Last week we reported that more than 50% of those who had completed our sexual harassment survey had experienced some form of mistreatment at work, with a higher proportion being women, and those working in publicity, bookselling and writing. This week, we report on the industry’s response, with each of the trade associations preparing to discuss the problem, and a number of publishers taking the opportunity to restate their policies. As Stephen Lotinga, c.e.o. of the Publishers Association, put it: “Any single example of harassment is completely unacceptable.”
Not every reaction has been so empathic. The publishing industry is working hard to show itself to be open as a career to candidates from a diverse range of backgrounds and some questioned whether it was right to suggest that the business was not safeguarding the welfare of its people. Others put it to me that such surveys were inevitably skewed, emphasising the bad stuff, and underplaying that the sector has long been a rewarding and safe environment for women. Such comments are welcome: as my colleague Benedicte Page put it last week: “we need a more open and public dialogue”. We can accept that publishing is a decent sector within which to work, while also acknowledging that it still has some outdated assumptions about what behaviour should be tolerated in the working environment, and that even in this industry vigilance is needed. But I am sensitive too that there is a wider context - some issues are unique to publishing, some are not; some examples were from the past, some were not.
What was clear though was that much has gone unreported and the sector must now develop an industry-wide code of conduct, as well as specific guidelines for those most at risk. What procedures there are must be clear and accessible; what policies are in place must be relevant to the real-world situations some employees face. That even after last week’s report, so many people had their own stories to share (privately), left me in no doubt about the veracity of the survey’s numbers, and our reporting. As writer Elizabeth-Anne Wheal wrote for the Society of Authors this week, there is an “unpleasant truth” to this.
Publishing is not the only industry thinking hard about itself, what it looks like and whether it lives its values. At the Building Inclusivity in Publishing Conference, held this week, crime writer and accountant Abir Mukherjee compared the sector to the City, saying publishing had been too “cosy” and slow to change. Little, Brown publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove charged editors to look for stories outside of their own worlds - or rethink their careers.
Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.