Generation XX

Women tend to dominate issues of The Bookseller. Last week it was Murtagh, Enright, Atkinson and Harper Lee; this week it is Baroness Rebuck, Tonkinson, Hawdon, Highsmith and Mona Eltahawy. They also dominate the trade—from recent Booker winners, to bestselling commercial fiction, to agenting, to publishing, and finally (perhaps crucially) to readers. It is more of a wonder, therefore, that all of the chief executives running our major trade publishing businesses are men. As we note in this week’s lead story, women power this business, but it is the men who are at the wheel.

Stating that something is the case—as many have done since August 2012 when Charlie Redmayne and Tom Weldon succeeded Victoria Barnsley and Gail Rebuck—is not the same as understanding why it is the case. As Rebuck, now Penguin Random House chair, notes the individual decisions “do not a crisis make”. And yet I am also mindful of Nosy Crow founder and m.d. Kate Wilson’s view that this is not about “an individual, this is about a pattern”. 

This week’s Lead Story attempts to do two things: to explore the issue around female advancement; and also to highlight those who are already well advanced. We focus on the big trade publishing groups solely because it is a peculiarly corporate issue. Outside of these giants there are women leaders aplenty, from Helen Kogan, to Caroline Michel, to Jacks Thomas, to Bridget Shine, to Kate Hopkin, to Susan Jurevics, to Seni Glaister. Even within the corporates the list of female executives shows that at board level, an even split prevails. In fact, as agent Julia Kingsford says, for years publishing has over-indexed in this area, partly down to the work of those pioneers Liz Calder, Ursula Owen and Carolyn Faulder, who through the founding of Women in Publishing turned a problem into an action group in 1979. 

How the sector readdresses this 30 years on is key. First, we can do more to focus on those women who are already leaders within their respective groups—from Sara Lloyd to Susan Sandon, from Laura Meyer to Alison Goff—and make sure their voices are not out-baritoned. Second, publishing needs to be as flexible in how it treats its workforce as creative sectors should be, and use digital as an enabler. This is significant. This new world demands a new way of working, and makes different calls on those working within it. Decentralised working could be one answer, but not if it comes with an ”always on” mentality. Even progress needs to keep up. 

Last, Rebuck writes that hers was a generation without a map and lacking role models. We need to remember that we have both now. The history informs this debate, and shows why it remains important.