I remember very clearly the day I moved from being poor to being broke.
Pause; let’s stop there. Being poor is immovable; it doesn’t ebb and flow with payday. When the money comes in, it immediately goes out. There isn’t a moment when you feel that intense relief of knowing your fridge will be full and your heating will be on. It’s a relentless scraping of a nail down the back of your neck and underneath the skin that tells you, not only do you not have enough but you will never have enough under the current wave that rolls over and through you each day of each week of each month of the year.
Being broke – well that’s different. There are days – maybe if you’re frugally gifted, weeks - where you can walk into a shop and not worry about your card being declined. You can have a night out and not give your friend the half-smile of awkward recognition when they put a hand on your arm and say: “I got you.”
For most of my life I was poor. And then one day I wasn’t. One day I was just broke.
I went into a shop and I bought my lunch because I'd left it at home that day. I was hungry and I didn’t want to starve so I got myself a sandwich, a Twix and a Ribena (old habits die hard). And I didn’t think about it. I didn’t rage at my mistake. I didn’t berate myself for having to think, do I choose between food or transport for going home? I didn’t have to make a choice at all.
This was 2009 and I had moved to my second job. I moved from a wage of £18,000 a year to £23,000. I was so used to being poor that when I accepted the job, I didn’t ask how much I would earn until I saw it in the contract I was due to sign. The stance in publishing at the time was, well you should be grateful to be here because there are plenty of other people waiting to have this job. And there were – and they largely came from middle-class households, lived at home or had parents who could subsidise a lot of their living costs, so earning £18K a year for three to four years and maybe then rising to £21K/£23K for the next three to four wasn’t an issue. Money was important yes, but we were in this job for love – not financial reward.
And I had unfortunately fallen in love with books. That’s what love does – blinds us, makes us foolish even as it makes us happy.
The problem was, I did not live with family; I did not have a family to support me. I had a fiancé doing a masters who did not earn and I had to pay rent, which was £820 a month for a half-bed apartment in Zone 3, not including amenities or Council tax. My take-home pay after tax was £1150 a month. After rent, railcard (pre-Oyster, people), bills and food, I had a grand disposable income of £233.66 a month. I had to claim housing benefit. I shopped at Primark or charity shops before shopping at charity shops was considered vintage and was still just ya’ poor. I saw the way some of my colleagues looked at me – not all, but I still remember the ones who did, as they mill around in different industry roles – who commented on my clothes in the loos when they thought I was not around, or threw whispered jokes to each other they thought I couldn’t, or did not see when I loaded up my plate at the free canteen provided by work.
But this is not a pity-me story because fast forward 11 years and I just moved to a large house; I shop largely where I like. I can happily spend £35 on bronzer and not feel guilt. I am privileged and feel lucky every day at the choices afforded me by my wage. I was lucky, financially speaking, during the pandemic. I was not furloughed; my incomings were stable as my outgoings significantly dropped. But there wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t aware of my fortune, knowing that had this occurred at any time of my life before the last few years I would be in a dire position.
How many of us in this industry have had to use food banks over the last year? Or even before? How many of us have had to move home not because we want a bigger place, or want to be closer to family, but because we couldn’t afford our rent or mortgage? How many of us stopped having choices? Look around – that must exist but we will be damned if we ever acknowledge it because we still believe that publishing is unaffected on a micro level by the living conditions of others. Yet statistically and logically speaking that cannot be true.
Money is the thing that we all think about, talk about, need to have and yet our conversations around it in this industry – to my mind – are still woefully inadequate. As an agent I talk about monies and compensation of time and talent all day long. And yet, the conversation around wages still feels largely like a shot in the dark. There are plenty of agents and editors advocating for their businesses and clients across advances and royalties – negotiating the minutiae of value who, when they sit down across a table with their HR or manager, suddenly find their voices stuck in their throat.
And now that we are moving back to coming into the office, to meeting up and opening up, so our wallets will too. And what does that mean for us all moving forward? There are many moments when I have attended an amazing publishing party complete with oyster bar or swing band and bitterly joked across the crushed ice slabs – so this is why those editorial assistants are going to be denied a pay rise in the autumn. But now that doesn’t feel like an irreverent aside, but a situation with potentially dire repercussions.
I had drinks with a senior member of the industry recently, for whom I have deep respect and who is transparent about wages and earnings in their company, and we talked at length about this. They made a valid point – that a lot of people in our industry still earn more than teachers, and nurses and doctors on the front line. That in comparison to others and other arts-based industries we still do more for our employees financially. They aren’t wrong. But my counter to that is that while I cannot fix the disparity between how other systems value their employees, I can look at the system I am in and decide whether or not it is fair. And largely to my mind, it is not.
The pandemic has rocked every element of our lives and shaken them up like figurines in a snow globe. We will be feeling the fiscal, psychological and practical ramifications for decades. But as part of that examination, while we discuss flexible working and holistic methods of how to make our lives better, we also need to discuss the practical terms. Essentially, do people earn enough to compensate for their time and effort? Are we valuing ourselves fairly? Has any m.d. set up a safe space to discuss the financial effects of furloughing on their staff and whether they have the necessary requirements to come back to work?
You might think this is airy fairy bullshit. And you know what, I am not an m.d. I don’t run a company. I sit in a space of four people where we talk about money and wages with ease because we don’t run a corporation. But while I long for that ostentatious summer party, I don’t want it at the expense of someone’s ability to have a standard quality of life. I want to learn lessons from the last 18 months. I want to do some good with my voice. I can admire the woman I was 13 years ago and the work she put in to get to this place now, but I also know that there isn’t much between the version of her that drops off tampons and tinned food at a foodbank and the one who is waiting for those things at the same foodbank.
We are all near to the precipice of poor – some of us however are a lot closer than we realise.
Nelle Andrew is an agent at RML. She was named Agent of the Year at the 2021 British Book Awards, having been nominated in 2018 and was a Bookseller Rising Star in 2016.