Publishing Never Learns

In this case, I use “publishing” in what could be viewed as a broad sense but also narrow as well. It deals with traditional publishing and the way agenda seems to be more important in all too many ways that the story. Both of the examples cited below have one thing in common: the need to push the diversity agenda. Mind you, I have long advocated for equal pay for equal jobs (assuming equal experience, education, etc). Where I draw the line is when sex–or sexual preference–or skin color or something else that has nothing to do with the ability to do the job takes precedence over ability.

The first example of behavior in the industry that sends me up the wall comes from Scotland. The Saltire Society gives out the award for the best Scottish novel of the year. This year, there were five judges. One of them, Lesley McDowell, took such exception to the decision about who should win the award that she resigned and made her complaint public.

Initially, it appears she is upset that some of her fellow judges didn’t finish the 1,000 page book she thought should win. Implied in her criticism is the question of how they could judge something if they hadn’t read it all. Well, I don’t know about those judges or why they didn’t read all the book–if, in fact, that is true–but I know my own reading habits. I know there have been local contests where I haven’t been able to finish an entry. It might be because the story didn’t resonate with me. It might be because the story was so poorly written. In either case, I didn’t need to finish reading the story to know it didn’t live up to what I felt was needed to be “the best”.

However, as McDowell’s criticism of the other judges continues, her real complaint becomes clear:

At this point, I said I couldn’t support the choice because it was a woman written by a man, when there were three women who’d written women on the shortlist and that meant they were saying a man had written a woman better than these three. . . .”

Yes, you read that right. She couldn’t vote for a book, the book that eventually won the award, because it was written by a man and the main character was female.

To justify her stance, she cited research by Nicola Griffith that contends women are less likely to win such awards than men are. So I guess McDowell decided it was her duty to the sisterhood to stand up and fight for women, whether they deserved the win or not. Of course, she did some quick backtracking, ineffective to be true, when asked if that meant she would never vote for a man writing from a woman’s POV.

I was asked if I would never vote for a man, and so had to explain that of course men can and should write women. My own husband’s last book was a woman’s point of view, and half of my last one was from a man’s. But in these circumstances, gender choice matters,” said McDowell. “Every year the Women’s prize has to answer the same question, why do we need a prize for women? Well, the answer was right in this meeting. A woman was being overlooked, her book not even finished.”

So, apparently it is misogynistic or something not to finish a book by a woman if you are a man. I wonder if she would vote for her husband’s book against books written by women. Given her comments, it’s probably a pretty good guess to say the answer is a resounding “no!”. Can’t you just imagine the conversation over the dinner table:

“Honey, your book is really good. One of the best I’ve ever read, but I can’t vote for it in the contest because you have a penis.”

“Uh, what? But, dear, you keep telling me how much you love my penis.”

“I know, dear husband, but this is the sisterhood I’m fighting for. Surely you understand. I have to undo all the evil the patriarchy has rained down on my sisters for time immemorial.”

“I see.” Hubby pauses and thinks before continuing. “Then, honey, I must take a stance too. Since you have a problem with my writer’s penis, you must have a problem with my husband penis. So I will make sure it never acts in a patriarchal way toward you again. I will keep it in my pants until I find someone who doesn’t judge me or my work simply by my biological plumbing.”

Okay, that conversation probably won’t happen in their household–but it should. McDowell had one job: to select the best book eligible for the prize. She let her personal politics get in the way. Then, when other judges didn’t follow her lead, she got mad and tried to do a hit job in the media. All she’s managed to do is show how contests such as this no longer look only for the best book because judges are letting their personal agendas interfere with their choices.

Welcome to the world of traditional publishing.

Next case in point. Publishers Weekly gave us this little piece of WTFery not long ago. Here’s how the article opens. See if you can figure out where it is going:

In a game of “getting warmer,” the publishing industry has been slow to recognize that in order to widen its consumer base, it needs to represent consumers in its own ranks.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t tell you who worked in the acquisitions departments of any of the major publishers. I don’t know who the agents are representing most traditionally published authors, much less what race those agents might be or what their sexual identity, preference, etc. But apparently all that has an impact on widening publishing’s customer base.

How? One would think widening the base would mean publishing books reader want to read. That doesn’t mean putting arbitrary numbers onto how many books should be written by what sort of author or how many characters of what political stripe need to be included. It comes down to the end product, not the people who are merely cogs in the organization.

But let’s see what PW has to say.

With nearly 80% of the industry identifying as white, straight, and able bodied, is it any wonder that so many stories sound the same? Calls for more diverse characters, authors, and stories are great. There’s a step further that must be taken, however; we need to make changes to the gatekeepers.

Or maybe we need publishers to quit listening to the bean counters who see a trend and push to have only stories that fall into the trend published. Have we forgotten all the faux DaVinci Code books that came out? Or how about all the books that were supposed to be the next 50 Shades of Gray? Hells bells, at least one publisher pulled an entire line after 50 Shades took off in order to rebrand the line so all the covers looked like 50 Shades and its sequels. Book releases were delayed and series died as a result of not only the delay but because all the books looked the same and readers couldn’t tell the difference.

It had nothing to do with what color or sex or whatever the writer or the gatekeepers happened to be. It had everything to do with trying to capitalize off of a trend and failing badly.

The need for representation in all aspects of publishing is clear. In order to get an editor, books need to be represented by agents—so it stands to reason that the industry needs diverse agents, as well. . . In hiring for a position that requires a great deal of subjectivity, agents often look for people with whom they share a connection; they want those who will view books the same way they do. Unfortunately, that is often focused through a white, heterosexual, able-bodied lens. . . The second barrier is literal proximity. People of color have less wealth overall, and they have one-tenth of the generational wealth of whites, according to an article in the Washington Post. In a sector of the industry where starting pay is low or commission only, and that is based in a city with skyrocketing rents, many diverse candidates do not have the financial resources to take jobs as agents’ assistants. Without that first job, it’s nearly impossible to gain the necessary industry experience.

There is so much wrong in all that, I’m not sure where to start. So let’s start with the obvious. The author of the post says the study was by WaPo but there is no link. That makes it much ore difficult to confirm her claims or to see what, exactly, the article said.

It is also clear she only considers traditional publishing in her concern. Does this mean she doesn’t see a diversity problem in indie publishing? I doubt it. What I think it means is she, like so many others on the traditional side, still stands there with her eyes closed and her fingers in her ears as she trills “lalalalalala” anytime indie publishing comes up.

Finally, the fallacy of the contention that to be an agent you have to live in NYC or Chicago or some other hub of traditional publishing. What about the agents who live in Denver? In Dallas? Or all the others who are scattered across the country and who successfully advocate for their clients? I guess they don’t count.

And, as we reach the end of the article you see what she had been going for all along. This piece wasn’t really about how the industry needs to change but about how “woke” her own literary agency is. So come to them because they are different and forward thinking and whatever.

Now here’s a test. Can you see the conflict in this statement?

we take advantage of tools such as Google Drive, Slack, and WhatsApp to enable us to recruit the best agents for the job, rather than those able to afford $1,000 per month for a room. Our company is location agnostic, with all employees being remote, but this extreme isn’t necessary for every organization. By creating a diversity of positions—where some are paid reasonable wages for their area, and some are remote with flexible hours—agencies can create an environment that is more inclusive.

Read that last sentence again. Some positions are “paid reasonable wages for their area” and those working remotely are, judging by this comment, not. Hmm, wonder how those lower paid folks feel, especially if they are working as hard, if not harder, than their counterparts.

And none of this has anything to do with the quality of the product hitting the shelves. What happened to giving readers what they want? Just as a woman can write male characters and vice verse, a good writer can write characters that aren’t based on their own background, race, etc. The sooner traditional publishing understands this, the more of a chance it has to possibly survive.


  1. I wonder how many of those diverse “remote” employees being “paid reasonable wages for their area” are in India.

    1. Hmm — China’s losing jobs from the prospering areas to the less prosperous, but don’t know if they sell this.

  2. Funny thing has happened to me over the last couple of weeks. A number of trad pub authors I’ve been reading have had books sent back to the library only half or quarter read. As a bookworm this is abnormal. The authors haven’t changed anything. I think that I’ve been spoilt by indies. Has trad pub always been this boring or has the quality of indies picked up massively? Here is an idea. Write entertaining stories. Lots of action and adventure, characters that are believable, price the ebook under $10 if big and 4/7 if average sized and for the love of god drop the preachiness. When everyone is preaching the same message it becomes grey goo and is a chore to read.

    1. I’m about there with the current book, where the writer takes large amounts of time off to preach about Global Warming and how it must be stopped. (Note nothing said about getting China and India to comply with whatever crackbrained idea is supposed to stop warming that seems to be caused mostly by computer program. Never mind.) After the last lecture on the glaciers melting, I put the book down, two days ago, and haven’t gone back yet.
      It’s a pity because I love the series, but geez louise.

      1. But Sarah, making non-Western nations comply with climate change legislation would be racist! /sarc

  3. The Saltire Society award did seem to be a bit FUBAR. In addition to the complaint mentioned, apparently one of the nominees was written in Gaelic, and most of the judges couldn’t read Gaelic. As far as the 1,000 page runner up is concerned, I’m of two minds: on one hand, if you’re a judge in a contest, it’s kind of your duty to read the book. On the other hand, this comment definitely got my back up:

    Ellmann herself [the author] told the Observer on Sunday that there was “a tinge of sexism in certain male reviewers’ comments on the book’s length … They’re probably further miffed that it’s a novel about womanhood. The feeling is, how dare a woman, the narrator or the author, take up so much of my time?” she said.

    Listen, lady, no one is “entitled” to 1,000 pages worth of my time. It’s your job as the author to entertain me to the point where I reach the end and wonder why there were even more of those wonderful words. And if you’ve got 1,000 pages worth of words, they’d better be pretty darn wonderful to keep me going that far. If your novel was half as off-putting as that paragraph, then 1,000 pages of trees died for nothing.

    1. A thousand pages is LONG. Had there been a couple more thousand page books but written by men that no one complained about, she might not sound so much like a whiner.

      1. That Kim Robinson book. I still shudder about it to this day. The opening prologue was good, and had me keen, but it’s almost as if someone else wrote that, and the rest was meandering bullshit filler and inanity where you couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on.

        I think I gave it to my husband to use as target practice.

  4. “At this point, I said I couldn’t support the choice because it was a woman written by a man…”

    …which is when all thinking individuals began using that award and its nominees as a do-not-read list.

    “In a sector of the industry where starting pay is low or commission only, and that is based in a city with skyrocketing rents, many diverse candidates do not have the financial resources to take jobs as agents’ assistants.”

    Translation, if Mommy and Daddy Warbucks aren’t paying the rent, no one can take this job because it doesn’t pay a living wage in NYC. Therefore everyone -doing- the job has it as a vanity thing. To justify their Ivy League English or Grievance Studies PhD.

    “By creating a diversity of positions—where some are paid reasonable wages for their area…”

    …we can get people who will actually WORK instead of just take selfies and surf Tinder all day, and we can pay them peanuts!!! Awesome plan!!!

    I wonder how far an effort to unionize these assholes would get? Not because I believe in unions, but because they say they do.

  5. “…a good writer can write characters that aren’t based on their own background, race, etc. The sooner traditional publishing understands this, the more of a chance it has to possibly survive.”

    Sigh. My money is on Trad Pub never understanding this simple concept.

    1. I suggest that we start a dead pool on when the Big Five become the Big Two, both owned as tax-loss breaks by foreign conglomerates.

  6. The OP is correct about the salaries, just take a stroll around the job ads at Media Bistro. MB is a New York-centric job board, and you can see what pay bands the Big Five place their editors into. Compare the pay to the cost of living in New York, and you can see that publishing jobs are more available to people who don’t need the pay check. They seem to be selecting for the Jackie O social-economic class.

    I think its funny that the PW article is talking about the need for diversity, without discussing a common viewpoint prevalent in tradpub circles: bigotry and contempt for the American reader.

    I can’t find it now, but Data Guy indicated that over 90% of books in the “African American” — romance? — genre are ebooks, not tradpub. That makes sense, because black writers were self publishing in the 90’s long before Amazon provided the easy button. They had to, because tradpublishers insisted that black people don’t read, and that white people hate reading about black people. Kristine Kathryn Rusch was told the same thing when she started writing her Smokey Dalton series, with the additional “problem” that she’s white.

    Tradpub said you couldn’t write a detective who happened to be black, you had to instead have a detective who was oppressed because he was black, and focus on the oppression. In a blog post a while ago, Leonard Chang notes the editors are still into “oppression tales.” An editor criticized him because the Korean-American characters in his mysteries focused on plot-relevant stuff, rather than on the shape of their eyes. The editor thought that if the characters are not obsessed with being Korean, then why write them as Korean? Writers who see that attitude, and have any sense, go indie.

    Tradpub said that American readers can’t handle translations, so editors would only publish them once in a while. You really only began to see translations in mysteries take off when everyone wanted to copycat “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Then there’s contempt even when the foreign book is in English: J.K. Rowling was warned by American publishers that American kids wouldn’t be able to grasp the humor in her Harry Potter books. She saw for herself at book signings that this wasn’t the case.

    Until I see calls for editors who aren’t oikophobes, I’m not holding out any hope that tradpub will get around to publishing books that readers want to read. How can they, if they don’t even like their readers?

    1. Same for regional books – that is, books with a specific regional setting. Mine (with one exception) are set in Texas. Early on, I tried to get interest from agencies – just about all of which were based in New York. No luck…
      Not to say that books set elsewhere than the east coast can’t get interest from Trad Pub … but the odds are slim, and have gotten slimmer lately…

      1. Ditto with books with gay characters. And yet the space opera crowd read A Few Good Men and is still asking for more with those characters, specifically (Which I hadn’t intended to do, but now…)

        1. Y’know, my first experience reading about homosexual characters was in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series (the green and blue riders) and I didn’t blink an eye. It turned out originally the green (female) dragons were meant to be paired with female riders as well, but since they were also fighting dragons, and going between tended to cause miscarriages (or were deliberately used to abort), as well as societal reasons, over the next several hundred years it became standard to pair green dragons with male riders and only women could stand for the breeding golden Queen dragons.

          I was a kid. I didn’t really care and glossed over the male/male pairings.

          Apparently her takes on homosexuality are considered ‘problematic’ now…

            1. To some, I guess. I gathered that to those who end up with dragons, it’s a bit expected your dragon chooses who you end up with, not the rider. With the riders that don’t end up Weyrleader and Weyrwoman, those encounters aren’t permanent. It comes up in discussion with one of the books Anne wrote later (Red Star Rising) about what the female green riders would do if they ended up with a homosexual blue rider; apparently the green rider picks her partner beforehand; and it’s implied the green rider who is the focus of the discussion becomes espoused to someone who isn’t even a rider later on.

              (Been rereading these when I’m unable to sleep. Helps keep me awake for baby’s teething ;_; )

  7. This had me caught between a smirk and a sneer:

    “Every year the Women’s prize has to answer the same question, why do we need a prize for women? Well, the answer was right in this meeting. A woman was being overlooked, her book not even finished.”

    Classic. First, “need” is an inapplicable concept to something as frivolous as a literary prize. Second, women’s literary prizes exist for the same reason women’s tennis tournaments in which men may not participate (so far) exist: Some folks with money want to see women play against other women. Some of those folks invest in the prize fund to be sure a woman wins something, which, in an open competition against men, would not be guaranteed.

    But there’s a larger question to be asked: are there competitive activities with a public fandom in which women have a natural advantage: i.e., in which men would need their own, “no women allowed” competitions for a man to be guaranteed to win? I don’t know of any. Does anyone? And if so, have men ever demanded such “no women only” competitions?

    If, as I suspect, there are no such competitions, the next question must be asked – and that question is Why not?

    1. Beauty contests?

      Most public contests are physical, which has obvious distinctions between the sexes. Only reason I can think of for a lady’s lit contest is that there simply aren’t as many women writers, at least in theory…but I’m a bad person to ask for that, I think it’s silly.

      1. Hm! I hadn’t considered beauty contests. But as far as I know, with the exception of a couple of transwomen, men have not demanded to be allowed to enter them. Neither have men sought the establishment of “men-only” beauty contests…an idea that makes me a bit queasy, to be candid. Or ought we to count bodybuilding contests?

        Now I’m unsure I should have opened this line of inquiry!

        1. There are actually men’s beauty contests– besides stuff like body builder’s contests– but they have about the same level of relative popularity that lady’s football does.

  8. Found the article!

    Despite gains in income and wealth, the economic chasm between black and Hispanic families and their white counterparts widened between 2013 and 2016 — even when it comes to Americans with comparable levels of education, according to data released Wednesday by the Federal Reserve.
    The median net worth of whites remains nearly 10 times the size of blacks’. Nearly 1 in 5 black families have zero or negative net worth — twice the rate of white families.

    The obvious issue being that single-adult households obviously have fewer resources, and that if you want to qualify for food aid you have to have almost no reportable resources.

    1. Also minorities lost big, borrowing money to buy houses they then couldn’t keep up payments on in a recession.

      Which has nothing to do with writing contests. I can see where a panel of mostly male judges might prefer a different sort of book than female judge. Depending on the individual tastes of the judges.

      Do a lot of women writers write literary angst or romances? Well, yeah. Does that make them better or worse writers than men? Well, no. It just means they are less likely to win open contests, rather than genre specific contests.

    2. Apparently there’s arguments out there about why string theory and quantum physics should have more black women giving ‘unique perspectives.’ or something insane like that.

      Anyone trying to bring identity politics and social perspectives to quantum physics shouldn’t be allowed anywhere NEAR the thing.

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