Pressing 'reset' on harassment in publishing

I called for an industry behavioural code back in January because it seemed to me that a written statement was the only sufficient and appropriate response to the results of The Bookseller’s survey into sexual harassment in the book trade. The books business is founded on shared beliefs: in the importance of free expression, the power of the written word and the enduring value of storytelling. But I am delighted that today we are setting out a Commitment to another fundamental principle we all share: the urgent need to build an inclusive and safe professional environment which will protect every individual working in our industry from harassment or prejudice of any kind.

The blog I wrote back in January provoked impassioned messages of support, which reassured me that I was hitting on something truthful and important; but although the tone of the code I started to write in my head was authoritative and principled, it was also inconsistent and emotional, as personal statements tend to be. It was clearly informed by anger, defensiveness, and distress: on my behalf and on behalf of other women who had shared their frustrations and humiliations with me. And I had no clear map for how to turn my demand for a "re-reading" of our professional relationships into anything that properly reflected the needs of a whole business sector.

Fortunately, my colleagues at the Publishers Association, the Society of Authors and the Booksellers Association were quick to agree to work on a ‘code’ together. Throughout the past year of conversations with my colleagues across the industry, I have held fast onto the most important ideas that informed my blog post, but today I am grateful to those who worked with me to turn my idea for a written code into something much more: a Commitment, one we can proudly title ‘industry-wide’ because it was co-authored, jointly conceived, workshopped and endorsed by all its stakeholders.

In an initial consultation meeting bringing together a representative group of people who work across the broad spectrum of the industry, it quickly became apparent that as well as the need to address the prevalence of sexual harassment within our industry, there was just as great a concern among the participants about other behaviours that, alongside sexual harassment, were ultimately about power and its abuses.

The draft document drawn up following this meeting was fervent and heatedly expressive – and many pages long. The Commitment issued today distils and unites these diverse voices in a document which addresses freedom of speech, diversity and inclusion as well as sexual and other harassment, discrimination, bullying and intimidation. I would like to pay tribute to the contribution made by Auriol Bishop, an experienced copywriter and creative director at Hachette, who gave generously of her ideas, time, and words and without whose work I would have struggled to transform the things I heard from industry colleagues into the Commitment you read today.

We have tried to go further than to remind everyone of what unacceptable behaviour looks like. We have tried to press 'reset' on our complex business relationships, redrawing the line between the personal and the professional and writing a new definition of what power looks like in the books industry. It was important to me to name each participant in our industry a colleague, whether employee or freelancer, author, bookseller or publisher; and to remind us of the basics: when we are working, we are at work, wherever that might be. When we are at work, we must behave with professional respect for our colleagues.

And, although we are all colleagues, we are not all equally powerful in every situation. In fact, one of the unusual aspects of ours and the other creative industries, in which we often have to compete for access and opportunity, is that every one of us can be more powerful or less powerful than the people with whom we are working. Our Commitment asks that we carefully consider the ways we wield power in any relationship within our business, because it is only by recognising our power that we can commit to using that power non-abusively. An older male author pressurising a female bookseller into a late night drink after a book event may be in a position of greater power; that same bookseller may be in a position of greater power than the author when the author has come into the shop hoping to encourage the bookseller to support his work. If that same author depends on a young female editor for his next publishing contract, he is less powerful than she. And that same relatively powerful editor, being asked to dance by her m.d. at a party at a Book Fair, may feel disempowered from saying no.

In making a renewed commitment to good professional behaviour—to listening to one another, to speaking up, and to being a good ally to every colleague by refusing to be complicit in the silence that accompanies most abuses of power—we are renewing our commitment to our other shared values. We must all be safe and free to be creative and energetic in our work of making and promoting books. We recognise the ultimate power of the written word as we publish our Commitment today. We will all tell our stories, unimpeded by fear or prejudice.