Time for tea

Time for tea

I am a regular reader of @PublishingTea. This is a pastime I share with many others.

The stories shared by this anonymously-curated Twitter feed range from simple gossip to more serious allegations, and highlight everything from ill-considered corporate hijinks to institutional bullying. Although the stories range across time, they all, in the anonymous tweeter’s own words, show publishing’s “dark underbelly”.

Publishing Tea has found an audience for these stories, gaining almost 6,000 followers since March. The attention has come as a surprise even to its own creator, who said, “I never thought it would be as big as it is, or still be growing. I honestly thought it would be me and maybe a couple of hundred others sharing our tales of woe.”

Publishing Tea has also proven a popular channel for those who have stories to tell. “People from almost every department, age, level of seniority, gender, ability and sexuality have been in touch,” Publishing Tea said. Across this broad spectrum, “the one unifying theme is the mutual trauma and disappointment. Everyone feels duped.”

The success of this ostensible “gossip” account reveals a larger problem within the industry. Rather than simply being salacious entertainment, Publishing Tea has become the outlet of choice for those with, in their own words, “grievances” to share. How is it that an anonymous Twitter account has taken up this role?

Part of the frustration publishing people feel seems to stem from the sense that movements such as #MeToo have failed to make any substantive changes to the industry. While other sectors wrestle with their demons publicly, publishing continues to keep its own issues bottled up and behind closed doors. Publishing Tea astutely notes this tension: “There is a pervasive understanding that the sentiment 'the system is broken, but we're not going to fix it' just isn't good enough anymore.” Many working in the industry are clearly frustrated by the rate of progress, or the lack thereof.

I asked Publishing Tea why they believed these stories aren’t being aired to managers, to Human Resources, to diversity boards, or to more professional media outlets. “I’ve heard very few success stories of people making complaints or calling things out,” they wrote back. “HR often aren’t really empowered to do anything meaningful [and] the unspoken truth is that everyone is overworked across the board.... [W]henever anything is reported to HR or a manager, it either backfires or goes into the ether.” However anecdotal, if some percentage of individuals in publishing find that their best, or only, recourse is an anonymous Twitter account, the industry needs to worry.

More than anything else, Publishing Tea demonstrates the degree to which publishing relies on whisper networks: the hush-hush sharing of the secret protocols required to navigate the industry. The lack of public accountability and the distrust of, or perceived weakness of, institutions, only makes these informal channels all the more important - and all the more damning.

The whisper networks tell us which authors can’t be trusted alone with publicists. Which publishing directors will only listen to men. Which agents won’t return your calls when your sales dip. Which publishing houses will never promote you. The reverse, of course, is also true. It is the informal networks which let us know which editors can be trusted to fight for a promising new book. Which managers fight for their team. Which publishing house actually makes good on its maternity promises. Which agents fight for underdogs.

A whisper network, however, is no substitute for actual, accessible knowledge; the shared wisdom necessary to help people safely navigate the industry. We can’t rely on gossip to protect new joiners from handsy authors or assume that new writers will instinctively recognise predatory actors. Whispers benefit the structurally entrenched, and because of that, they do not protect those who are most at risk. As Publishing Tea says, “I don’t want to put people off [working in publishing] necessarily, I just want them to know what they’re getting into.” In that sense, Publishing Tea is simply a long-overdue democratization of the whisper network; a way of openly sharing some of the knowledge that has previously been the purview a privileged few.

Gossip is easily weaponised and potentially destructive, and Publishing Tea carries risks for both its creator and others. It hopefully goes without saying that an anonymous gossip account should not be serving as the industry’s conscience. But its popularity is unquestionable, which raises questions not only about the problems in the industry, but how (or if) they are being addressed. If many in the industry, rightly or wrongly, believe that gossip vigilantism is their only recourse, what does that tell us about their faith in the ‘system’ to do the right thing?

By virtue of its anonymity, Publishing Tea cannot truly hold publishing to account. And without real accountability, nothing will change. 

Jared Shurin is a communications strategist, focusing on social and behaviour change challenges. He is an occasional editor; his latest is The Outcast Hours (with Mahvesh Murad, from Solaris).