On the bias

In her “provocation” in The Bookseller this week, author Kamila Shamsie calls for a Year of Publishing Women in 2018—12 months when publishers will be focused on one gender, as will media and reviews coverage. It is a bold proposal, and no modest one. Shamsie is serious.

The challenge was first set out at the Hay Festival, in a speech commissioned by the Writers’ Centre Norwich as part of its series of debates entitled The National Conversation. The roots of it are well established, however. According to Shamsie, in adult publishing—particularly at the literary end—women are marginalised: from reviews to prizes. Her statistics are stark—over the past five years only 37% of those who have selected books of the year for the Guardian have been women, only 40% of books submitted to the Man Booker were written by women—and they were added to this week by a study of prizes by author Nicola Griffith, which revealed that novels, whatever the gender of their creator, do better if they feature male protagonists. Shamsie calls it a triple bind: more men get asked to participate, and more men say yes, and those men are more likely to select other men. As Shamsie concludes, the question isn’t: “Is there a problem?” It’s: “Are we recognising how deep it runs and do we know what to do about it?” 

In the week of the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction, it feels extraordinary to admit, but the answer is no. Extraordinary because we have become used to thinking of publishing as progressive in terms of gender. Despite the recent reshuffles at the top, there are visible and influential women at all levels in publishing (including the boardroom). The Bookseller Rising Stars reflects this—two-thirds are women—as would any survey of publishing’s rank and file. Commercially too, any imbalance is not obvious: for the first time since 2003, this week all six of our major charts are topped by women: a feat last achieved by male writers in September 2014. Yet one cannot deny Shamsie’s facts, or that creep of conservatism Baroness Gail Rebuck warned about earlier this year in a column for this paper reflecting on women in publishing. Shamsie’s solution is necessarily audacious. Yet, in truth, it is unlikely to be widely adopted by an industry that needs to fight for every sale and back every writer at a time when authorship itself is in jeopardy. 

As a jumping off point for a wider initiative, the provocation merits further industry-wide input. Whatever the Year of Publishing Women can become, it needs to be about more than just consciousness raising. Turning discussion into action is not easy, but a truly lasting influence should be to re-establish publishing at the forefront of this issue—a position it should never have ceded.