What's 'fairness' got to do with publishing?

What's 'fairness' got to do with publishing?

We seem to encounter 'fairness' questions in publishing at every turn these days. 

Three weeks ago, our #FutureChat focus was on questions of an "unfair" tendency to allow inconsistent metadata procedures and sheer negligence overlook proper credit for book illustrators.

Two weeks ago, we talked about writers contributing articles and posts without pay to media sites, many of which profit from those writings.

Even last week, there could easily be a fairness question developed around the issue of "author services" outfits that encourage would-be writers to jump into the fray when, in so many people's estimation, we already are suffering an historically unprecedented dilemma of there being "too many books" for anyone to compete effectively.

And in today's issue of The Bookseller on the stands in London, we find my colleague Phillip Jones' leader piece headlined On the bias:

In her "provocation" in The Bookseller this week, author Kamila Shamsie calls for a Year of Publishing Women in 2018 -- 12 months when publishers will be focused on one gender, as will media and reviews coverage. It is a bold proposal, and no modest one. Shamsie is serious.

And we're serious, too: Our focus today in #FutureChat -- our question for you and our digital publishing community -- is about such questions as gender representation in publishing's work: why do we seem to keep hearing the industry's "fairness" called into question?

This story was written as the walkup to our #FutureChat of 5th June. Join us each Friday at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

Of course, in any walk of life in our society today, you really don't need to yell "Fire!" to clear a room, just yell "Gender!" So emotionally charged are so many of these debates that many people routinely dodge them rather than be misunderstood (or feel that they're misunderstood) in a confrontation. Be assured that in #FutureChat, our digital publishing community is respectful of diverse thinking and tolerant of many viewpoints: we value professionally relevant discussion over noisy promotion of one idea or another.

But even as I wrote up an important session on boys and reading this week from BookExpo America (BEA) and IDPF's Digital Book Conference, I knew that I'd get questions from some readers about the "fairness" of concerns about men and boys' lagging reading patterns. I was not disappointed.

'We have become used to thinking of publishing as progressive in terms of gender.'

So writes Jones (pictured) in his piece today. And so might we be surprised to find the industry beset, as it seems to be, with these "fairness" complaints. 

Certainly the staffing of the industry, especially in the UK, skews richly female — so much so that picture book author Jonathan Emmett has contended for years that young boys' interests may inadvertently be less well-served than girls' in the offerings published for children.

Jones points out that even in our new round of Bookseller Rising Stars announced today — and my congratulations to our new honourees (we'll be hearing from many of them here at The FutureBook) — "two-thirds are women, as would any survey of publishing's rank and file."

What's more, Jones offers a striking instance of how "commercially, too, any imbalance is not obvious." This week, for the first time since 2003, he writes, "all six of our major charts are topped by women, a feat last achieved by male writers in September 2014."

if anything, this may be a clue to why we find ourselves so frequently facing these fairness issues: publishing is rife with contradictions and "on the other hand" reversals of what in other businesses could be far more dependable arguments. 

Not all "unfairness" claims fall along gender lines

On the heels of BEA,the Authors Guild's Mary Rasenberger (pictured) in New York is kicking off a new "Fair Contracts Initiative" campaign in New York. Don't fail to notice the kind of "reversal" I'm talking about here: after so many years of being called "unfairly" aligned with big publishing by the independent author community, here is the Guild looking straight into the eyes of its supposed buddies with a "launch statement" that could make a Big Five contracts office staff very happy indeed to change the subject to gender issues -- or even fire, for that matter.

Rasenberger's list of issues to be examined is an outright litany of alleged institutional unfairness to writers:

  • In exchange for some money, you give the publisher all rights to your book for 35 years—or your lifetime plus 70 years (let’s just call it “forever”) if you or your heirs forget to terminate after those first 35.
  • The publisher gets to reject your manuscript for any reason or no reason, and if that happens, you have to give back all the money you’ve received before you can publish the book with somebody else.
  • The publisher can publish your book when the company gets around to it, which may take as long as two years from the time it accepts your manuscript—or even longer. You have no control, and you may have to wait for the last part of your “advance” until the book finally appears in print.
  • If you are even one day late delivering the work (time is of the essence, it seems, only when it comes to the author), the publisher can opt to terminate the agreement and ask for the advance back.
  • You can’t publish another book under your name or even a pseudonym anywhere in the world until this one is published—even if the publisher has put it off.
  • You have to offer the publisher the rights to your next book, but the publisher can wait to decide whether to offer you a deal on it until two months after this one comes out.
  • You have no say in what the cover, jacket flap, and ad copy will look like.
  • If the publisher does anything you don’t happen to like, such as assign you an incompetent editor, fail to exploit subsidiary and foreign rights, print too few copies to satisfy customer demand, forget to register your copyright, consistently forget to pay you on time, or go bankrupt, you have no real recourse. 

So no, all is not seen as fair in love, war, gender, and a lot more things in publishing. (Just ask an indie author what he or she thinks of the "fairness" of "gatekeepers.")

But our gender issues are particularly difficult and Jones is right in his call for actionable response, not just consciousness raising. 

Let's look at the specific call he's addressing, the one from author Kamila Shamsie.

The imbalance between male and female writers in terms of the books that get submitted

Are you familiar with the "VIDA Count" in the States? Pronounced "VIE-dah," it's an annual and quite influential gauge of the coverage of books in the US — it studies which gender's authors are covered and which gender's news-staff workers are doing the coverage.

Kamila Shamsie (pictured) in her piece commissioned by the Writers' Centre Norwich for the National Conversation and available for you to read in today's Bookseller, refers to VIDA and is taking a VIDA-like stand in her own concern about prize judging and its apparent overall lean toward male work. I'm grateful to her for actually going one step further in her concern than VIDA does. I've had a conversation with VIDA representatives, in fact, about how their programme doesn't seem to look at where the books reviewed in the US come from: the publishers submit them. An important player, if not the sole source, of a male-favouring system may well be the publishing houses that send their books to the newsrooms for review consideration. VIDA does not take this into account. It starts only at the newsrooms and scrutinises who is assigned and what works they're assigned to cover. Oddly, there seems to be little interest in looking back to see what the publishing houses provided to those newsrooms as a starter pool. This is hardly to exonerate the newsrooms. But why are the publishers not questioned about their role in the process?

And similarly, Shamsie writes extremely well of the corresponding issue in prizes:

The primary problem may not lie with the judges. The question of the Booker judges and gender came up last year when only three women were on a longlist of 13. In response, one of the judges, Sarah Churchwell, said: “We read what publishers submit to us . . . [If] publishers only submit a fraction of women, then that is a function of systemic institutional sexism in our culture.” So I asked the Man Booker administrators how many of the submitted books in the past five years have been written by women. The answer was slightly under 40%. This isn’t an issue around the Booker alone. I’ve more than once been uncomfortable with the imbalance between male and female writers in terms of the books that get submitted for prizes that I’m judging. Because publisher submissions remain confidential, this part of the equation remains uncommented on when judges are held to account for the gender imbalance.

Just this week, as Shamsie notes, UK-US author Nicola Griffith (pictured) has announced research indicating that books written (by women or men) from the perspective of a female character have far less chance of winning major literary awards than books written from a male perspective or about men.

What Shamsie does with all this, however, is what some will, of course, call "extreme." She wants "a Year of Publishing Women. And 2018, the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK, seems both near enough and distant enough to be feasible." 


 All new titles published in that year should be written by women.

That's 2018. All titles published are to be written by women. That's what "a Year of Publishing Women" means in Shamsie's formulation. 

Jones, in regarding this proposal, writes:

As Shamsie concludes, the question isn’t: “Is there a problem?” It’s: “Are we recognising how deep it runs and do we know what to do about it?” In the week of the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction, it feels extraordinary to admit, but the answer is no. Extraordinary because we have become used to thinking of publishing as progressive in terms of gender. 

Right and right. And if 2018 were to fall out as Shamsie proposes, where would we be in our noisy "fairness" arena then? Is the way to "redress the inequality for which all sectors of the culture bear responsibility" — she's correct — really a matter of officially shutting out men?

The positive effort, of course, is the focus on women. But many, as we very well know, will see it as a denial of our male colleagues and their place alongside the women of publishing. Will we be comfortable with this? As Shamsie so wisely asks, where will that leave us in 2019?

I'll take this a careful (I hope) step farther, and I'm asking these things respectfully, collegially: do we honestly promote and celebrate the needs and genius of women in publishing by practising any form of reverse exclusivity against men? Is that who we want to be today? Or in 2018? Is that how we value and honour women? 

I think that some will say yes and gladly.

And I think that others will ask: but is that..fair?

Tell us what you think: see you in #FutureChat.


Join us each Friday at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

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