Twenty-odd years ago, when a friend of mine was starting his publishing career, he was warned by a cynical veteran that publishing was full of “masculine women and effeminate men”. It’s an observation that doesn’t particularly flatter anyone in the business, or get any less true.
Publishing has long been a more women-friendly business than most, and although the representation of women at the very top is less marked than it perhaps should be—and despite ongoing rumblings about the different way in which serious fiction by men and women is received—the reality in many departments, particularly editorial and publicity, is that there is a pronounced majority of women. In some there is a virtual monoculture.
Commercial fiction editorial departments in particular—the commercial heart of all trade publishers—are almost wholly staffed by women. Two of the biggest commercial fiction imprints in the UK do not have a single male fiction editor, and many of the others would appear to operate a revolving door policy, so quickly do male editors come and go without, it seems, ever troubling any of their colleagues by actually being able to make an acquisition.
There is a widespread assumption that men do not read fiction—indeed, that men do not read much full stop, and therefore it makes sense to hire more female editors. The Reading Agency’s recent survey does nothing to dispel that impression. However if the numbers are going down, as the survey suggests, it would seem reasonable to ask if men are being well published to: is the industry letting them down? If I had the next big action adventure to send out there are whole publishing divisions where there is to all intents and purposes no one for me to send it to.
There was a time when publishing in the UK was brilliant at bringing through internationally successful male authors—Len Deighton, James Clavell, Dick Francis, Frederick Forsyth, John le Carré, Jack Higgins, Wilbur Smith, Alistair MacLean, etc. Some of these names are still familiar, but one struggles to think of too many new names that have come along to replace them. It is also interesting to note that the debate around gendered jackets is almost always centred on women authors complaining about their jackets being overly feminised—ironic, given that these are decisions made by almost exclusively female editorial departments.
If we have stopped being good at publishing for men, perhaps one of the reasons is that even in those companies that do have male commercial fiction editors, it isn’t easy—in these zealously group-think days—for them to get buy in for fiction that cannot fit the prevailing culture in the office. I have sat in publishing meetings where the room was happily discussing the latest sex and shopping novels before moving on to some male editor’s action thriller: the drop in temperature was perceptible.
Of course, a good professional is in theory capable of evaluating all sorts of fiction, but just how enthusiastic can female colleagues get about strongly masculine subjects? A few years ago one would have been sure of a friendlier reception in the sales department—traditional bastions of a more macho culture—but sales teams are now mere stubs of what they once were.
So does the situation show any signs of being likely to change? Certainly not in the short term. When was the last time anyone met a male assistant editor in a fiction department? If Jonathan Emmett is right about children’s publishing, then the gap in the market is going to be growing ever bigger.
The long term hardly looks encouraging either. Editors have always been badly paid, but that was balanced out by the fact that it was a convivial life, the lunches were good, they had access to some excellent gossip, and in general the intellectual variety of the job compensated for the poor pay.
Now editors have no real power or status—even their offices are being taken away from them. Pay and pensions remain nugatory and editorial departments are more political than they ever were, with men, as a minority, at a structural disadvantage.
All of the status perks which compensated for the poor pay have pretty much been stripped away with nothing to compensate for it: it’s not an attractive package—even for effeminate men.
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