Remaking Publishing One Meme at a Time: An Interview with Publishers Brunch


Don’t take the Instagram account Publishers Brunch at their word when they assure you in their bio that “this is a joke i promise.” Not to say the account isn’t full of publishing in-jokes. Charming lo-fi memes targetting pay inequity, hackneyed market trends, brand-conscious novelists, and lucrative book deals for far-right demagogues don’t correct systemic injustices and a culture dedicated to poor taste, but PubBrunch is clearly motivated to highlight the industry’s wrongdoings and spark interest in collective employee actions like walk-outs, salary-sharing, and union organizing. Publishers Brunch is a shitposting account, but a deadly serious one. “Wait, it’s about unionizing?” asks the astronaut looking out at an Earth labeled “publishing meme accounts.” “Always has been,” replies his pistol-wielding colleague.

In just a few months, Publishers Brunch has drawn a considerable following of professionals in the industry, writers, artists, and readers, all of whom can see how the decisions industry executives make negatively affect books and the livelihoods of those involved in producing them. The hook, however, will remain the creator’s arch, knowing humor, fluent in celebrity culture and the online discourse factory. Over email, we talked about gossip, status, and the fight for equity in publishing.

I’d like to know, from the owner of the preeminent publishing industry humor Instagram account, what it is about book publishing that makes it such a hotbed for gossip.

Aw, thank you for saying I’m the “preeminent” meme account, that’s high praise! The industry requires high levels of attention for our products– think reviews, discourse, or controversy (usually a combination of the three) — in order to be considered “successful”. The natural conclusion to this is that we end up turning that attention towards ourselves. Publishing’s long history of exclusion, bad behavior, and general elitism certainly doesn’t help quell the murmurs, especially as the tolerance of younger employees towards discrimination, harassment, and low wages is beginning (or continuing, rather) to wane. I love us, but this is a cliquey industry with a flair for the dramatic, so I don’t think gossip is going anywhere soon. 

It’s certainly an industry that thrives off controversy and (sometimes manufactured) crisis. I don’t think it’s just my Twitter timeline that’s daily getting overtaken by some dispute or another that feels relatively internal to the industry. It takes up a disproportionate amount of bandwidth in the discourse. But can gossip be productive?

Absolutely! As seen most recently in xoxopublishinggg’s instagram stories, the impact of outing abusers in the industry can’t be overstated. These whisper networks are often derided by upper management, but they’re integral to young people coming up in publishing– who are much more vulnerable to predators. 

Right, so you have these networks and accounts as one prong in a battle against terrible business practices, workplace conditions, and just straight-up extremely low pay. And relatedly, there does seem to be tremendous interest among young publishing workers to unionize — to take these whisperings and grievances public. I suppose it remains to be seen whether that interest translates into successful union drives at Big Five and other major book publishers.

It’s demoralizing to see the latest wave of resignations from extremely talented editors, some of whom are leaving the industry for good. What do you make of these early- and mid-career people deciding to say goodbye?

I have hope in the resilience and strength in our newer generation of employees. The past few years have seen a shift towards solidarity and support among colleagues– a welcome change from the cutthroat attitudes that were the norm back then. Of course, it’s always sad to see colleagues leave publishing! It’s not an easy decision, because we all love this work, but in the end you have to do what’s best for your mental (and financial) health.

It does seem like humor can get us at least part of the way to solidarity. But on a more serious note, and as a partisan on the matter of literary Jonathans, I’d like to know whether PubBrunch is willing to endorse a single Jonathan as the leading light among the various Jonathans. Choose your fighter:

    Jonathan Franzen

    Jonathan Safran Foer

    Jonathan Lethem

    Michael Chabon

    Other (explain)

Lethem all the way, baby! I have it on good authority that he’s seen my memes about “the Jonathans” and thinks they’re funny. Meanwhile, Franzen and Safran-Foer have yet to acknowledge me, so…

What’s a galley brag? Which advanced copies of yet-to-be-released books am I missing out on? Could you speak a little bit to any trends you’ve noticed in terms of which books get hyped to the point of meme-ification?

Galley brag: (verb) to flex intimate connections in a notoriously exclusive industry, under the pretense of “appreciating” modern literature; (noun) a post featuring a highly-anticipated/unreleased book which is intended to evoke feelings of jealousy and awe from the audience.

Looking ahead to the Fall, I expect to see everyone and their dad vying for a copy of the new Cormac McCarthy. Put your request in now, folks!!

With the caveat that trying to pinpoint any trend in publishing is futile, it’s typically literary fiction from already famous / infamous authors– think Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, or Colson Whitehead. When a big mouth in the industry posts about receiving a galley, that can also increase the demand, naturally. Not to mention the impact of book merch! We all remember the bucket hat memes of 2021 (lol). 

Those are all wonderful writers you’ve mentioned but there’s one author who, without checking, has to make an appearance on your account more than any other. And that of course is Ottessa Moshfegh. How does My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a novel that’s a few years old now, resonate for you? What are some other favorite novels of yours to meme?

I found Ottessa’s work at an interesting point in my life. I was still new to New York and struggling, frankly, in a lot of ways. I picked up Eileen one day at Topos Bookstore in Ridgewood and immediately connected with the titular protagonist. There is something so comforting about an “unlikeable female protagonist” when you’re at a real low point in your life, lol. 

I continued to follow her work and was OBSESSED with My Year of Rest and Relaxation when it came out in 2018. Moshfegh took everyone’s least favorite trope— the passive protagonist— and turned it on its head. I was blown away by her ability to make a character that’s literally unconscious for like 80% of the book morally repugnant yet sympathetic.

Obviously, MYORAR is the “easiest” to meme of her oeuvre because it’s the most wildly read. The narrator’s anonymity and vulnerability encourages readers to identify with her (think Twilight’s Bella Swan). She’s a bitch but I believe everyone’s a bit of bitch, at least privately. And if you claim you’re not, you’re lying. The combination of its popularity and relatability opens the book up to lots of interpretation and, subsequently, memes. 

Other favorites: Pretty much anything by Sally Rooney, J Franz or the other Jonathans; A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and any buzzy new/forthcoming books making the rounds. I’d like to make more Ferrante memes but she’s too mysterious to capture properly. 

Have you gotten a galley of Ottessa’s new book?

I haven’t gotten the physical galley, but I was able to download the NetGalley via a friend on the inside, though (Thanks, [REDACTED!]). I also ordered Book Gang’s unofficial t-shirt for the book, which is miraculously still available. Get it before Penguin issues the C&D!

“The era of ‘a million girls would kill for that job’ is quickly coming to a close. And all for the better,” a Vanity Fair staffer told the Washington Post recently, referencing The Devil Wears Prada. Do you see this happening for book publishing, too?

Oh, absolutely! That attitude used to be so prevalent, even just a few years ago, but I see the tide turning now. I’m hopeful that this shift is more permanent, but it will take some hard work (and maybe a few memes). In a perfect world, whisper networks wouldn’t have to exist to ensure equitable pay and general safety, but that’s just not realistic. And, whether it’s through anonymous posts on instagram or spreadsheets to share salaries, outside pressure can be the best (or only) way to affect change.


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