"Let’s clarify what free speech is and is not": An open letter to the industry from Pride in Publishing

Being a book publisher comes with a set of tough moral responsibilities. You provide livelihoods for authors and booksellers, your hiring decisions can greatly influence how UK culture is shaped, and you’re also a company with a duty of care towards your staff. Sometimes these duties come into conflict, and when that happens - as we’ve seen recently with Hachette’s response to some of their staff objecting to working on JK Rowling’s new children’s book - the reflexive instinct is to retreat behind the defence of free speech.

Let’s clarify what free speech is and is not. Free speech does not entitle an author to a publishing contract. But it does protect the right of a worker to raise the alarm when they’re asked to participate in something that can cause them or someone else harm or trauma. Transphobic authors are not a protected group. Trans and non-binary people are.

When we launched Pride In Publishing in 2017, part of our mission was to create a safe space for the queer community working across the trade, and shine a light on the lack of inclusivity and often poor provision for supporting its LGBTQ+ workforce at many publishers. We have a lot of work to do to fulfil that mission, and our urgency has only been increased by both the individual hostility of the leak that lead to the Hachette story becoming public, and the institutional indifference represented by the company’s response.

Publishing a globally famous author with a controversial record is not a moral decision around freedom of speech (particularly for a billionaire well versed in self-publishing their own content), it is a commercial one driven by cold and hard P&Ls. Book publishing is, of course, a business, and each publisher has to follow its own moral compass in terms of factoring in potential reputational harm when standing by a controversial figure. But as many other big book deal collapses have shown, no-one should be immune to scrutiny.

However, employees should never have to work on content which is detrimental to their mental health or which causes them unnecessary turmoil – as a spokesperson acknowledged, no-one would force someone to work on a book containing potentially harmful content such as domestic abuse, substance use or something fundamentally against their religious beliefs. LGBTQ+ staff and their allies deserve the same human decency and compassion.

We stand in total solidarity with those at Hachette Children’s Books who voiced their objections to JK Rowling’s recent conduct. They are valid, their identities and sexualities are valid and HCBG has ample staff who could have been asked to work on the forthcoming title instead of creating a media circus to their detriment. No one should be mocked or dismissed for standing up for their owned experience as part of a minority community. 

Please, do better, book industry – we are a dedicated and passionate resource of diverse talent as part of your workforce. From pay transparency to safeguarding, acquisitions to advances, we are consistently letting ourselves down. We’re still an industry where to be anything but white, straight, cis presenting and middle class is a hostile experience. Where the work to progress is happening at all, it’s happening far too slowly. 

If publishing doesn’t get better at reconciling its moral responsibilities and commercial priorities, don’t blame us as valuable queer, non-white and working class talent continues to walk out of the door. We’ll take our stories with us and leave you with an ever more irrelevant status quo.

(If you want to delve further into the myriad ways in which Rowling’s recent statements misrepresented trans people, Mermaids, the trans youth charity, wrote a brilliant and constructive response.)

Pride in Publishing