I’ve been sitting on this post for the past couple of weeks, but I think it’s time I stuck my brass neck out again and said a few things on the dreaded topic of money, since it seems to keep coming up on social media.
Everyone, it seems, is talking about money and class in the arts right now. Whether that’s throwing rotten tomatoes at something that looks like a taxpayer-funded class safari, asking why there are so many middle-class actors and musicians, or just having the brass neck to actually demand being paid for writing. Why aren’t there more working-class people in the arts, then? What could be holding them back?
Well, alright, let’s run with it. Let’s take a hypothetical working-class writer hoping to make the big time. They’ve written a great story in their spare time, about spaceweasels landing on Mars, but they don’t know what to do next. So they have a look round the internet, and discover that a prestigious publisher is running a workshop just for them. It’s going to tell them all about how to query an agent, and grant them a precious half hour of networking plus ten minutes of an agent’s time. Perfect! Only… it’s in London, which is an awfy long way away from Glasgow. And it’s, er, £150 for a five-hour workshop before factoring in travel and overnight stays. But they’ll probably learn things they can’t get online for free, and it is a prestigious publisher.
But it’s a small price to pay, right?
That sorted, it’s onto the querying proper. Fortunately, they just read about a competition where an agent will look at your letter, synopsis and sample chapters. But it costs £15. Ah well, it’s a chance of a possibility for someone who knows their stuff to look at their query.
A small price to pay, no?
While they wait for query responses, they decide to try their luck at some fiction contests. Good news: a prestigious university is running one, with a top journalist as head judge. It’s a £12 fee to enter, but hey, there’s always ‘the chance to meet industry representatives’. Meanwhile, there’s another all-female contest charging £25 per novel. The top prize is a grand and a networking event with agents. Well, you could land that elusive deal. The same site is running a short story contest. Brilliant! Our writer has three stories all polished up, ready to get exposure. But… it’s £10 per story to enter. And the bit of the site that used to promise industry standard per-word rates for regular story submissions seems to have vanished. Must be a glitch.
Still, a small price to pay, isn’t it?
Summer rolls around, and with it convention season. Most are in London, naturally, and the last one our writer attended did cost upwards of £300 in travel, hotel and convention tickets, but there was that much-vaunted networking breakfast that turned out to be one publisher doing a Q&A with their writers, with none of the actual networking promised. The cakes were nice, though, and the writer went away with one business card.
Then the writer sits down and works out if they can afford to go to any events that summer. And they see how much everything else has cost. On the back of an envelope, that’s about £300 for the workshop, £15 for query advice, three novel contests totalling £60, and £30 of short stories. Which is over £400. They realise this could not only have paid for a whole weekend convention, but they could’ve jumped on a low-cost flight to somewhere in Europe and made their own writing retreat in a hotel for a week. They decide to forego the convention.
Because small prices add up.
I don’t write this to deliberately get backs up, but I’ve started noticing a growing trend for not-free things being shared on social media. I’ve actually had to make a section of my submissions spreadsheet blacklisting places – which I obviously have anonymised here – who do this sort of thing. And it’s everywhere. A Scrivener mailing list just lost my subscription because they started pulling the ‘pay for this course and you WILL be published and make £loads!’ bollocks. An actual excerpt is below:
Return on investment is a terribly weaselly, buzzwordy phrase. It demands that you put that financial effort in, even if you can barely afford it, even if you’re effectively paying to be rejected. To play devil’s advocate, I’m all for paying those in the industry a fair wage; perhaps these fees are going to staff to read entries, and not being pocketed by the higher-ups. It’s never entirely clear to me, though, and these things are often buried in the terms and conditions. In an ideal world, we’d have public funding for every opportunity, where arts funding wasn’t being slashed left right and centre. We’d have grants, maybe, to help those from lower incomes take part in these things. But we don’t, and I’m no politician, and I don’t have all the answers.
Let’s suppose some fees are a means of quality control. I’ve heard of this happening before- there was one agency that used to charge reading fees in the belief that this discouraged the bad applicants. But what it actually does is discourage the less well-off writers. Now, if you’ve weighed up the pros and cons and you’ve found, say, a contest that guarantees you a five-figure sum and a book deal for a small fee, and you can afford that tiny financial hit, then by all means knock yourself out. That professional membership that’s given you some really useful networking and chances to be more widely published? Great. But however you dress it up, for each of us who can just about afford these chances, there’s a hell of a lot of people looking at missed opportunities because they’d quite like to eat and pay the rent.
In other words, by ramping up the number of fee-charging contests and events, we’re shutting out the people we’re supposed to be encouraging in the first place. And it’s doubly disappointing when efforts are being made to encourage women and BME writers. Class will always, it seems, remain the elephant in the room. So I just want you to know I’m keeping a wee eye on it from now on. And if you know some great contests and workshops that are either free or have some form of sizeable means-tested assistance, please let me know. You’d be doing the big working-class elephant a favour.