hardest. Suddenly, your $2.99 ebook is messing up the maths of the reader filtering through their $8.91 of crap. If you’re an unknown author from an unknown imprint, then why should readers be trusting you, specifically, when they can get three other books for the price? How do they know your product is worth 300% more than anything else sitting in the bargain bin?

The big publishers are still, I think, struggling with this part of the market.5 Despite trying to get into the “fast-and-cheap” end of the book pool, I think some of the organisational structures within the very big publishing houses make it difficult to capitalise in the way smaller presses and self-publishers can.

So. Where to from here? The last decade has seen a lot of consolidation in the publishing sphere; quite possibly too much. The advent of self-publishing, and the changed business models self-publishing brought with it, has fractured that. But selfpub too is experiencing a time of diminishing returns, as the market is saturated with low-cost, low-investment product. Readers are getting burn out, at both ends of the equation; they’re sick of the same old bestsellers, over and over, but they’re also sick of wading through lava from the shit volcano in the hope of finding that one piece of polished obsidian. Meanwhile, the big box chain bookstores that backed the consolidated publishing model are in trouble, and their replacement (i.e. Amazon) has a history of not being interested in repeating their mistakes.

The answer to all this, I think, will be a re-emergence for small, regional, and specialist presses. Big publishing won’t die, but it’ll become more conservative; focusing more on repackaging old IP and preparing new IP only in cases with a demonstrable (and demonstrably large) ROI. The romance industry–always ahead of the publishing curve–already works like this, and a similar trend is occurring in the videogame industry. Platform distributors (again, i.e. Amazon) will continue to simply move product. Bookstores will follow the trend of the publishers, with failed large chains being replaced by more independent and local operations, and will focus primarily on print; facilitated either by traditional channels or by emerging POD technologies.

And authors, meanwhile, will continue to be more and more stratified into the bestselling 1%ers, and a growing authorial working class, wishing for the equivalent of a unionised revolt and categorically not getting one as advances and opportunities both continue to plummet.6

Doom and gloom? Yeah, well. Welcome to the world.

And, in the meantime, I guess I’m not gonna be quitting my day job.

  1. Aside: funny that the lawyers would be the one area to get a special pay scale, innit? []
  2. The “other things” are about aggressive self-promotion, something I am categorically rubbish at. []
  3. The number of English-as-a-first-language adults who’ve ostensibly graduated from university, and yet hand me papers written in stream-of-consciousness style in what looks like someone struggling with their third or fourth language? Scary. []
  4. Those playing The Book Publishing Blog Post Drinking Game, take a shot. []
  5. In some genres. There are a few other things at play about reader buying habits that impact some book markets more than others, but I won’t go into them here. []
  6. Anyone with any experience in working class politics will know it’s telling it’s called the Author’s Guild, not the Author’s Union. []