Author Kamila Shamsie is “right to draw attention” to gender inequality in publishing, but her suggestion of a year in which only books by women are published has been greeted with mixed views by the trade.
Writing in the latest issue of The Bookseller, Shamsie [pictured] said 2018 – the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote – should be a year in which the UK only published new titles by women.
This would help with the gender inequality female authors experience when it comes to reviews, media coverage, prize shortlistings and winnings, and more, said Shamsie.
Trade figures have told The Bookseller they largely agree with Shamsie’s theory on gender equality, but her Year of Publishing Women initiative has been greeted with caution.
Literary agent and Curtis Brown joint c.e.o. Jonny Geller said Shamsie was “right to draw attention to the outdated foibles of literary pages and the condescending attitude to “female oriented” fiction by publishers (whose employees are still predominantly women)”.
“But depriving the reading public of any book on the basis of gender, race or creed is surely antithetical to everything that culture stands for?” he continued. “I would support any initiative to promote women’s fiction and new voices but never at the expense of another writer’s.”
Writer Joanne Harris said: “I think this is a terrific idea - especially if we were to concentrate also on greater inclusivity for women of colour and other marginalised groups. But I also think that to exclude men from the whole debate might be seen as divisive - I'd rather see a year of people across the board of publishing deliberately going out of their way to read and publish and review authors from a different demographic/race/gender to their own, rather than staying in their habitual comfort zones.”
Julia Kingsford of literary and marketing agency Kingsford Campbell said Shamsie’s “provocation is very brave and I hope her extreme idea will push us as an industry to demand the equality that frankly should already exist”.
“We should all be striving to level the playing field so that whether it's prizes, media coverage, speaking opportunities or senior management roles women are equally likely to be chosen and equally prepared to step up,” she said. “I'd propose a charter that everyone across the industry and associated media and organisations signs up, committing us to objectives from equalising coverage to minimising manels [male only/dominated panels].
“We should shame inequality and disparity every chance we get, do more to support and empower women to put their hand up when opportunities arise and strive to create true equality of opportunity.”
In her piece Shamsie quoted research by English American author Nicola Griffith, which found that in the last five years major literary prizes awarded more books told from the male perspective, and tended to favour male authors who told these stories.
Kingsford said Man Booker Prize needed to look at its entry criteria if gender inequality was to be changed.
“Currently anyone longlisted in the last 10 years gets a free pass if they're eligible,” said Kingsford. “As only a third of the longlist in the last decade were women it is simply self-perpetuating that more men are entered and will be till we find a fairer entry system that still enables great writers to shine through.
“The word quota makes most of us shudder but perhaps at entry point enforcing more gender balance wouldn't be a bad thing.”
Jeremy Trevathan, adult publisher at Pan Macmillan, said: “I think Kamila’s absolutely got a point that there is an imbalance, which reflects the imbalance we see in so many walks of life, such as there not being enough women on the boards of companies.
“I’d love to see the industry focus on this issue together and take some definitive steps towards redressing this balance, such as launching specific access and development programmes for women writers, running special, focused retailer promotions or times, and cross industry campaigns to highlight the best books by women.”
Literary agent Piers Blofeld, of Sheil Land Associates, said: “My strong suspicion would be that if one was to look at the overall numbers for fiction women authors outsell and outearn their male counterparts by some considerable margin. I’d be celebrating that success rather than dwelling on largely irrelevant things like review coverage.”
But Andrew Franklin, m.d. of Profile Books, was more in favour of a Year of Publishing Women.
“I rather like the idea as a way of setting a target,” he said. “It will never happen in full but it serves as a reminder that we should do better - we could all focus more on the gender (and much worse, race) imbalances. It brings it to the fore. I like the ambition, though like my efforts to eat less chocolate, I know I will be a backslider.”