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10 October 2013updated 05 Oct 2023 8:54am

Are Vicky Barnsley and Dame Gail Rebuck old-fashioned Brontësauruses?

Yes, it matters that they're women.

By Sarah Fisch

It’s been a bad month for women in publishing.

On 3 July, The Guardian published a story about the upheaval in the publishing industry with the following headline: “Dame Gail Rebuck to chair Penguin Random House UK”. Sounds like progress, doesn’t it? The mood of the article is soured somewhat by the standfirst which explained: “Top book publisher to take strategic role as Victoria Barnsley, chief executive of rival HarperCollins, announces her departure”.

Let’s recap: Within days of each other, two industry giants – HarperCollins, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, and Penguin Random House, the newly-merged mega property of Bertlesmann/Pearson, suddenly and summarily marginalised or lost altogether two female role models with a wealth of experience in their field.

Each woman has been effectively replaced by a younger male executive well-versed in franchise management and brand identity (nicely illustrated in this piece by Sebastian Shakespeare). Charlie Redmayne, replacing Victoria Barnsley, has been an asset to Pottermore, the online Harry Potter franchise multimedia hub. Meanwhile, Penguin Random House chief executive Tom Weldon, taking over from Rebuck, “does have a publishing background (he was a Macmillan graduate trainee),” Shakespeare ebserved, “and has dutifully risen through the ranks, but the authors he is associated with are Jeremy Clarkson, Jamie Oliver, Girls Aloud and Posh Spice.”

Well, at least there are two ladies on that list.

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Victoria Barnsley began her own imprint, 4th Estate, as an enterprising 30-year-old, in 1984. The imprint championed the works of Carol Shields, Michael Cunningham (The Hours), Kate Jennings and Sebastian Junger. After HarperCollins bought in in 2000 with Barnsley on board, 4th Estate expanded its roster to include Annie Proulx (The Shipping News), Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, and two-time Booker Prize-winner Hilary Mantel, whom some have dubbed the most important living English novelist. Just this year, 4th Estate (under Publishing Director Nick Pearson) won Best Imprint at the Publishing Industry Awards.

Rebuck has similarly impressive credentials. In February 2013 Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 reckoned her the 10th most powerful women in the UK. She was made a dame in 2009, and in 2013 was made director of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Her legacy at Random House is of the red-hot blockbuster line; in addition to discovering Fifty Shades Of Grey, Rebuck unearthed Dan Brown, and published Ian McEwan and Nigella Lawson.

Obviously, neither of these women were caught slacking. But in a blog post for The Bookseller entitled “Game of Thrones,” Philip Jones pointed out “If it can be said that Rebuck and Barnsley defined British publishing for a generation, then Weldon and Redmayne are the natural heirs for the next.”

But the drama of Victoria Barnsley and Gail Rebuck, reveals two plots, at least.

In the first plot, a worrying cataclysm has erupted, and literary legacy must yield to the exigencies of the digital age or die. This is a tidily comprehensible narrative, at the outset; we merely witness the convulsions of an industry in flux. Book publishing is pressed on one side by the capitalist imperative to merge and monetize, illustrated by the Penguin Random House merger. Pushing from the other side are the consumer behaviors of an evolving readership, with a particular media-wide hyper-focus on males 18-35, who apparently don’t read (more on this later). Adjunct to these market forces, digitisation has brought about a dramatic change in how “content” is owned, classified, and disseminated. This is the publishing realpolitik, everybody. All other considerations are secondary to survival in this brave new world. Full stop.

Even Barnsley ceded this conundrum in an interview with the Guardian in August last year, saying “we can’t think of ourselves as book publishers any longer. We have to see ourselves as, you know,” Barnsley hesitates to use the cliché, “multimedia content producers.”

In this story, Redmayne’s got his arms round an enormous conundrum in publishing; that the online life of ‘product’ — via fanfic and other forms of fan culture and participation — aren’t just experimental and modish. The beyond-book digital reach, including internet interactivity and community, becomes increasingly crucial to profit streams, particularly in an embattled publishing structure that sees itself as competing with video games and internet. And scoff if you must at Tom Weldon’s lightweight author line-up, but the celebrity book trend shows no sign of dissipating. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written four exquisite, deeply impactful books. The Kardashians, God help us, have written twelve blockbusters.

Here’s the second plot, and it has to do with gender, and power, in a publishing industry that appears female-dominated.

Book publishing has long had the appearance is of female domination, and indeed, In Publisher’s Weekly 2010 Salary Survey it was found that 85 per cent of publishing employees with less than three years of experience are women.

In a blog post for The Grindstone, however, Elizabeth Watson, editor of Publishing Trends says “Young women can’t declare we’re the minority or that it’s hard to get in–far from it. Most frequently debated is why there is a majority of women at this early point in our career, but a minority on the executive level. I’ve even heard peers propose that it’s an ideal industry to be male because if you’re patient, many of your colleagues will start leaving for as they have children–giving easier access to the top.” (Italics mine)

This female domination, wherever it lies, undercuts the male readership and thus harms publishing fortunes, of course. American thriller writer Jason Pinter, in a controversial Huffington Post essay from 2010 , asserts “Nobody can deny the fact that most editorial meetings tend to be dominated by women. Saying the ratio is 75/25 is not overstating things. So needless to say when a male editor pitches a book aimed at men, there are perilously few men to read it and give their opinions.” He goes on in an anecdotal vein, “I’m tired of people saying Men Don’t Read. Men LOVE to read. I’ve been a reader my whole life. My father is a reader. Most of my male friends are readers. But the more publishing repeats the empty mantra that Men Don’t Read the less they’re going to try to appeal to men, which is where this vicious cycle begins.”

So, clearly, in order to attract Mr. Pinter, his father, and most if not all his men friends, publishing had better man up, but quick. There should be a greater presence in the publishing-editorial world of books by men, reviewed by men, all staking their manly claim against a sea of lady concerns. Jonathan Franzen, published in part by Barnsley’s 4th Estate, has opined as well in a letter to The New York Times that “There may still be gender imbalances in the world of books, but very strong numbers of women are writing, editing, publishing and reviewing novels.”

How, then, do we account for the VIDA study of 4 March, 2013? In 2012, the grassroots nonprofit for women in the arts did an exhaustive survey of the top media outlets for new literature and book reviews, noting the gender disparity. In their words, they aimed “to count the rates of publication between women and men in many of our writing world’s most respected literary outlets….So we counted. We made some very attractive pie charts to illustrate some very disturbing numbers. And then we released the information, frankly wondering if anyone would pay attention to our discoveries.” I urge you to go look at the charts.

The Boston Review comes off rather well; 14 of the 29 authors they reviewed are women. Granta didn’t do too badly either, with 30 women to 41 men in “overall,” presumably meaning all contributors, whether reviewers or fiction writers. But Harper’s would seem to be ardently courting Jason Pinter’s men friends — 11 lady authors reviewed to 54 man ones. And The London Review of Books is a real triumph for the Y chromosome; 277 authors reviewed, and only 74 of them women. And of The Times Literary Supplement’s 1238 reviewed authors, 314 of them were women. That’s 25.3%.

This data makes for a couple of puzzling disconnects. If women dominate the publishing industry, why are so few women in leadership positions in publishing (and now, two fewer), why are relatively few books by women reaching the review stage, and are then reviewed by relatively few women? Are female powers greenlighting so many unworthy books by women that they don’t merit reviewing? Are women too distracted by their vaginas to review books, or are they so distracted by penises that they largely review books by Jonathan Franzen (his latest apparently meritesd two raves in the New York Times)?

According to Philip Jones’ Game of Thrones analogy Rebuck and Barnsley are women seems immaterial to me, as it does that Weldon and Redmayne are not. Yet appearances are important, and a modern media industry should not be so dominated by one gender at the top.”

Guess which gender that is. At the tippy-top, I mean, not the 85 per cent of underpaid women at the bottom, or whoever pissed off Jason Pinter and his dad. And maybe, given the exigencies of digital-era publishing, it should be immaterial. But I daresay this is a more difficult stance to take if you’re a female editor, critic, or writer, though. One who values the development of writers like Zadie Smith or Hilary Mantel more than a series of YA novels based on video games about vampires written by Ke$ha .

I’m selling new media slightly short, I’ll grant you. Video-heavy, online-responsive tablet-born vampire YA is not without industrial importance, or cultural relevance. The digital phenomenon is to be ignored at great financial peril. And, no kidding, creative peril: there may eventually be an immersive video game or internet experience that achieves for our souls and understanding what To Kill A Mockingbird or Wuthering Heights has.

But by merging houses, and favoring male executives within the fray at the cost of female literary lionesses, the big publishers posit that all product is equal, and Hilary Mantel and Victoria Beckham stand side by side. An argument exists whose subtext it is that these two older ladies, their noses in books, represent a fading generation of people obsessed by an outmoded cultural artefact, and that in essence and in corporate emphasis the 4th Estate must make way for Pottermore. This is wrong, and injurious. Not just to Barnsley and Rebuck, nor only to a legion of readers now and in the future. Not merely to literary academics, and students whether or not they go on to write, not only to the books and the writers themselves. It’s an irresponsible movement away from an increasingly inclusive canon. There’s more to the tradition of literary fiction than money, and truly innovative minds and ideas will start from this premise and monetize creatively, not the other way ‘round. Literary fiction isn’t the only fruit of publishing, but culture takes place in fiction in a way it can’t elsewhere, particularly in terms of women’s voices as part of the culture, however embattled.

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