As a woman, a writer and an author preparing for the launch of my debut novel in a few weeks, I read Kamila Shamsie’s “provocation” calling for 2018 to be a year of publishing only women with great interest. I admit that my gut response to the headline was one of concern — do we really need to exclude male authors? — but I know headlines can be misleading so I read on with an open mind. Her summary of statistics showing that the publishing industry is not serving women well was familiar. I need no convincing that we are second-class citizens in the publishing industry as writers, readers and even characters, so when she began her crescendo toward her challenge, I was right there with her.
“Enough. Across the board, enough. Let’s agree that things have improved over the last 50 years, even over the last 20, and then let’s start to ask why. Was it simply the passage of time? Should we all sit around while the world continues on its slow upward trend towards equality? Or should we step outside that fictional narrative of progress and ask what actually helped to change literary culture in the UK? Two things come to mind: the literary presses of the 70s, of which Virago is the most notable; and the women’s prize for fiction. In part, what both the presses and the prize did was to create a space for women in a male-dominated world, giving voice and space to those who wouldn’t find them elsewhere.”
My hand curled into a fist. Yes! We do need to take example from the suffragettes! We do need to stop being so polite and seize our own power, raise our voices and… That’s when she lost me. Because what Shamsie suggested we raise our voices to say to the male-dominated publishing industry was, essentially, “Please let us in. You’re being unfair. Just for one year without any boys in the way and see if the readers like us. It doesn’t have to be right away, 2018 is fine, but give us a go? Please?”
I don’t see the spirit of the independent presses of the 70s & 80s in that. What I see is a spirit of dependence on an industry that infantilizes writers, making them grateful for any morsel of approval and attention, convincing them that a publishing house is the only way to ‘real’ publication. This seems to be particularly so of literary writers (a group to which I do not pretend to belong) who appear to have been convinced that even though they are the keepers of the artistic flame, they would not have an audience at all without the festivals, the reviewers and the awards the publishing houses so carefully close to all but their own.
Surely the lesson to take from the independent presses of the 70s is to use the technology available and become our own publishers, at least until traditional publishers start doing the right thing by writers – all writers. Many of us are already doing that.
I began this article by saying that I’m an author with a novel about to be launched. It will be obvious by now that I’m self-published. Unlike the stereotype so often drawn in articles about independent authors, I did not spend years collecting rejections for As Long As She Lives and turn to self-publishing as a last resort. I chose to self-publish because, quite aside from whether they would accept my work, I knew from my little experience with authors and their agents that the royalty rates and conditions most publishing houses offer to most authors (first timers or mid-listers) are appalling. Gender imbalance isn’t the only inequity in the publishing industry. Take a look at the American Authors’ Guild’s new, if belated, Fair Contracts Initiative and the entanglement of Big Publishing with Author Solutions and ask yourself what it says about the respect the industry appears to have for the writers so desperate to be a part of it.
For me self-publishing is about self-respect, not desperation, nor vanity. That same self-respect is what has driven me to take my time researching, writing and editing a novel I’m proud of and now, like an indie musician or film-maker, or anyone who starts their own business, I’m taking a risk. I’m putting my work out there to stand or fall on it’s own merits and getting on with producing the next one. I’m not naive, I know that reaching the reading public will be far more difficult without the inbuilt media that comes with a traditional publishing house but I’m in this for the long-tail and new opportunities are opening up every day. One of those opportunities may come from a publishing house that likes my work and offers a contract that is fair and respectful of the author’s contribution to a book, and I’m open in saying that would be my ideal. I’d love to be part of a publishing house and not have to take time from writing for production but I’m not willing to sign a contract which matches neither the true contribution of an author to the production of each book or to the profits of the multi-billion dollar industry that is publishing.
So thank you, Ms. Shamsie, for your provocative piece. I will watch with interest to see how the industry responds and hope that it will respond well, but I’m not waiting and I’m not alone. The latest publishing revolution is well under way.