Our culture of silence

Our culture of silence

I recently had a celebratory drink with an editor. They described their previous job at one of the major conglomerates by telling me how they had cried every single day on their way to work for two years (they left just pre-covid), so anxious were they that they were going to get the sack, be bullied, be given impossible tasks and have their books undermined at the last minute. 

There will be a host of senior management who (if they have even got this far) will be decrying this terribly negative vision of this business. But I suspect a great many more junior staff - as well as the huge number of people who have been chewed up and spat out by publishing - will know exactly what I am talking about. 

A little while back I found myself remarking to an author on a rejection from a TV production company that ‘of course, these are TV people and they are so much nicer than people in publishing’. It was a heedless, jokey off-the-cuff comment, but it shocked me, because not so long ago it would have been inconceivable that I could have said such a thing. But the point was, this rejection was speedy, warm, thoughtful, generous and caring. It was written by someone whose sense of self-worth was clearly bolstered by their job - and it was hard not to compare this to the culture of silence that has grown up in publishing. 

I recently took on a client with a significant history of serious mental health issues. I took them on with great trepidation because I was conscious of just how careful I was going to have to be. Given their history, failing to find a publisher could end very badly, but at the same time the book they wanted to write felt really urgent to me and related directly to their mental health issues: it wasn’t a book anyone else could write. 

I went out with it to a few people and was explicit about the mental health background – it would have been impossible not to be. Naively I assumed that in this brave new inclusive world where destigmatising mental health issues is high on the agenda I would get replies from everyone. Fifty percent of the people I sent it to never got back to me. Tumbleweed. Silence. Even after a nudge. 

I find this outrageous. It makes me angry. It also makes me feel ashamed of the profession I work in. We need to do better. 

Every agent knows there are some editors who are notorious for only responding to the things they like, but there is a wider culture that can be extraordinarily dispiriting to deal with. Ghosting has become part of our culture – I can think of any number of stories, from editors not responding to a project when the last thing I sold to them was at auction with great excitement, or instances where people get back to you two days after submission saying 'this is amazing I love it' and then silence. My favourite is the editor who acquired a book a year after they had rejected it – a fact they remain unaware of to this day. 

And just to be clear, I am of course also aware that agents have a terrible reputation for this kind of thing too. And maybe that is kind of the point: this really isn’t about individuals, it’s about a general culture within publishing where editors feel embattled, overstretched, frightened of turning down the wrong thing (so much easier to sit on it, just in case it catches fire), underpaid and in a frame of mind where creative generosity towards the authors they are turning down just feels like a step too far. 

But it seems to me this is a key plank of diversity and inclusivity. Privileged, white, middle-class authors are far less vulnerable to this kind of poor treatment than more marginal groups. What may be a lack of courtesy to me, can be devastatingly cruel and excluding to someone whose sense of their right to be sitting at this table is more tenuous. It’s time we started talking about it.