Historically, the publishing industry has been predominantly middle class and white. In 2023, the publishing industry is still predominantly middle class and white.
Publishing is the least socially diverse of all the UK’s creative industries. 47% of all authors, writers and translators hail from middle class backgrounds, compared with just 10% of those who are working class.
Paul McVeigh, author of The Good Son, grew up in a working class household in Belfast. He believes a number of factors contribute towards the continued underrepresentation of working class writers including financial difficulties, a lack of confidence and not having a seat at the table.
Paul, 55, began his career in theatre. He felt unwelcome in a middle class publishing industry, and there were no examples of working class Irish authors who had achieved the very same dream he was trying to chase. “When I was in school, I didn’t read any books that were written in a working class voice.
“There’s the expression you have to see it to be it – I didn’t see a lot of working class writers when I was growing-up, therefore I didn’t think it was a place where there was space for me or that people would want to buy a book from me.
He explained it’s common for working class authors to begin their career in other professions: “My first novel didn’t come out till I was 45.
“Being from that background, I had a lack of confidence in my grammar and vocabulary. I went into theatre first and navigated my insecurities there because you could write dialogue, and dialogue doesn’t have to be grammatically correct – you can just write how people speak.
“It’s a real common thing for working class authors to go off do other things, and then later in life when you have more confidence you think ‘fuck it, I’m going to give this a go because I’m not going to forgive myself if I don’t ever try this.’”
According to a report by Goldsmiths, 43% of people working in the publishing industry, including those in influential editorial roles are middle class, with only 12% from working- class backgrounds.
And while middle class writers are more likely to already have connections within the industry, it’s much harder for those who are working class.
“You’re just not in those networks,” Paul said.
“A friend of mine went to Cambridge University and she went to a dinner party and just happened to be sitting next to an editor from one of the top five publishers.
“She mentioned she was writing a book and the editor automatically told her she could send it. But if you’re working class then you’re not going to be at that dinner party. You’re not in those environments so you don’t get those shortcuts into the industry.”
In a survey by The Bookseller, 78% of working class writers said their background had hindered their career, while 52% of middle class writers said their background had advantageously affected their career.
“Something that’s very common for working class people who want to write is that you have a real inherent lack of confidence – you just don’t think you have a seat at the table.
“I didn’t think I could ever be a writer because you don’t see many examples or other working class writers doing well.”
When Paul was growing up during the 1970s and 80s in Northern Ireland, working class children were encouraged to leave school early and find jobs, rather than obtaining qualifications.
“In my house, there wasn’t a place to do your homework and we didn’t have any books,” Paul recalled.
“Being from a working class background, you weren’t encouraged to do well in school and they didn’t offer A Levels – you had to ask special permission to take those exams.
“You were just expected to be stupid and fail if you were working class.”
Photo: Paul McVeigh by John Minihan
And it would be impossible to discuss the underrepresentation of working class authors without money coming into the discussion. Paul said: “There’s a reason most people in the industry are middle class and upper-middle class; they can afford to be in very low or non-paid schemes where they learn to be better writers.
“But if you’re working class then you can’t afford to do that. You can’t work for six months for nothing.”
In Bookseller’s 2019 survey, working class authors described feeling “alien” in the publishing trade, with their education and financial background meaning they had struggled to secure internships, to live in London, embrace the networking culture and progress through the industry.
The survey, which aimed to understand the extent to which working class staff felt alienated in the book trade, also found working class authors don’t have the finances to attend networking events or interviews.
“I remember when I first moved to London and went to a networking event at a restaurant in Soho,” Paul recalled. “There were 30 of us and I didn’t have any money at the time. I walked across London to get there, and only ordered a CocaCola because that’s all I could afford.
“People were ordering expensive dishes and drinking wine. When it got to the end, they suggested we split the bill equally.
“I went to the toilet and I was physically sick. I didn’t know what I was going to do, or how I was going to pay for it.
“It put me off going to those networking events because you just can’t afford it. It becomes awkward after a while -you can’t always turn up to things saying that you’re the one with no money.”
And even for working class authors that are lucky enough to break into the industry, many are still struggle to support themselves.
According to The Society of Authors, the average earning for authors in 2022 was £7,000, down from £12,330 in 2006.
The income of full-time professional authors has also fallen by more than 60% in the past 16 years, with the top 10% of authors earning 47% of all author income.
And it’s a reality that Paul knows all too well: “The average debut novelist only gets £1,000. I got £500 for The Good Son.
“I spent 10 years writing my first novel whilst juggling other jobs and I think back and I’m like, was it all worth it?
“Was it worth all of that hard work and putting all of my heart and soul into it? Would I really want to go through that again?”
Paul believes you have to be financially secure in order to work as an author, something which many middle-class writers have the luxury of. “There’s a lot of luck involved with success in the arts and a lot of working class authors don’t have the financial support to keep that dream alive.
“It becomes embarrassing to get to a certain age and to be going around to people saying you want to be a writer. People think if you haven’t made it by that age, then what are you doing?
“Working class authors are often put off from working in this industry because the amount you get paid just isn’t enough to live and pay bills.”
And whilst reading this, you may have been racking your brain, thinking of all the working class authors who have been successful. Yes, we’ve had John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men), Charles Dickens (Hard Times) and George Orwell (Animal Farm) – but they are still far outweighed by the prevalence of middle class authors.
Less representation means we are only able to read a partial account of the working class experience. But unfortunately, when the people responsible for decision making in the publishing industry are middle class, it makes it more likely that they’ll choose middle class stories to publish.
As Chris McCrudden, a communications planner who dissects data on publishing trends, said: “Publishing is an upper-middle class industry whose output caters to upper-middle class tastes.”
And Paul agrees: “The writing of a working class author doesn’t speak to them, so when they have a massive pile of pitches and they pick out four or five, they’re probably not going to pick yours because they don’t understand it, or why the characters are behaving the way that they are.
“Not only does this stop working class authors from being able to fulfil their dreams, it means as an audience you lose out on reading different voices and different experiences – rather than seeing the same voices represented over and over again.”
In 2021, Paul edited and published The 32, an anthology celebrating working class voices from Ireland.
The anthology aimed to highlight working class writers who had been able to overcome the hurdles faced when trying to make it into the industry, and inspire those who are trying to follow in their footsteps.
“What’s great about The 32 is that there’s 32 different versions of being working class. Although there are similarities, none of them are the same – we’re not just ‘one story’.
“There are working class people who had great upbringings and who were supported and had books in their house, and then there’s the other side of that scale – people who were actively discouraged and didn’t finish education.
“If you’re working class you just don’t have the examples of people who went and did it before you – that needs changing.”
As Paul explained, The 32 showcased a range of experiences of what it’s like to be working class, moving away from the ‘one story’ trope that working class people can be confined to.
“The danger with the one story trope is that it becomes poverty porn. People don’t just want to hear stories where everything’s fine all the time, they want it to be hard and then there be a breakthrough.
“I remember talking about this at an event and someone put their hand-up and said ‘yeah, but there was Trainspotting.’
“But Trainspotting was 30 years ago and it was set in Scotland. It’s this attitude of ‘we’ve had that now’, and even though you’re Irish and not Scottish, you’re still not English so it all counts as the same.
“It’s like they only have room for one working class story. There can be thousands of middle class women writing about family and divorce, but one story about a working class kid is all we need.”
But what will it take for a diverse range of working class voices, and stories, to be published?
Paul said: “I think it is a little bit easier now. People like Kit De Waal (who produced Common People, an anthology of 17 working class authors from around the UK) are going out and making an impact and bringing working class authors to the attention of other people in the industry.”
Publishers are also now making calls for authors from underrepresented backgrounds, in order to increase diversity within the industry.
Penguin Random House has launched schemes to find and publish writers from under-represented communities, while agencies like the Good Literary Agency, which is committed to representing writers from marginalised groups, have been successfully established.
Paul added: “I saw an article the other day from a middle class author, talking about the fact that agents and publishing houses are looking for writers from different backgrounds, whether that be working class or LGBTQ+.
“This writer was really giving off and saying no one was interested in them anymore because all they’re looking for is working class people, but is it not enough that you’ve had the easiest route for a hundred years?
“They don’t even see how outrageous that is.”
But in a world where diversity and inclusion is promoted more than ever before, surely working class stories matter just as much? Well, tell that to the publishing industry.
If you liked this post then read Why the rise in LGBTQ+ romance novels is important or Scrounger or Superhero? Exploring the portrayal of single mothers in fiction next.
Paul, born in Belfast, began his career as a playwright before moving to London where he wrote comedy shows, which were performed at the Edinburgh Festival and in London’s West End. Moving into prose, his short stories have been published in anthologies, newspapers and literary journals and read on BBC Radio 3, 4 & 5.
His story was published in Common People, edited by Kit de Waal, as well as being the editor of The 32, the Irish equivalent. His novel, The Good Son, won The Polari First Novel Prize. He now lives back home in Belfast and is acting Head of Literature for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
Yasmin is a third year journalism student at The University of Sheffield, specialising in feature writing. She has previously written for the Sheffield Tribune and women’s magazine Pick Me Up! She is particularly interested in how mental health issues are portrayed in fiction.
Favourite genres: Romance, Crime and Thrillers.