Publishing and the Working Class

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This week the UK’s Bookseller invited the book trade to complete a class survey. The survey hopes to map how class acts as a barrier to entry into writing and publishing. This survey is important, and something everyone in the trade should fill out, across all classes/income groups.

My own background: low-income working class, rural Ireland (supportive, encouraging, warm, but definitely working-class, very little money) – and it’s been a hell of a pull. I’ve seen a couple of threads on Twitter acknowledging and defining the privilege that comes from being middle-class in this industry, so I though I’d join the conversation from the other perspective.

Working class, especially if coming from outside the UK, means knowing no one, and having zero access points that aren’t self-made. My own journey: I did a publishing MA. To fund the fees, I worked 3 jobs for a whole year in Ireland so I could pay for the course in advance/have a bit extra to tide me over for a month or so until I got a job in London to pay my living costs

Then it meant doing the MA, which I did really value, and having to work full-time restaurant hours around lectures and placements to pay the bills/be able to eat. I would work 9-5 in a placement, for free, and then go straight to a gruelling 7pm to close shift in a restaurant in Islington. Work 7 days a week, every week.

It’s finally getting a job, and having no fallback – it’s pay cheque-to-pay cheque living, with no buffer, while so many of the other juniors around you have holidays etc, paid for by family, living in flats where their rent is covered/free (their salary covering bills and entertainment), their mortgage deposit paid, or the property straight-out bought for them. I got an entry-level publishing job in 2006 and had just over £900 (net) to live on every month, in London, including rent and bills, working full-time. That was it – no extra, as there was no extra from anywhere.

At this time I was living in a £250pcm single room in a shared house on the Andover Estate in Finsbury Park, which was featured on ITV’s ‘Ann Widdecombe v The Hoodies’ at the time. It was the only rent I could afford when looking. (To be fair, there was a lot of drug dealing etc, but my neighbours were all really nice people.)

It was being made to feel crass and not ‘genteel’ when bringing up salary in appraisals, and the issue of it not increasing in line with workload, and being made to feel that conversation was unreasonable. It was being expected to act like having the job is a privilege but not being allowed to express that you’re barely surviving in order to do that job.

It’s not having a support network behind you who understand the lines on the map and can give you advice in advance as to how to navigate these kinds of conversations… how to stand up for yourself etc. It’s being too poor to push too much, as you’re too poor to lose that job.

It’s not always having the same literary or cultural reference points, but occasionally feeling looked down on because of this. It’s being an editor and people being shocked and aghast that you’ve lived your life having not yet read X, Y or Z. In my case my childhood house didn’t have many books, aside from an encyclopedia collection (which I know my parents worked hard to pay for in installments, and which I read/made great use of) and required school reading. All my reading was self-selected from the local library (Irish village of 80 people, so, as you can imagine, small; now sadly gone). I didn’t have anyone telling me what classics to read; I read what looked interesting.

It’s working alongside people who are privileged enough to be able to say they are more keen on having a title-only promotion, and forgoing the money, than the opposite. To me that was unfathomable. “How can people afford to think that way?” And then it happened to me – a promotion, but told there was no budget to give me a corresponding salary increase – and it made my soul die a little, realising the company had effectively closed that money conversation for at least another year if not two.

Class privilege is so engrained though… The most obvious and simplest place for change to happen is for internships to be paid, and entry-level positions to have realistic salaries attached. @thebookseller says: “There have been repeated calls to help make the sector more inclusive to all backgrounds, regardless of financial situation or class, but publishing remains a predominantly wealthy industry.” People need to be PAID to be able to afford to do these jobs.

Those who read don’t only made up from one class group, and we need more people around the table that represent readers across the board, and publish content to which they can connect and relate that’s relevant. And the reality is that people from working-class backgrounds who are trying to get into publishing, despite all the barriers, are being so utterly propelled by their love of books/reading, that that’s something to be celebrated, and embraced.

To take part in the research, please click here https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/6RCJ5P9, by 12 noon on Tuesday 19th February.

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