What does it mean to publish beyond bias?

What does it mean to publish beyond bias?

As the publishing industry plans its return to the working environments we were used to, I’ve heard many talk longingly of a return to ‘business as usual’ and looking forward to ‘a bit of normality’. Many of the feminist authors whose pieces feature in This is How We Come Back Stronger, a fundraising anthology edited by Feminist Book Society and published in the UK by And Other Stories, urgently challenge the very concept of ‘normal’, ‘new’ or otherwise, because of the damage it does to all those marginalised by it. And we in the publishing industry should challenge it too.  

Our industry is in crisis, in ways that have nothing to do with the pandemic. Yes, reports show book sales have remained buoyant over the last tumultuous year, and growth is being reported from the big five to independent bookshops. But we mustn’t forget the words that Dorothy Koomson wrote in her open letter to the industry last year: that "publishing is a hostile environment for Black authors". In  the last year, the Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing report called for urgent and systemic change; The Bookseller’s staff survey reported many experiencing emotional burnout; the gender pay gap and the ethnicity pay gap remain, simply, unacceptable, and the social media response to a new survey exploring the experience of disabled employees in the UK publishing industry, makes clear how overdue such scrutiny is. Don’t even get me started on the non-concept of ‘women’s fiction’ and the various outdated, damaging lenses through which key publishing decisions are still made.

This is not the diverse, inclusive, accessible industry it should be. I don’t want to be part of an environment that marginalises people, even unconsciously, because that’s our ‘normal’. But I am. And I prop it up with a million little things I do, because that’s how I’ve always done them, each day. So do you.

That makes me feel ashamed.

Our book’s subtitle is Feminist Writers Turn Crisis Into Change, and working on it has got me thinking. How do we, as an industry that exists for and because of our writers, grab the opportunity of ‘going back’ this summer to collectively demand, accelerate and support each other through real, inclusive, equitable change in an industry that should be for everyone?

We’ve proven we can do things completely differently when we need to, because business demands it.

Yes, there are multiple impactful initiatives and projects acting to change things up. But it is not enough. Every single person in the industry has a responsibility to act, because the range of excluded voices is broad and the intersections numerous.

First, each one of us has to expose, understand, challenge and work with our biases and examine our individual privileges and so-called ‘blindspots’. To own them, not to hide them or hide from them. To feel the shame that looking at them honestly can make us feel and work from that painful place. ‘Normal’ feels comfortable for many. It’s why we want it back. But we won’t effect change if we’re not prepared to feel discomfort. We have to work through the fear of getting it wrong, of failing, and doing so publicly.

This is how we – you and I – challenge the damaging narratives and ‘normal’ decision-making parameters that exclude so many.

Next comes taking action.

As the first UK lockdown hit, we at Feminist Book Society decided to donate our time to fundraise for organisations on the frontline of the fight to end violence against women – incidents of which increased by 10% during 2020. We brought together 38 feminist authors in a determinedly intersectional collection to capture a moment in the pandemic and to imagine how – together – we can come back stronger after crisis.

We challenged ourselves to deviate from the ‘normal’ way we do things in our professional lives, to question each publishing decision we made, to actively avoid prioritising any particular viewpoint, gaze or model; to interrogate our privileges, face into our blindspots and vulnerabilities and be honest with ourselves about what we needed to learn.

So what did we do?

We made our overarching ‘theme’ collaboration, with non-profit publishers And Other Stories (UK) and The Feminist Press (US).

We set out to pay each author for their contribution, though some chose to donate their words

The brief for each author was open – we encouraged them to be driven by what felt most urgent to them.

We made it clear from the outset we’d work in whatever way suited each author, so we asked for a new or a pre-existing written contribution, or we offered a Zoom Q&A that we’d write up, so as to take up as little of each author’s time as possible.

To avoid prioritising one point of view in how we shaped contributions, we set up a volunteer editorial board, from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences, and not all working in editorial. Our approach was deliberately non-intrusive, again to limit editorial ‘influence’. We shared ideas on how to shape the collection around themes that were resonating. We curated the Q&As from a bank of questions we made together, to avoid unintentional ‘directing’ of the conversations according to one lens or gaze.

We invited authors to suggest other writers whose voices they thought should be amplified. We were sad we couldn’t accommodate all the authors suggested.

We deprioritised hierarchical, charged or ‘exclusive’ promotional language.

The UK and US publishing teams, and FBS shared the workload: from brainstorming, pitching to and briefing a broad range of authors, to splitting author fee and freelancer costs, to contract admin, through production, cover design and promotion. 

Did we always get it right? Of course not.

We sought frank feedback on outreach materials, refined our messaging and nuanced the ways in which we connected with authors from multiple and different backgrounds and experiences as we went along. Sometimes facing up to our mistakes – those made, and nearly made – was painful.          

We identified our blindspots. We didn’t necessarily always approach people with the right understanding in advance of their requirements and needs, and learned to do better research, regardless of time or resource pressure. Sometimes we asked the wrong questions, or thought we knew answers when we didn’t. Reframings were required.      

We’re hosting a virtual launch event on 24th March, and have been given private funding for British Sign Language interpretation. We haven’t been able to do that before. When we return to in-shop events, we will radically reassess our understanding of accessibility.  We’ll keep learning. 

Did we publish beyond bias? No, but we entered the arena with it. We gave something a go, and kept asking ourselves, how can we do this better?

Fundraising, not profit, is our goal, and many donated their time to the endeavour, so it’s not a model easy to roll out more widely. Each piece in the book offers more incisive ideas that apply to transforming this industry than we can. But can we offer any useful suggestions from what we learned?

Let’s be honest – as an industry we’re all exhausted, at best. This year has been brutal, despite our collective relief at the book industry’s resilience. So we have been thinking a lot about our own resilience.

Perhaps our biggest success was creating a collective: an international network of editors, authors and publishers prepared to try to break the mould because of what we believe in. A source of great strength has been our Feminist Book Society editors. We leant on one another (during the process of making the book, our team dealt with bereavements and mental and physical health challenges, just like everyone else living through this pandemic), but also to challenge one another. 

It’s time the industry rethinks the concept of  ‘networking’. We can reframe it this summer to  focus our professional and commercial interactions on reciprocity, to notice who’s not at the table, inviting others in, supporting one other to ask difficult questions, to mobilise and take action, connecting others and creating safer spaces for anyone to ask for what they need knowing they’ll be listened to.

And what if some of the various diversity-focused initiatives and projects already in progress now become inter-company, sector or industry-wide collaborations? Wouldn’t we effect transformation so much quicker that way? It all starts with reaching out.  

On an individual level, as those serious about addressing the crisis in the industry question our own ‘normal’ decision-making, interrogate our biases and face into things we feel shame about, wouldn’t this mode of connection make us each braver, and more able to take the risks that urgently need taking?

Decentring ourselves and owning our biases during this project – challenging ourselves to avoid the comfort of ‘normal’ ways of communicating and publishing a book – didn’t kill us. We’d maybe go as far as to say it made us stronger. 

Eleanor Dryden is publisher of Headline Review and co-founder and host of the Feminist Book Society, along with Katy Loftus (publisher, Penguin), Rosie Beaumont-Thomas (manager, Women's Prize For Fiction) and Parastou Khiaban (product manager, PRH).