Rainbow Reading Stands With the HarperCollins Union Strike

A book in faded colors of the rainbow is open, and the words RAINBOW READING are on top of it.
illustration by A. Andrews

Hey howdy, folks —

We’re going to do something a little different this week. Usually, I run off a list of all the exciting queer books that are out now or coming soon, and I bang my pots and pans together about how vibrant and powerful our queer literary landscape is. This abundance of queer literature is not something I celebrate lightly; queer historians John D’Emilio and Esther Freedman wrote movingly about a time when “one could read it all in a single summer, yet still have time for a relaxing vacation.” Every time I have too many cool things to fit into a single column, I think about what a wonderful and luxurious problem that is to have.

In the big picture, we owe this abundance to many things —the various waves of political progress that allow innovative artists and daring storytelling to flourish — but when we get down to brass tacks, we owe this abundance in large part to the publishing workers who guide stories through the machinery, turning them from manuscripts into beloved bestsellers.This abundance is because the authors we love were given a chance and were set up to succeed.

  • Editors acquired these manuscripts, rallied teams behind them, and defended authors’ right to depict their experience in ways that rang true.
  • Designers literally made these books — they laid out the interiors, created the covers, turned a .docx file into an object you cherish.
  • Production teams got those words literally onto the page, even when printers were loathe to take on “obscene” works, even when supply chain issues threatened the very paper and ink these books depend on. (And if you’re the e-reader type, you have designers and production teams to thank for ebooks with text you can resize and highlight, and that can be read aloud by assistive technologies!).
  • Marketers got these books into the hands of booksellers and onto bookshelves near you; publicists made sure you heard about them.
  • And now, with so many attacks on queer books and authors nationwide, lawyers are defending the books, authors, and presses that champion LGBTQ+ stories.

You see where I’m going with this? These minutiae may feel boring, but this is the machinery that brings the documents and dreams of queer authors to life. This is how the sausage is made, and it’s important.

Today, the unionized staff of HarperCollins are going on strike, and if you care about queer books and the future of queer publishing, you should care about this. The people shepherding our stories deserve a living wage and an equitable workplace. LGBTQ+ publishing workers deserve jobs they can afford to stay in, and where they can build careers. They deserve environments where they aren’t tokenized, pigeonholed, or passed-over. LGBTQ+ writers deserve teams that aren’t overworked and understaffed, and who can most effectively advocate for the power of their work. LGBTQ+ readers deserve the most expansive and vibrant and inclusive literary landscape possible. Everyone does.

As publishing faces a reckoning about how it exploits those who keep the lights on and the wheels turning, HarperCollins Union is setting a precedent as the only U.S. publisher with unionized staff. The things they hope to accomplish at the bargaining table will have a ripple effect on the industry at large. After my experiences as the only out queer person at a press (do not recommend), after working with queer authors who are underestimated and undersold by out-of-touch executives, after covering so many incredible books that deserve more acclaim than they’ve gotten, I want to see the literary future that HCP’s union is pursuing.

So yeah, there are some really exciting queer books coming, and we owe that in large part to the publishing workers behind them. This week, I’m joining a groundswell of queer writers and readers in support of the strike, and I’m going to show my respect and solidarity by not crossing the HarperCollins picket line. This includes abstaining from promoting any HarperCollins titles in my column — when HarperCollins and their union reach an agreement on the the new contract and the strike is no longer in effect, then I’ll be delighted to bang my pots and pans together about their titles once more.

Okiedoke, let’s make like a matchbox and strike. This week on Rainbow Reading, let’s talk about:


What changes are the union asking for?

  • Higher pay (commensurate with HarperCollins’ record-setting and massive profits, and commensurate with the impact of inflation and the NYC cost of living as workers are brought back into the office)
    • Starting salaries are often what make or break a young marginalized person’s ability to remain in their chosen field, and publishing’s starting salaries are notoriously low. It’s also important to remember that in publishing, folks are rarely (if ever) getting raises and that even cost of living adjustments are few and far between. I know my readers who work in media, nonprofits, and academia can sympathize!
  • A greater commitment from management to diversifying staff (since publishing as a whole remains primarily white, primarily upper-middle-class, primarily cishet, etc)
    • You can learn more about the current state of diversity in publishing from the Lee and Low Diversity Baseline Survey. The last survey was conducted in 2019, and the results are stark. You can read more of their in-depth analysis here.
  • Stronger union protections to ensure the security and sustainability of collective bargaining at HarperCollins (since the union has made massive strides over the last couple years and they want to ensure the union’s continued existence so that none of these gains are at risk of being walked back or undermined)

What does this mean?

I spoke to some of the LGBTQ+ workers who will be participating in the strike (including some who helped organize it!), and here’s what they said about how this opportunity could benefit queer book workers and the queer stories they champion:

  • This was the first time I felt like I had a job where I could be out at work from day 1 and that I am well-liked and respected because I am queer, not in spite of it. We’ve built a real community for each other here, and I think the company fails to recognize how creating opportunities for workers to build community (like unions) makes for a better workplace for everyone. This contract fight is, for all of us, about doing what is right for those of us who need it the most. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can make a place that is more equitable and just.” — Union Unit Chair
  • Every day I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to work on queer books for queer kids — the kinds of books I wish I had when I was younger, and the kinds of books I am eternally grateful will exist in the world for my queer stepkid. Striking is not an easy thing to do. It’s not what we wish we were doing. But we are withholding our labor, withholding our power, and withholding our passion from a company that completely undervalues us in an effort to materially change the conditions of our company and our industry. A successful strike will mean that the barriers for entry in this industry will be lower. It means that more queer people and more people of color will be able to join the ranks of book publishing and put out incredible books that reflect who are are and who the world is. I’m grateful to be queer in books, and I’m looking forward to making HarperCollins see just how vital we are.” — Marketing Associate
  • “The more that people can’t afford to live off of publishing wages, the more that the book publishing world will remain for those with more privileges than any of us will see in a life time. It’s important because they’re going to lose not only the inclusive voices inside the company, but also those we publish. I think the more we lose diversity in the company, the more the catalog of books we publish will lose as well.” — Senior Designer
  • “Making sure queer books end up in the hands of queer kids is the whole reason I’m in this industry. Historically, only people with privilege can afford to stick around in publishing. This translates to young, passionate workers who are committed to uplifting diverse authors burning out and leaving those authors behind in order to survive. In a more sustainable and fair industry, a marginalized author would have room to build a career with a specific team, and marginalized employees would no longer have to make the choice between passion and pay (and could instead devote their whole focus to publishing and advocating for diverse books!)” — Associate Editor

How can you show support?



That’s all she wrote, folks! If you’re a queer writer, particularly an early-career queer writer: I’d love to hear about the cool things you’re up to so that I can share links to your published essays, book reviews, short stories, poems, and longform features on LGBTQ+ topics! Please email me links for consideration at yashwina@autostraddle.com with the subject line “Rainbow Reading Submission” — I’m an avid browser-tab-collector, and I especially want to hear from you if you’ve just landed your first publication or first major byline.


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Yashwina

Yashwina Canter is a reader, writer, and dyke putting down roots in Portland, Oregon. You can find her online at @yashwinacanter.

Yashwina has written 37 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Can confirm – as someone who worked in publishing right out of college and burned out of the industry due to punishing, exploitative hours and barely-there pay, I can’t understate how huge it would be if the union wins out. And as a forthcoming HC author now – solidarity, forever, with the amazing people I work with. ✊🏻

    • YUUUUP. Right there with you — working in publishing, especially as a young/entry-level person is a real burnout machine. Can’t wait to see how negotiations like these can help the industry change for the better! Solidarity forever

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