Women in publishing -- achievements and challenges

Women in publishing -- achievements and challenges

This story was originally written as the walkup to The Bookseller's #FutureChat of Friday 20 February. Join us each Friday for our live #FutureChat with The FutureBook digital community at 4 p.m. London (GMT), 5 p.m. Rome, 11 a.m. New York, 8 a.m. Los Angeles.

Here is an important and sensitive subject, one that can become emotionalised -- for perfectly understandable reasons.

As is made clear in The Bookseller's 13th February edition, the UK publishing industry can be proud of a distinction many other businesses can't claim: its women are in the forefront.

In their lead story, Felicity Wood (pictured above right) and Sarah Shaffi (below right) look at how women are unable as yet to break through the proverbial glass ceiling to the top positions in major houses in the UK industry.

And yet  their work includes intriguing signals of the commanding presence women hold in the publishing workforce:

  • Eighty percent of Pan Macmillan's staffers are female
  • Women sit on HarperCollins' UK executive board
  • Penguin Random House UK has core divisions run by women
  • Hachette UK operates with women as division heads

And yet, as Bookseller editor Philip Jones writes in his lead editorial, Generation XX, the corner offices are still not available.

"Out-baritoned" in Jones' fine phrase, women are almost bafflingly still not in the top roles. It is, as he writes, something of "a wonder." And not a happy one to any of us who cheer the formidable talents and skills that women bring to this business.

Women tend to dominate issues of The Bookseller...They also dominate the trade—from recent Booker winners, to bestselling commercial fiction, to agenting, to publishing, and finally (perhaps crucially) to readers. It is more of a wonder, therefore, that all of the chief executives running our major trade publishing businesses are men. As we note in this week’s lead story, women power this business, but it is the men who are at the wheel.

Baroness Gail Rebuck, in Reflecting on Women in Publishing, is sanguine about the situation, counseling patience and readiness:

There has been much hand-wringing about successive houses and conglomerates losing women m.d.s and c.e.o.s, to be replaced by men. While we have had a series of individual decisions and succession planning in publishing, these do not a crisis make. Women still flourish at divisional or imprint levels on both sides of the Atlantic—particularly at PRH—and often head key departments.

And my colleague Danny Arter's comic-strip artwork for the cover of the edition brings a cool, insightful perspective to the current dynamic, a graphic rendering of how easily strong performance can be deflected. 


'A safe pair of hands, pal.'

In his depiction of the worthy division head Jane and the supervisor Carl who supports her bid for promotion, Arter shows us no ugly misogynist carping, no backroom snickers. Instead, all is played out in the rational rigor of corporate calm. 

Once in the inner sanctum, Carl is told by a receptive but firm Moss-the-boss:

Carl, you know how much I admire Jane, but times have been tough lately...I think we ought to go for a safe pair of hands on this one, pal.

Nothing says "no way" in the executive suite like the fear of a financial fumble, especially in hard times (real or purported). Arter's Men are not Mad. They're scared.

Rebuck's constructive perspective shows her a time not for disillusionment but for preparation:

Now is the moment to make sure we have the policies in place to ensure we encourage the women c.e.o.s of the future, and maintain publishing’s pioneering conviction that the creativity and innovation that powers any company’s growth depend on the diversity of its workforce. 

Some might question whether gender diversity is achieved when four of five staffers of a major corporation are members of either sex. Is it possible that at some point, the term "gender diversity" has come to mean only advancement for women? Can the final result of such a goal be any better than the alternative?

Jones is ready, as are so many of us, for a clear-eyed view of the way forward:

First, we can do more to focus on those women who are already leaders within their respective groups—from Sara Lloyd to Susan Sandon, from Laura Meyer to Alison Goff—and make sure their voices are not out-baritoned. Second, publishing needs to be as flexible in how it treats its workforce as creative sectors should be, and use digital as an enabler. This is significant. This new world demands a new way of working, and makes different calls on those working within it. Decentralised working could be one answer, but not if it comes with an ”always on” mentality. Even progress needs to keep up. 

And many good voices come to light in the critical effort to understand why we continue to see only "men at the wheel," as Jones puts it.

Karolina Sutton at Curtis Brown points out:

Any board without a fair gender representation in an industry such as publishing—where we don’t lack amazing women who know the business inside out—is a failure on some level.  

And what of effects on the industry's output, the books? Could it be that women's dominance -- albeit without representation at the very top yet -- could also have an inadvertent negative effect on parts of the readership? 

Another challenge 

While the award’s shortlists started out as reasonably gender-balanced, they have tended to favor female authors and illustrators in recent years. The 2014 shortlist caught my eye last year as there were only three male authors and illustrators among the 19 nominated and there were no male authors in the Teen Fiction categories.

In a coincidence of timing, The Bookseller's close look at women in the publishing workplace coincided with the release of the shortlists for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize. 

The comment you're reading there is from picture book author Jonathan Emmett who has for some time been sounding an alarm about what many perceive as a scarcity of books that might typically appeal to boys -- at a time when boys' and men's reading is in proven jeopardy.

Indeed, my colleague Charlotte Eyre, our children's editor, had headlined her announcement of the Waterstones news, Women writers dominate Waterstones kids' shortlist

She wrote:

Female authors account for the vast majority of this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize this year, with 15 of the 18 titles written by women.

And Emmett has been concerned for a long time that the dominance of women, particularly in children's publishing, may be creating a condition of unintentional emphasis on books for girls over those for boys. For my write-up What Are We Rewarding In Children's Literature? he says:

I was hoping that this might be a blip, but this year’s shortlist is only slightly more balanced with only 3 male authors and illustrators among the 18 shortlisted and, once again, no male authors in the teen category. I don’t know the teen market well, but surely there are some male authors writing teen fiction that are worth recognising.

But hang on, says Tom Bonnick, business development manager with Nosy Crow. 

(a) Male authors and male readers are not the same thing, and (b) I think that, broadly speaking, the books on these shortlists have very strong cross-gender appeal.

Indeed, one of the three men shortlisted on the Waterstones announcement is Nosy Crow author G.R. Germin. If you'll forgive me, I'll just point out the fun irony of his title in the context of this discussion: Cowgirl.

In his write for us here at The FutureBook, Bonnick does bring to the discussion a helpful recitation of some of the research indicating how seriously boys in the UK lag behind girls in taking to reading. He writes:

Boys don’t read as much as girls. Tempting as it might be to dismiss that statement as a gross generalisation, it is objectively, statistically the case. Recent research by the National Literacy Trust (NLT) found that more parents of girls said that their child read daily than parents of boys (75 percent vs 68 percent). Parents of girls were also more likely than parents of boys to report that their child enjoyed stories “a lot” (83 percent vs 74 percent). And girls are almost twice as likely as boys (18 percent vs 10 percent) to read stories more without than with an adult.

Of course, this is what prompted the author Simon Scarrow to work with his publisher Headline and games maker Amuzo to create a video game based on his Cato and Macro Roman military history figures, as we reported in Gaming the system: Simon Scarrow's Cato, Macro, and the boys. Scarrow was responding to the patterns of interest he saw in his sons' male friends:

I've got two boys, myself, and it's not a problem getting them to read. But what intrigues me is their friends, who keep saying, "Oh, reading is boring, books are expensive," you know, all the usual excuses they make.

The gaming response is echoed in how Bonnick describes the intent of Nosy Crow's Jack and the Beanstalk app, aimed, he says, "at reluctant boy readers":

It has an emphasis on reading for pleasure, built within a “game-like” architecture -- a non-linear narrative, a “scoring” mechanism, multiple endings -- that we think works well at encouraging boys who love on-screen gaming to participate in a reading experience.

Emmett, meanwhile, has established a campaign, "Cool Not Cute!" in an effort "to start a debate about gender bias in picture books."

And while he maintains that the dominance of women in children's books, especially picture books, may be behind many parents' reports that they can't find adequate material for their sons, as far back as April last year, he was telling me that he doesn't hold women responsible for this:

I’ve repeatedly stressed that if one demographic group was to blame for any content bias in picture books, it is adult men, for failing to take sufficient interest in what young children are reading.

This is echoed in the comments that longtime children's editor Alison Sage has given me for Thought Catalog, as well. Sage, who has worked with Emmett among many others, tells me:

The majority of editors in children’s publishing are women, and have no memory of what it was like to be a bored small boy.  Look at the current success of HarperCollins’ books by David Walliams. Boys do want to read books if they are the right books for them...

If you have not had experience as a child of enjoying boys’ books (or have avoided them through peer pressure), your ability to choose them might be more theoretical and abstract. And inaccurate. In addition, some women editors do see themselves as striking a blow for women who have been marginalized for many years. The difficulty with Jonathan’s argument is that it’s an implied criticism, and one which women can’t do much about.

Do you go for positive discrimination and hire men who perhaps, are no more sensitive than the women at choosing winners for boys? Obviously, I don’t think being a woman has ruined my ability to be an editor!

And as long as Sage has mentioned hiring men, are they there to be hired?

Many look at this issue -- Emmett is among them -- and worry that guys aren't stepping forward to work in children's literature. Is there an assumption in place among men that such duties are "women's work"?

And where does this leave us?

The prominence of so many talented, skilled women in publishing today gives the industry an enviable advantage over so many other fields. It's easy to applaud the gains women have made in the books world, we're richer for it by far.

And yet, women in books in the UK still aren't getting through to the top floors. And there's a parallel concern about whether in some instances the marketplace of books may be unintentionally skewed toward women and girls, as the strength of women's numbers in publishing perhaps inevitably affects what's published. 

We can't help but be instructed by the good humour that Rebuck brings to her own essay in recalling a wry line from a colleague:

"There will never be true equality in the workplace until there are as many mediocre women at the top of organisations as there are mediocre men!"

And sage Alison Sage certainly says it well, too, if more seriously;

How can it be sensible if children’s world view is directed by people exclusively of either sex?


Join us Fridays for our live #FutureChat with The FutureBook digital community at 4 p.m. London (GMT), 5 p.m. Rome, 11 a.m. New York, 8 a.m. Los Angeles.

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