This is How Getting Published is Getting Harder

Is the traditional writing economy kneecapping opportunities for newcomers?

Hannah Davies
Jun 6, 2020 · 5 min read
Image via Jonny Caspari, Unsplash.

Gwyneth Paltrow. Hillary Duff. Pete Wentz. Lance Armstrong. Kendall Jenner.

I’m not naming famed celebrities at random. These are all millionaires who have received book deals with major publishers. Every single one of them used a ghostwriter.

Of course there are many more, unconfirmed, hidden behind the shiny familiar faces stacked in bookstore windows. Evidence is understandably slippery to obtain for a ghost.

My disquiet doesn’t stem from hiring ghostwriters. This is just an understandable knock-on effect of celebrities being paid millions in advance for books they can’t write.

The buck stops with the traditional publishing industry.

Book sales are going up; authors are earning less. Celebrity books are on the rise; big publishers see taking on non-famous writers as risky.

This is harmful.

#1 It robs us of writers.

I’m not worrying this is potentially/maybe going to muffle poor, black, queer, immigrant voices in the future. I’m saying it already has, and the statistics are scary.

Let’s take a 2018 CREATe survey of 50,000 professional writers based in the U.K.

  • Gender gap. 55% of respondents were male, and female writers earned ~80% of their writing income, on average.
  • Racial gap. 94% were White. 2% identified as Mixed, 1% as Asian, 1% as Black, and 7% as Other. This is not representative of the U.K population as a whole, with black and Asian residents underrepresented in the occupation.
  • Age gap. Most of them started earning in 1999. Just 4% of respondents as writers were aged between 25–34, even less under 25: which might explain why none of the teenagers in novels sound quite like the terrifying nihlists my generation have been told we are.
  • Wealth gap. From 2006, median earnings fell by almost half (42%). In 2018, the average writer made £10,497. That’s not enough to live on. Yet the average writer’s household makes £81,000 a year: an upper-class income. Hm.

These findings are mirrored in research undertaken by the United States and the EU. Compared to a decade ago, it is harder to get taken on as a new writer, and its harder to earn a living from. Writing books full-time is now a rarely affordable luxury. This is pushing people who can’t afford to spend the time on it out.

So to summarise the data, literature is dominated by…old rich white men. Surprise!

Why is this a problem, deeper than unfairness? If viral satiric tweets from women describing how they’d be written by a male author (hint: there’s a lot on “big shapely calves”) are anything to go by, writers are a lot better when writing what we know, and writing from our own perspective.

This leaves two options for writers. They can write a) what they know, which is the lives of themselves, their friends, and their experiences. Or they can write b) other people and demographics, clunkily. When the majority of writers are from the same batch, then the books produced do not reflect the kaleidoscope of human experience clearly. We get lush stories about rich, white lives. Or we get, well. This.

Considering the whole point of literature, repeatedly claimed by academics and authors, is to hold a mirror to shared reality, isn’t it alarming that our current mirror is a tiny, distorted funhouse one?

#2 It robs us, as readers.

If we’ve learned anything from that infamous rendition of “Imagine”, its that rich people do not have the same experiences as the vast majority of us. They reflect a very small segment of society. One that is often wildly out of touch.

That is a dangerously narrow worldview to leave literature in the hands of.

Plus, the same tale gets boring. However beautifully it is written, I am tired of reading about rich kids behaving terribly in the 70s and 80s. I’m tired of dead wives and divorces and revenge plots. Tired of reading about an abundance of glittery gay men drawn to appeal to female readers, while same-sex female relationships are only found in invisible ink. I want to know about the day-to-day in a black barbers. I want to know what it was like growing up in the Philippines, or as an aging lesbian musician, or surviving on the dole under Margaret Thatcher, in the mining towns I was raised in. I want to hear someone else.

It’s like going to an open mic night, and one slightly drunken guy has the microphone. At first it’s genuinely entertaining, and you laugh along. But now he won’t give it to somebody else and there are only five minutes left? Its more than a little uncomfortable to watch.

For both education and entertainment, and to construct a true mirror of the human times we live in, we need the publishing world to do better than this.

That world doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

In 2015 when I left highschool, one of the mandatory books was Purple Hibiscus, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (most-famous for Things Fall Apart, or for my generation: speech sample on Beyoncé’s ***Flawless? Yeah, that was her.) set in Nigeria. It was a breath of fresh air from Shakespeare to wonder what onugbu soup was, and what it would taste like.

With curriculum changes under the U.K Conservative Government, any studied book in British schools from the 20th Century onwards must now be a) written in the British Isles and b) originally written in English. I know because in my work tutoring English, these are the only books I am now specified to teach.

Needless to say, Purple Hibiscus is no longer on the list. It was the only book I picked up as a teenager that so much as touched upon Britain’s colonialist history, and its lingering impact as seen within another country. In an age of flag-waving Brexit, against current widespread protests in sympathy for George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, this enforced absence is disturbing. To say the least.

Diversity in literature opens our eyes, one second-hand sip of soup at a time. Being presented only one perspective across multiple books is not a perspective at all: it is a blindfold.

I hope that together: with sharing resources online, with some publishers now pushing to seek out and nurture minority writers, with passing along the microphone and listening to new voices, we can one day rip it off.

“‘Diversity should just be called reality. Your books, your TV shows, your movies, your articles, your curricula, need to reflect reality.”

— Tananarive Due

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Hannah Davies

Written by

Accredited psychologist, England. Smuggling useful truths out of academia. Gen Z.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

Hannah Davies

Written by

Accredited psychologist, England. Smuggling useful truths out of academia. Gen Z.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

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