One year ago, in the wake of the #MeToo scandal that has shaken so many creative industries, The Bookseller ran a survey into the situation within publishing. As agent Lizzy Kremer tells the magazine this week, the results were "hard reading", prompting many, Kremer among them, to call for an industry-wide effort to address what, without apology, I will call a crisis.
The conclusions of the discussion that ensued can be read here, with the four principles (which feature on the front of the print magazine) and four more detailed commitments, carefully balancing the need to support the creativity and individuality of the people that work across the sector with the requirement to better protect them. The document, Professional Behaviour in Bookselling & Publishing, calls for a high standard of behaviour across all sectors of the trade, but it also recognises that "power is situational", and it behoves all of us to "speak up". A sub-section called Being Allies notes: "We will bear witness and support appropriate action being taken, regardless of the status of the relative ‘importance’ of the individuals involved."
Though a year in the waiting, the commitments are worth the time that has been devoted to them: they clarify and reinforce what employees across the sector can expect, and do so with the crucial support of the four trade bodies—the Publishers Association, Booksellers Association, Society of Authors and Assocation of Authors’ Agents—that worked on them.
It is worth pointing out, though, that these are commitments—there is no code to sign up to, and no ombudsman to hold individuals or companies to account. There is no email address that will take delivery of concerns, or a phone-line that might have acted as a conduit to a confidant. This will disappoint.
Nevertheless their strength comes from the group exercise that has brought them this far. This should not be under-estimated. We are a collaborative business, but we do not always collaborate well. There is an imbalance of power between publisher, author, agent and bookseller that can spill over during negotiations, but which is also manifest in the make-up of a sector that includes corporates, indies and sole-traders, as seen in The Bookseller 100. It is only with collective backing that these commitments will find their teeth.
The books business is founded on shared beliefs, Kremer wrote to me this week, but to those reading the latest gender report, or this magazine’s original harassment survey, it may not always seem so. At the FutureBook Conference last week, Hachette UK chief executive David Shelley stressed the need to celebrate what progress publishing has made over the past 20 years, from the boozy lunches of his early years at indie Allison & Busby, to today’s welter of well intentioned diversity schemes, spare-room initiatives and gender pay analyses.
He is wise to do so. We cannot change unless we recognise where we have come from: and I will add that we won’t move forwards without a push in the right direction. Sometimes a good shove.