Almost 80% of people in the publishing industry who see themselves as working class feel that their background has adversely affected their career, The Bookseller’s research has shown.
In a survey of 1,167 people, many respondents described feeling alien in the publishing trade, with their education and financial background meaning that they have struggled to secure internships, live in London, embrace the networking culture and progress through the industry. Some described struggling to be able to afford to attend interviews—either due to transport costs or loss of earnings as a result of taking time off to do so—while others cited derisive comments, lack of pay transparency and a feeling of "otherness". Frequent phrases included a feeling of being "outside looking in", "a duck out of water" and "lack[ing] cultural shorthand".
Just under half of respondents identified as working class (47%), in a question which drew criticism from some academics, who argued that self-identification would skew the results. However, factors influencing identification varied from "Because I am" (from one director who earns more than £50,000), to several who said "Because I work for a living". Some described growing up in council flats, dependent on benefits and attending failing schools. Others said that although publishing was considered a middle-class profession, they still considered themselves working class.
The most striking statistic was the 78% of working class respondents who said their background had adversely affected their career—a stark figure which senior publishers told The Bookseller they found surprising and disappointing, having believed that strides had been made in recent years to have a more representative workforce and output. This was in contrast to the non-working class partici- pants, 52% of whom said their background has advantageously affected their career.
Pride and prejudice
Prejudice or discrimination in regards to background was reported by 50% of the working-class respondents—many described it as "mild" or "in jest", but said it contributed to them feeling inferior—the word "accent" cropped up 52 times and many reported teasing or mimicking. "All well-intentioned, I’m sure, but added to the feeling of being out of place," one author said.
The sense of alienation was heightened by the overwhelming feeling that publishing was unhelpfully focused in London. Across working-class respondents, 92% believed that the geographical concentration of publishing in London made it difficult to enter the industry. More than half of the respondents overall (673) were based in London, and throughout the survey responses there was a strong desire for publishing businesses to open offices outside London. One author commented: "Working-class writers cannot afford regular travel and accommodation to and from London. A published author told me her (Big Five) publisher wouldn’t pay for her trips to their [office], despite her being on a low income."
Intensifying the concerns over the London-centric nature of publishing were anxieties around networking, with many working-class respondents living further outside the capital or feeling overwhelmed by the "[received pronunciation] over canapés". "I lacked confidence to network initially,” one London-based publisher revealed, while one author, who grew up on a council estate, said that a "lack of confidence made it harder to infiltrate the industry and network with industry people". A junior publisher echoed this, speaking of a "lack of contacts and time, as I had to work extra jobs while first job-hunting and then as I started out. I often felt ‘guilty’ about missing networking events and other talks, etc, as I had to work a shift for my extra job."
Connected to this were frustrations with nepotism, with many claiming informal networks were used to enter the industry. A début author said: "Publishing is a very networked nepotistic industry, where referrals are important. This affects everything from publishing opportunity to media coverage. Also, it is difficult to gain the social skills to understand the hidden rules/culture behind these middle-class networks." They added: "Publishers and agents need to stop referrals from within their social networks and be more transparent in their hiring and recruiting practices." A junior publisher, addressing chief executives, pleaded: "Please, for the future of this industry, do not directly speak about your want to diversify it. Publish honest statistical reports about pay gaps and hiring methods. Do not partake in nepotism."
At the heart of the responses was money, and how the lack of it could impact on confidence and opportunity. In the earnings brackets, only 5% of those respondents identifying as working class earned £50,000 or above, less than half the percentage of non-working class respondents (13%). One intern, who relies on benefits to supplement their wage, said: "Confidence is low because I can’t do the things other people do easily. Everyone in publishing speaks with money. Even their ethical drink-holders are too expensive for me." A mid-level publisher said: "At several points I considered leaving the industry as I was concerned about the long-term effects my salary would have on my pension and my ability to own a home."
An unpublished author and single parent of five, living on a council estate in Northern England, described "trying to make ends meet while doing four part-time jobs for low pay". She described disappointment over a failed bursary application which meant she could not pursue a writing MA, and was one of many to cite the importance (or perceived importance) of courses in the industry, and their costs. She also discussed the "more subtle" snobbery around class. "When I went to the London Book Fair a few years ago, someone very clever, very well dressed and frightfully important—and very, very aware of these things—made comments about badly dressed authors clutching manuscripts. I was mortified. Talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve; you really do when you’re walking around the London Book Fair looking hopeful."
Open and honest
The need for salary transparency frequently arose in answers and concerns around staff retention and the progression of working-class staff, with some reporting that they were feeling forced out of the trade. Only 46% of working class respondents were in the top three brackets of seniority (mid-level, senior, director or higher) compared to 60% of non–working-class respondents. "When you grow up in a working-class family, particularly one where education has been scant, there’s often a lot of fear around money and authority, and a feeling of being lesser, somehow," a London-based staffer said. "This is really hard to overcome, and sometimes it really, really affects your ability to progress in publishing."
A mid-level publisher, who did not identify as working class, agreed with this sentiment: "I have seen colleagues from a working-class background dismissed and replaced by those from upper-middle-class backgrounds, without the post being advertised, presumably on the basis of being a ‘better fit’ for the company."
A mid-level bookshop employee echoed this. "I think there is the mentality of a closed-off network of middle-class public schoolboys in the company I work for. You can only progress so far before you hit a glass ceiling."
One junior employee revealed, in stark detail, her struggle to ascend in the industry. "I’ve seen many rise through the ranks while I’ve been sat in the same job for six years... I hadn’t thought much about class until [this] survey, and the more I think about it, the more I wonder about something as simple as not being able to engage in the many conversations about owning a home or the three holidays a year." The respondent also concluded: "I’m now looking at other options. If I regret anything, it’s that I spent far too long trying to find my place in an industry that doesn’t want me."
The question that yielded the most responses of the survey was the final one: "Do you think more could be done to help people from working-class backgrounds become writers or work in the publishing industry? If so, give suggestions." The answers form a blistering 62-page dossier for change, and unpicked the anger over internships (the word "intern" or "internship" was mentioned almost 120 times in the responses), particularly the lack of (or poor) pay associated with such roles, and the nepotism which often secures them for people of certain backgrounds. Stronger salaries for all entry-level roles was commonly mentioned, as was the need for outreach, engagement and mentoring outside the publishing bubble.
Many urged publishers to look beyond London, and it appears that a step in the right direction could be the Manchester-based operation currently being considered by Penguin Random House and the Northern Fiction Alliance. Ian Hudson, c.e.o. of DK, also revealed that he is open to having a DK office outside London in the future.
Hudson, who comes from a working-class background, told The Bookseller he hoped the survey results would incentivise the industry to embrace the issue as an opportunity, rather than a battering ram. "We’re trying to attract more people from different social backgrounds," he said. "But if [almost] 80% of people in the business are not being fully utilised, there is a great opportunity to tap into that talent pool."