Class is a sticky subject. What is ‘poor,’ Precious?
In basic terms, to the best of my ability right now, ‘poor’ is having to forego things you absolutely need to prioritise other things you absolutely need. This can be going without medical care because you need rent. It can be paying the electric bill and buying only ramen to eat. It could be not getting the antibiotic you need because you needed to put petrol in the car.
I’m a member of this generation. (The tl;dr version of that link is that people in their 20s-30s are significantly worse off now compared to older generations than at any other point in recorded history outside like…war zones, go us!)
But class goes deeper than just that. And access is about multiple layers of things. This post will be in no way exhaustive. It’s based mostly on my own experience, but there’s plenty of data out there to back it up, because it’s not exactly a mystery that class and access go hand in glove. When it comes to professions like mine (the arts — I am a professional writer and get paid for my writing), the layers of access are legion, and it would be too much to line out in one post. Nonetheless, here is a primer.
Access is Practical
Did you hear of that amazing writing retreat? Want to go? Well, it costs several thousand dollars and requires taking several weeks off work to attend. What about that conference? There’s a membership fee, and hey, it’s over a weekend! You can go to that, right? Well…I work doubles on weekends, and the tipped employee wage doesn’t even cover my taxes, so…I can’t.
But this workshop offers scholarships, you say! They cover part of the tuition, etc. Well…that still leaves travel money, the time off work, and stuff like, you know, what you’re going to do with the kid for two weeks if you’re a single parent (or even if you’re not).
As much as I hate the word ‘networking,’ I’m going to use it. It’s part of human nature to connect meaningfully face to face, and while sure, we live in the Information Age and you can meet people online, sitting down with a group of people after a day of panels in the hotel bar? That right there is access — to people who are usually behind several layers of communication barriers because everybody who wants to be published wants to talk to them. Getting to know people in the industry may not be essential to success, but it certainly helps create an advantage. That advantage may be material, like if you meet an agent or editor and they decide they want to see your work. It may be friendship, which is sort of priceless and wonderful. It may be both or all or any number of other things. It might be seeing a name on a bestseller list and thinking, “Heh, I once saw him singing Karma Chameleon at karaoke at three in the morning after the fourth round of mai tais.”
If you query an agent and tell them you met them at SuperMadeUpCon 2015 and you had a charming conversation about corgis, they’ll likely be thinking, “Aww. Corgis. I liked that person!” when they start reading your query, and as much as it sucks, people’s moods and little memory markers do matter in a subjective industry based on people finding projects to represent and acquire that they have to love.
Cons and workshops, retreats and pitch sessions — these things all cost time and money, and often a lot of it. Between travel, entrance fees, board, etc., they can easily run hundreds to actual thousands of dollars when that all adds up. Beyond this, even knowing about opportunities is an access issue. Poorer classes of society learn survival, whereas more financially stable classes learn investment. Part of the latter is learning to find and seek out opportunities, how to know one’s rights. I remember being baffled at university when I learned for the first time that there were programmes that could help me. I flat didn’t know about them. Just this week, I asked some adult women I know how you go about finding a doctor. I’m 31. I’ve spent almost all my life without health insurance. I literally did not know (and it’s still kind of fuzzy because ‘Murican Healthcare and No Insurance).
Bringing it back to publishing, access to information can be as tough an obstacle as access to those in-person resources. Sure, the internet is a thing. But internet access itself is not a given for poor folks, who may not have a smartphone, who may not be able to afford internet access at home, who may not be able to afford the bus fare to a public library (or even be aware that they can access the internet at a public library). This has nothing to do with intelligence — plenty of smart poor people don’t know where to find helpful resources. And sometimes even knowing about them, we might not assume they’re for us.
Access is Not Limited to Trade Publishing
Right, so when self-publishing blew up, there were many, many cries about how it leveled the playing field. No longer did you have to depend on the subjectivity of the faceless publishing folks on their inky clouds in New York, but you could do it yourself. You could put your book up for sale and get it done all by your bad self!
In some ways, that was very true. Self publishing did open a lot of doors for a lot of people. In other ways though, it goes back to both the previous points of practical access: knowing how to do such a thing (and all the requisite puzzle pieces therein) isn’t as simple as flinging a manuscript into the wind, and there is financial cost involved.
If you happen to be a marvelous cover designer, formatter, marketer, etc.? Whee, congrats. For those of us who aren’t, well. The competition in all of publishing is stiff. You need to stand out while pinging recognisable aspects (have an eye-catching cover that is indicative of its genre). You need a professionally put-together product. Editing, formatting, and designing a book is not cheap. If you’re on your own and can’t do any of it yourself and can’t trade resources with others, it can easily run thousands. While you can just slap a book up on Amazon with relative ease, if you want to be successful, the chances of that working are…not great.
When my first book deals dissolved due to company restructuring, I self-published the books that had been acquired. And they did really well! They’re still doing well! But there is no way in hell I would have been able to do such a thing if I’d had to pay up front for stuff. I had a friend who traded me for my first several covers. Without that, I would not be doing what I’m doing right now. Looking forward, I will be eschewing print versions of my self-pubbed books because they don’t sell well enough to justify the extra several hundred dollars overhead for each book.
Access is Intersectional
Class is a big part of the pie when we’re talking about access, but class often intersects with other aspects that influence a person’s way of going through the world. If you navigate the world in a wheelchair, that changes any number of things. If you’re poor and in a wheelchair, you may assume additional financial barriers as well as the consistent worry that when you get where you’re going, you physically won’t be able to access rooms, panels, parties, etc. This goes right along with discussions of race, sexuality, mental illness, gender identity, and more. It’s one thing to be able to afford the money cost of going to a professional event or participating in a professional circle of some kind, and it’s something else to also have to consider one’s physical safety beyond the level of “what if I get into a fender bender?” or “what if a dragon actually attacks Dragon*Con?”
This also goes beyond the monetary and physical. When you’re querying or submitting as a member of any marginalised group, you know — you know — that you have to wonder if each rejection is because of the quality of your work or if it is that something else. If it’s your queerness, your gender identity, that your name “sounds” Black, that your characters are POC. Sometimes you’ll get told flat out that such and such agent or editor already has a “bipolar book.” (True story that has happened to people I know.) Sometimes you’ll get told that something you wrote isn’t commercial enough, and you know that such phrases are coded because while all marginalised people are brought up with the necessity of engaging with stories that don’t reflect us, all marginalised people are told implicitly and explicitly that our stories are other and that the majority demographics won’t find them accessible. Which, you know. Irony in action, to be told that you can’t access your field because the status quo might find you unaccessible when you are required by default to find them accessible.
Access is an Issue on All Levels
Publishing as an industry is not known for its high salaries. To get in on the agent/editor side, you often start with unpaid internships. In Manhattan, most likely. Last time I checked, the price of living in or near Manhattan is demonstrably higher than free.
This creates a dearth of people from the start who don’t have the means of support for the one or two or more years it might take to start earning any kind of salary at all. A full time unpaid internship and a part time job isn’t going to cut it in one of the world’s most expensive cities. This access to the ability to become part of the decision making squad is a demonstrated issue. On the writing side as well, publishing is a long game of no money. I was writing with the goal of it being my career for over ten years and had written seven completed novels before I saw a single cheque. I spent 2009-2015 working 80-100 hours a week in a fever to kick start my career. I don’t have health insurance. I have no children and don’t want any. I (knock on wood) have not had an major health catastrophes. (Though I should note that I have multiple health issues that are going unaddressed because ‘Murica.) Aside from the mountain of debt that comes from having borrowed my way to a degree and credit cards that saved my arse once upon an extra hard time, I have relatively few expenses, and…I can still barely get by. My body can’t take working 80-100+ hour weeks anymore.
I’m far from alone. Most of the writers I know are really struggling. It is an absolute luxury to be able to write without worrying about money. To write or pursue your chosen career path knowing your bills are paid, your health is cared for, your kids are fed, your home is yours. When you’re starting out a career and you hear that you should to go to conventions and conferences, you slowly deflate when you start figuring out how much that will cost you. What you see peers doing suddenly is insurmountable for you yourself.
Access Isn’t Bootstrap-able
It’s not as simple as just working harder until something breaks and you get through. Access is intersectional and multilayered, and you can only do what you can do. What you are physically, emotionally, and mentally capable of doing. I have a good friend who was determined to be a literary agent. She interned, she had savings, and by the end of three years, she had to quit because she had no support to keep doing it, and agenting is a more than full time job by itself. She was working additional jobs, and she knew that if her class situation was different, her options would be different. As it was, she had to leave a job she loved because it was not ultimately accessible to her. This is something that intersects big time with race and gender identity and disability. Being in a higher social class can mitigate some (big honking obvious NOT ALL) of the factors of being a minority, and being in a lower social class most definitely compounds them.
These issues are hard as hell to fix because they’re tied into where they fit in the greater cosmos of a vanishing middle class, increasing income inequality, and younger generations who are doing worse than their parents in spite of being better educated, working longer hours, and having less job security.
So what can we do? Aside from fixing the world’s economies and creating utopia or, alternatively, summoning Cthulu and just watching the world burn?
Chuck Wendig had a lovely little idea once upon a February, and free workshops/cons/etc. would be fantastic. Con or Bust is a great org that helps fans of colour attend SFF cons. There are some grants out there for writers. Some cities have an Arts District, and if you’re an established art creator who earns money from your art at all, living in said district can exempt you from state income tax or provide other benefits.
These are all good things that exist. Publishing has many big access issues, and this is just one corner of them and one I’m very familiar with. After all this, I really don’t know the answer. I’ve sacrificed a lot to try and make this career work for me. I’ve worked back to back doubles for weeks on end to afford going to cons, and that is just not an option for some people. It’s no longer an option for me anymore. Hard work over a long period of time might increase chances of success, in theory. Who knows? But how can we help expand access to people with stories worth telling?
I don’t have the answers. What I do know is this: no matter how poor some of us are, we’re all richer when we share in one another’s stories.
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