Falsehood of Meritocracy (Publishing Edition)

Americans like to think we're a meritocracy, a place where talent and hard work rocket people towards their dreams.  Writers hold onto the thought that the world of literature is one, as well.  Who hasn't had someone tell them "just keep writing, you'll get it"?

We need to tell ourselves we'll get there, especially on difficult days.  But, will we?  And, is it just talent, determination, and a willingness to learn that marks the successful?

No.  There are many other factors that influence traditional publishing, whether or not people think so.

1.  An author's name:  In the business world, it is a fact that applicants with ethnic-sounding names are less likely to get called in for an interview than those with white-sounding names.  I'm betting that bias exists in some literary agencies.

2.  An author's finances: This entire post goes into how being well-off helps writers.

3.  The way books are categorized:  Is your book a murder mystery with a gay protagonist?  Think it fits in the "Mystery" section?  Tough!  It's now in a section for LBGT literature!  People who want mysteries are probably not going to look for mysteries in the LBGT section unless they're looking for LBGT Murder Mysteries; some people will look in that section, but it keeps a wider audience from finding it.
Since most people won't be looking in that "niche" specifically, your book now becomes a hard sell and few agents will be interested.

4.  Who an author knows:  Oh, he went to school with the son of Awesome Agent.  Hey, her mother is an editor.  Any author can forge wonderful connections, but some are more prone to having these connections with no effort.  Sometimes, publishing is like a club some just get born into.  They get lucky.  (This also ties into "class" like number two.)

5.  An author's physical appearance:  I've talked about attractiveness being an asset to writers.  A writer who will get less media attention is at a disadvantage.  If the engagements are given to those who are gorgeous, those seen as unattractive will have a harder time promoting.

6.  An editor can get hints about a writer from what is written:  I write poems about disability on occasion.  A literary magazine editor can't be positive I'm disabled, but many will feel safe making that assumption.
I had one editor who loved a poem about disability (and want to publish it) ask me if I am disabled.  When I answered, the editor replied and said she was sorry, but she read the poem again and didn't love it as much as she thought she did (I'm paraphrasing).

7.  Aggressive marketing required:  All publishers expect the author to help promote a book.  Some (for poetry, anyway) won't even consider your manuscript unless you can give them your marketing plan.  If an author is poor, they can't leave work to travel.  If an author is disabled, a book tour might be impossible.  If online marketing isn't good enough, a great book could get rejected because of an inability to travel (or whatnot).
Some authors start the climb halfway up a paper mountain, but might not even realize it.  If we were in their shoes, we'd probably take every advantage we could get without a second thought.  But, when people with those advantages claim they don't have them, it irks me.  It doesn't mean every writer who has a head start slacks off, but it does a huge disservice to them (and the writers around them) to ignore it.

What do you think?  Am I wrong about traditional publishing?

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