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.