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

Image - iStockphoto: wesvandinter
Image – iStockphoto: wesvandinter


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.

Binder2.pdfAnd 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.’

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

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.


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
Kamila Shamsie

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.

Nicola Griffith
Nicola Griffith

Just this week, as Shamsie notes, UK-US author Nicola Griffith (pictured) has announcedresearch 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.

Read More

By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook: ‘The Tsunami-of-Content Monster’: #FutureChat recap

Read the full post at: TheBookseller.com/futurebook


Join The Bookseller’s The FutureBook #FutureChat each Friday at 4 p.m. London (BST), 5 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11 a.m. New York (ET), 10 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9 a.m. Denver (MT), 8 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).


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