Alderman calls on publishing to address sexism or be left behind

Alderman calls on publishing to address sexism or be left behind

The Baileys Women's Prize For Fiction winner Naomi Alderman has spoken out against the "old fashioned" publishing industry, which she says needs to address subtle yet endemic sexism seeping into the marketing of its books - or risk being left behind. 

Alderman, a mentee of Margaret Atwood, won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction last week (7th June) for her feminist science fiction novel The Power (Viking). The speculative novel explores what might happen if the balance of physical power between men and women was somehow reversed, positing a scenario in which women gain the power to electrocute at will.

Speaking on the subject of sexism to The Bookseller after winning the prize, Alderman said that while the issue may be more "subtle" in publishing in comparison to industries like gaming, this could make it more difficult to pinpoint and tackle. Publishing is still a man's world in some respects, the writer said, taking issue in particular with publishers who make little distinction between books that are written by women and the 'women's fiction' genre. 

"In some respects it is [still a man's world]," said Alderman. "I work in video games and I work in publishing and the sexism in video games is very overt. The sexism in publishing is subtle - and that does not mean the sexism in publishing is better. Subtle is sometimes much harder to deal with. Overt sexism you can point out, you can say 'please do not use mostly naked ladies in bikinis to advertise your video games, that's horrible'. The women's publishing thing is more subtle - if you are a woman writing fiction you are construed as writing 'women's fiction' and you get a flower on your book jacket and you get put in the women's section. You have to be marketed as chick lit no matter what you have written. This has been quite horrifying to me, actually, to discover there is no difference between a woman writing fiction and writing 'women's fiction' and I would really love us to put some clear water between those things. There is nothing wrong with writing a lovely story about a girl who goes on holiday with three men and has to decide between them, that's wonderful, but it doesn't happen to be what I write."

Alderman continued to say such marketing had been "pushed" on her in the past and that she had been encouraged to "shade" herself to appeal to the women's fiction market. "There's this thing men don't buy books written by women, which to me is all the more reason to make the jackets much more masculine, rather than putting flowers on all of them; maybe then they'll be more likely to buy them," she added. 

Alderman’s editor at Viking, Mary Mount, said Alderman had raised a “very important point” in relation to the way authors' books were presented based on gender and it was something they had discussed in the past, admitting sometimes publishers did get it wrong.

However, she said, while remaining true to the author’s vision, publishers were also under pressure to respond to the needs of the modern retail environment. She highlighted too that feminine covers were also used for books written by male writers, with female readerships in mind.

Mount said: "Naomi raises a very important point and it is something that she and I have discussed in the past. This question should play a significant role in the way we present our authors’ books. As in all creative processes things don’t always go right and publishers get it wrong.  The process of creating a jacket has many moving parts: being true to the book and the author’s vision; responding to demands from different retailers; responding to contemporary culture; being original."

She continued: "One important thought worth bringing to the question is how literary fiction by male writers is also packaged. Many of our most famous contemporary male novelists have covers that, if they were used for a female writer’s novel, might appear to be gender stereotyping. If the covers of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, William Boyd’s Sweet Caress and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent were put alongside each other would you be able to tell who was written by a male writer and who by a female? Are publishers thinking of a female readership not just for female writers but for male writers too? Naomi has raised an extremely important question and publishers need to be constantly thinking how we both reflect the author’s work and we connect it with the biggest possible readership."

The problem of unconscious bias extends to literary book reviews as well, according to Alderman. Having more female authors' work represented in book review spaces is "an important thing to address", she said.

Novelist Kamila Shamsie, who controversially called for a "year of publishing women" in 2018 to help reset gender equality imbalances within the industry, said the hard part in addressing bias in book reviews, though, was knowing where to point the blame: "The first question that comes to mind when looking at claims women are more likely to be reviewed, if they write about family etc while men are more likely to be reviewed on war, politics etc., is does this reveal a bias in the reviews or in the way books are commissioned, published and marketed?” 

Alderman said she would encourage publishers to take unconscious bias training, like other organisations she has been involved with already do and have demanded of her. "I think publishing should wholeheartedly embrace that [cognitive bias training] and understand that they are no different to anybody else," said Alderman. "Just because we work with words and not with people's faces doesn't mean we don't instantly judge a book by what gender of name is on the cover, and indeed the same is true of books by writers of colour, books by queer writers. There is increasing interest in the world and how we fix this, how we judge things by their merits and not by the particular qualities we associate with the creators and I would love to see publishing get more fully on board with that.

"Publishing is in many ways a very old fashioned industry. The world is moving on and publishing is being left behind. Everybody get some cognitive bias training."

Unconscious bias has also been a hot topic in relation to the diversity of publishing staff. HarperCollins' director of people, John Athanasiou, said last year it was a "huge problem" for recruiters and that HarperCollins would be providing unconscious bias training to its executive team, hiring managers and "anyone else who wants it". Last year publisher Penguin Random House also revealed everyone in the company would undergo “unconscious bias” training to eradicate hidden prejudices in relation to recruitment.