Self-Publishing and “Economically Privileged Authors”

I read an article on a blog called “it’s all one thing” (lowercase title in the original) with the title “I Challenge You To Stop Reading Economically Privileged Authors for One Year.”

I agree wholeheartedly with the basic premise of the article, that it is important to read outside of the echo chamber of one’s own social category and that upper middle class readers need to experience the voices of working class writers. When thinking about diversity it is important to include social class. We, far too often, ignore it completely.

But the expression “economically privileged authors” tripped me up a bit. Writing is hardly a lucrative profession.

Yes, I am lucky. I have resources that I would not have had I been born into poverty. I was raised in a home with “middle class values” and the confidence (and the pressure) that comes with that. “Take risks! Follow your dream! Your career should be a source of personal fulfillment!”  I am college-educated and have the vocabulary and accent of a professional. I can go into fairly upscale establishments and not look out of place. People give me the benefit of the doubt that I have credit cards to buy things and I am not there to rob the store. Thanks to my background I can hide my poverty, and as much as possible I do, because people make a lot of assumptions about those with no money. They are lazy, untrustworthy, incapable, unprofessional and selfish. I am none of those things, but as a working artist I am frequently poor. (My irregular income makes me at times very poor and at times almost among the middle class economically. So far, it has never made me rich.)

Writing the book “Broke is Beautiful” was therapeutic for me because it gave me the courage to admit this publicly, but one thing I hadn’t expected was the common criticism I would receive that I was a poverty poseur.  Coming from a background of privilege and being (currently) economically privileged are two different things. It’s not always as easy to know who the “poor” are as you think.

Will Shetterly,  the author of the “it’s all one thing” blog, was not talking about poverty though. He was talking about social class.

Reading stories from the point of view of working class characters, by writers from working class backgrounds, can help to solve one of the problems in our conversation about poverty and social class– the problem of “othering” and speaking about members of different social classes in distant abstractions.

There are two main ways that people talk about “the poor” one associated with the political right and the other with the political left. The first is to talk about poverty as though it were solely a matter of morality and personal choice. “Anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps if he has enough gumption. Therefore if you are poor it is because you are not working hard enough.” If you have experienced poverty for any length of time you know how much harder it is to accomplish things than when you are rich. You understand how one problem can set you back on multiple fronts. You know about the exhaustion of it and the personal strain. (People who are relatively comfortable often wonder why poor people go to payday lenders instead of borrowing money from friends or relatives. This assumes, first of all, that the friends and relatives have money to lend. It also entirely discounts the importance of social capital in a community with scant financial resources. A person who is already relying on friends and relatives– maybe a neighbor is watching her kids after school because she can’t afford day care or a friend is giving her rides to work– tries to preserve those relationships by not overly taxing them. It seems to the well-off person to be short-sighted, but in full context, it is actually a long-term view. Money problems may come and go, but your sister is going to be your sister for life, and she has a good memory.) The bootstrap theory is overly simplistic.

On the other hand, I sometimes cringe when I read defenses of the poor written by sympathetic college-educated, middle class people, who are aware of privilege but who have no personal experience of poverty. It is far too easy for empathy for the difficulties of the poor to morph into something like fatalism and pity. “There are all kinds of systemic obstacles. A black inner city kid can’t be expected to….” Birth is not destiny. A person from a marginalized group, with no money, has a much harder time of it. But it is as big a mistake to speak of those obstacles as defining, and to assume the person has no chance for positive change as it is to write the obstacles off as minor inconveniences.

Therefore we need more narratives written by and about competent, strong people who can paint vivid portraits of the drama of these obstacles.

“This is one of the rarely spoken truths of publishing: Most writers come from backgrounds of economic privilege,” Shetterly wrote.

The discussion about publishing and privilege tends to focus on traditional publishers. Self-publishing is supposed to be the great democratic force in publishing, allowing writers from groups that have been traditionally under-represented by the big houses to have their voices heard.

I wonder, though, if independent publishing can live up to this promise or if it will actually exacerbate the problem. I thought about this the other day when I was looking at some of the marketing options on Createspace. (I used Createspace for my current novel.)

These days publishing a book can be as easy as uploading a pdf  or Word file. Publishing is no longer the hard part. What is a challenge is bringing your book to the attention of readers and getting it to stand out among the glut of independently produced books. In other words, it is much easier to get a book into print than it is to get anyone to read it.

Reviewers have a lot on their plates and they are not interested in reading garbage. The few major reviewers who consider independent books look for ways to separate the wheat from the chaff. Kirkus, I discovered via Createspace, will review your book for a fee of $425, or in my terms, two car payments.

The idea behind this, if there is one besides a desire to make some money from the self-publishing boom, is that if someone is serious enough to invest in marketing the book, they were probably serious in its production as well.

I read quite a few blog posts written by authors trying to decide if the fee was worth it. It is probably “worth it” in that it grants a certain respectability to an independent title, especially if the review is positive. If you were to buy advertising in a publication with such status you would expect to pay this or more. It gives the indie writer a foot in the door. But if you do not have the economic means, the question is moot. There is no way a person living in poverty can come up with that much money– no matter what the benefits.

Of course a writer can, with a lot of effort, find a few bloggers he can personally persuade to champion his book. Book bloggers are absolutely inundated, and many try to reduce their load by limiting their selections to traditionally published books or those that are part of a blog tour.  Virtual blog tours are a great way to guarantee a few reviews without having to do the legwork yourself– but they are not cheap either. A typical price for a blog tour with a half dozen stops is $75-$100. A highly motivated author can substitute labor for money and can achieve similar results. It is just much, much harder.

Traditional publishers may favor books by authors from similar backgrounds to their own, but when they do publish a book they put in the money to make sure it is professionally edited, designed and marketed. In self-publishing all of those costs come out of the writer’s pocket.

The great democratic future of publishing runs the risk of becoming a playground for those who have some money to spare.

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