'A Year of Men Self-Publishing': #FutureChat recap

'A Year of Men Self-Publishing': #FutureChat recap

We started with the longest pause yet at the top of a #FutureChat session. Crickets.

"#FutureChat is open for your comments," I announced. "The floor is yours."

Beat. Beat. Beat.

And then, after a couple of minutes, several folks braved the Twitter silence, editor Dan Benton finally easing the tension by suggesting that 2018 "Year of Publishing Women" would "quickly get an alternate name, 'A Year of Men Self-Publishing.'"

As it turned out, humour was one of the most helpful aspects of our weekly chat on Friday (5th May). We were eventually joined by both Nicola Griffith and Kamila Shamsie, the key players in a new round of gender-balance concern in publishing and both clearly convivial, smiling chat companions. If some had feared glowering intolerance, they found none of it in #FutureChat.

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My colleague Sarah Shaffi has a selection of reactions at The Bookseller in Trade has mixed views on Shamsie's Year of Publishing Women.

And in our chat, Shamsie certainly held her own, easily and good-naturedly. Her articulate proposal (for the Writers' Centre Norwich for The National Conversation) of a year in which only women would be published — has caught the attention of the industry. Griffith, of course, had preceded Shamsie's essay with her development of research indicating that books either about men or written from a male perspective win far more major literary awards than those about women or written from a female perspective.

Griffith has gone on to follow that piece with Help count women's voices, in which she calls on all concerned to bring in new data of their own, in order to give us a better picture of the issues at hand:

If, say, you count the manuscripts submitted to your publishing imprint, what percentage are written about women and about men (and then the percentage of each that’s eventually acquired, then supported, then submitted to awards) and if someone else is counting what’s being submitted to a particular award (and long-listed, and short-listed, and chosen as a winner) we get a sharp and useful picture of what’s going on.

'Positive discrimination' may not be an oxymoron

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

Shamsie's vision for 2018 immediately raises a dilemma of new discrimination chasing old. As I wrote in my walkup to our #FutureChat:

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?... 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?

Helpfully before #FutureChat opened, I'd heard from a great and smart friend who wanted to say that he has seen "positive discrimination" produce good results in certain instances. He couldn't join us for #FutureChat but I take his input seriously. Not having had a chance to see an instance of positive discrimination work well, I can rely on my faith in this friend's thinking to put some weight into that side of the argument. And the term positive discrimination is a good one to get well in mind as we go forward in our conversations about this. That is what Shamsie is talking about in what may not seem a fully practical suggestion but is obviously, as I said to her, undoubtedly a timely one -- a nerve has been touched quite expertly here, and we owe her and Griffith our thanks.

The tension inherent in a concept of positive discrimination was echoed over the weekend by the author JJ Marsh, who offered a new proposal of her own — a Women in Literature Festival (WiLF), to originate in London next year. In her explication of the idea, A Year of Publishing Only Women?, Marsh writes:

I applaud Shamsie for making us think harder about how best to take affirmative action. But I cannot agree with a year of publishing only women. I believe the way forward is not by excluding, discriminating or preventing any group of people from publishing their work. When faced with a wall, you have more options than knocking it down. Scale it alone, make your own door, tunnel under or do what women do best. Lift each other up.

Dear Publishing-House Award Nomination Committees:

Of everything that has come out of the "Year of Publishing Women" discussion so far, what strikes me most forcefully is the question of where the challenge begins. Well, not quite where it begins: we know it begins with several millennia of inexcusable oppression of women by men. But I'm talking about a more actionable question about which mechanisms in place right now — quite possibly without conscious operation on anyone's parts — keep re-upping old imbalances.

At the end of #FutureChat, we had a friendly shout-out from the folks at VIDA, to whom I've communicated my concern in the past that their VIDA Count doesn't survey publishers. VIDA tells us how many male- and female-written books are covered each year and by how many female and male journalists. But it doesn't go to the publishers and ask: How many books by women and how many books by men did you submit to our newsrooms this year for coverage? 

Shamsie and I agree that a very palpable question in terms of the literary awards that she and Griffith are looking at runs along the same lines. When the Man Booker Foundation tells her that less than 40 percent of the books submitted for their judges' consideration in the past five years were written by women, then we need to take this issue to our publishers:

How many books by women and how many books by men are you submitting to awards programmes each year?

I hope our publishers will take the question seriously. As Shamsie says, there need be no blame here. As Griffith says, what we need simply is data. Let's just find out. What's happening? Where is the system failing us? No one is wrong in all this. And as our #FutureChat proved, it's possible to have a frank and friendly conversation around this debate.

As my colleague Philip Jones noted in his Friday leader piece for The Bookseller, which carries Shamsie's essay:

We have become used to thinking of publishing as progressive in terms of gender. Despite the recent reshuffles at the top, there are visible and influential women at all levels in publishing (including the boardroom).

And while I'm sure that enlightened thinking lies in the mind of each beholder, I wonder how many of us in our hearts of hearts believe that the intentions abroad in this industry — dominated by women in its workforce — are so biased as these regrettable effects might suggest.

By chat's end, Kamila Shamsie and Dan Benton were casting their tweet roadshow on the topic. Benton was insisting on Dame Judi to voice his tweets.Shamsie was invoking Streep.

If we can keep laughing with such blame-free generosity as our digital publishing community showed in #FutureChat, we may finally have reached a moment when we can turn some of this around.  I like how Jones positioned it:

Whatever the Year of Publishing Women can become, it needs to be about more than just consciousness raising. Turning discussion into action is not easy, but a truly lasting influence should be to re-establish publishing at the forefront of this issue—a position it should never have ceded.

Here are selected tweets from #FutureChat. Thank you all.


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