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16 July 2022

From morality clauses to sensitivity readers: inside UK publishing’s identity crisis

Is the books world in urgent need of change – or simply running scared of Twitter?

By Alex Clark

On 5 July Picador, which is part of the Pan Macmillan conglomerate, announced that its publishing director, Philip Gwyn Jones, was stepping down “by mutual agreement” after two years in the role. Gwyn Jones, a respected publisher with long experience, had been criticised for his handling of a row over Kate Clanchy’s memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. In 2021 concerns were raised by readers on Goodreads.com about the book’s descriptions of pupils of colour, as well as of working-class and autistic children. Gwyn Jones had first defended Clanchy, their former teacher, and then distanced himself from the author, tweeting: “I must use my privileged position as a white middle-class gatekeeper with more awareness to promote diversity, equity, inclusivity”. Clanchy and Picador parted ways in January.

The changing of the guard at Picador was just the latest chapter in British publishing’s increasingly furious fight with itself. There is a tacit assumption, naturally attractive to those who work in and around it, that the book business is inherently progressive, championing free speech and inclusivity. But in recent months many of its core tenets have been tested. Is publishing undergoing an identity crisis? Should it defend its authors at all costs, or realign itself with the values of the digital age?

At the Hay Festival in May, the children’s author Anthony Horowitz said that he was “absolutely shocked” by the rewrites Walker Books had asked him to do on his most recent work, Where Seagulls Dare. “Children’s book publishers are more scared than anybody,” he said, describing “a culture of fear” born of polarised politics and a terror of social media outrage. The same month, the Twitter account @YoungRefuseniks – an “online support group for trans and non-binary publishing employees/hopefuls and authors” – was forced to close after lists the group had compiled (of people in UK publishing that they deemed sympathetic and unsympathetic) were leaked.

Social media, with its catastrophic blend of immediacy, brevity and performativity, has intensified such arguments: online, ­attitudes calcify, personalities morph into caricatures, arguments flatten. As one publisher recently told me, ushering a writer onto Twitter is like giving fireworks to a baby. Books take years to write, and a significant investment of attention to read; online arguments spark in minutes and can generate an instant reaction. Reputations can be shredded on social media – but also made; the writer and GB News host Andrew Doyle has forged a publishing career through his Twitter parody account, “radical intersectionalist poet” @TitaniaMcGrath.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the issues roiling the book business as ephemera. These arguments are the expression of urgent ­questions publishers now face – including the marginalisation of writers of colour, of trans and non-­binary people, of the working class and those with disabilities. An ongoing ­survey by the Publishers’ Association suggests that, in personnel terms, some forms of ­representation have improved, but that class remains a major barrier for those who want to work in book publishing. Another survey, run by Suzanne Collier of bookcareers.com, paints a different picture; one in which low pay, long hours and limited career progression undermine attempts to increase inclusion.

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Cultural faultlines have emerged within the business, as well as schisms between writers and editors. Some declined my requests for interview; but the publishing insiders I spoke to came to different conclusions about the sector’s health, some more optimistic than others. Nobody, however, argued that social media was not a decisive factor. Mark Richards, the co-founder of the independent publisher Swift Press, home to authors including the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt and Bret Easton Ellis, told me that writers needed to be given more freedom – not less. “It cannot be good to embed a voice in a writer that is worried about what Twitter might think,” he said. “That is what is happening, and I think that not only is publishing not preventing that from happening – it is actively encouraging it.”

Such questions of power and authority are not new. But for many years, these debates happened largely in private: in the boardrooms of ­retailers and publishers, and on newspaper books desks, themselves open to charges of being unrepresentative. If change has been happening, it has been happening both too slowly and at the discretion of the already powerful.

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The ostensible transparency of online discourse has transformed this landscape, and brought into question publishing’s ­primary purpose. If that purpose is a commitment to a wide range of voices, what happens when they are in dispute? Who decides if a writer’s work is offensive? Do publishers bear a ­greater responsibility to their writers or their readers?

[See also: The rise and fall of the literary bloke]

In February, Richards’ Swift Press acquired and reissued Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me after Clanchy left Picador (the text was re-edited). Clanchy had initially denied that the language objected to was hers (before acknowledging it was), and then complained of being victimised. Three of her most vocal critics – the academic Sunny Singh, the journalist Monisha Rajesh and writer Chimene Suleyman – experienced severe racist abuse on social media. Months later, and in the wake of a Guardian article published in June about the controversy, the ill feeling continues: all parties have pointed to the distress caused by further coverage (though it is striking that Clanchy, now a contributor to the online magazine Unherd, is granted the more frequent opportunities to argue her case).

I asked Richards why he wanted to take on a book that exposed his new venture to reputational damage, and which was unlikely to make money. He said he felt Clanchy “had been treated appallingly” by her publishers (whom, he argued, had failed both their author and her critics). It was unlikely that anyone else would take her on, he said, and he wanted “to send a signal to writers that publishing would have their backs”.

But Richards’ concerns extend far beyond this one case. Before setting up Swift in 2020 (with Diana Broccardo, the former commercial director of Profile Books), he worked at Fourth Estate and John Murray, and has many years’ experience in larger publishing houses. Until a few years ago, he said, there had been “an absolute assumption, even a duty, that you publish across the spectrum” – even if “90 per cent of publishing thinks the same way: pretty much everybody is liberal left of various degrees”. Now, he thought there was much less willingness to take risks – a degree of caution that was in itself risky. “If we as an industry are pre-judging a lot of the most difficult arguments that society is having with itself, I think that’s a problem.”

As well as Hunt’s book about the NHS, Swift has published books on university culture wars (Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay) and gender (Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier). In May the imprint won Newcomer of the Year at the Independent Publishers Guild Awards. 

Richards told me he was sceptical about the value of sensitivity readers – external editors who, in advance of publication, advise on content that might prove offensive, or material of which the author might not have direct experience. He argued that publishers should have confidence in their own editorial judgements, and not encourage writers to self-censor. “If an author wants to have a sensitivity reader, we’re happy for them to. But we trust our editorial processes to catch content that is unarguably offensive when it’s not meaning to be.”

While Richards felt that publishers and writers need to train themselves to care less about what happens on social media, not everyone agreed. Philip Jones, the editor of the trade magazine the Bookseller, sees the contortions of recent years as a consequence of publishing’s unfamiliarity with instant feedback. “If you’re in journalism,” he pointed out, “you’re aware of getting criticism online, on Twitter, pretty quickly, and that’s been around for a long time. Not even just on social media: you’re accustomed to getting comments back. And you have to suck it up, really, because it’s part of the job.”

The world of books, with its lengthy lead times and more diffuse readership, has been caught off guard, he said: “For every good response, there seems to be a chaotic one.” Jones noted that publishers have always had some titles read more closely, often for legal reasons. Now, he said, editors “probably need to extend that philosophy to more books”.

[See also: Why are so many literary prizes closing?]

It isn’t just a matter of individual books, Jones said, but of broader cultural and corporate change; of diversifying both personnel and product. He pointed to the fallout that followed the publication of American Dirt, the 2020 novel by Jeannine Cummins, who was accused of sensationalism and appropriating the real-life experiences of Mexican immigrants who have crossed the US-Mexico border. “It’s easier to defend publishing a book like that if you have published others by actual Mexican émigrés who have done that journey. At the moment, publishers can’t point to those books on their lists. If the only book you’ve published about that is by a white New Yorker, then you’ve got an issue. It doesn’t mean the book should be cancelled, but you need to think whether you’ve allowed other voices to write the same kind of book.”

Jones told me he was positive about the future of publishing: aside from the people whose views seem “fixed in aspic”, he thought the sector was filled with talented people who want to get it right. Added to that is a sense that they will have to, in order to stay in ­business: “The world has changed. More people now have a voice and they want to use that voice.”

The issue of representation has been debated within publishing for years. But while there are indicators of progress – more writers of colour on prize shortlists, for example, and on the panels that judge those prizes – critics insist that at a structural level, not much has changed; publishing remains a largely white, middle- and upper-class arena, in which those from marginalised backgrounds will hit barriers. If a writer gets past those, there is the question of what gets coded into their work when it is published; how it is framed and marketed. What ends up on the bookshelf cannot be separated from the processes that brought it there – something that is key to understanding publishing’s current struggles.

The poet and academic Sandeep Parmar is the co-founder of the Ledbury Poetry Critics, a mentorship scheme for reviewers of colour. (A research study at the University of Liverpool, where Parmar teaches, had discovered that between 2009-17 the London Review of Books had published only white critics’ reviews of white poets’ books; the example was the most egregious, but not isolated.) Since the scheme was founded, Parmar says, the percentage of poetry reviewers of colour has increased, from less than 2 per cent in 2015 to 15 per cent in 2021.

She told me that publishing needs to re-examine its assumptions about what poetry is. “Any time somebody who is writing away from a traditionally white, male, middle-class mainstream lyric appears – whether that’s a person of colour or a queer poet – there’s a necessary challenge to the established view,” she said. “That’s usually perceived as a kind of threat. Yet innovation by white, straight men is seen as an improvement on a condition. How does a poet of colour fit into an ecosystem that is, in some ways, very inflexible? And which I think is driven by the tastes of editors who tend to be, in poetry, white men.”

Did she think the success of writers such as the Vietnamese-American poet and novelist Ocean Vuong and the African-American poet Danez Smith reflected any wider change? “Vuong is a really good example, as someone whose work has a great deal of range, in terms of sources, in terms of style,” she said. “But there is also a tendency [in the] reviewing culture to stereotype: he’s pigeonholed as a ‘refugee poet’, as a ‘queer poet’.” More broadly, Parmar argued, we lack a critical vocabulary to talk about race, and tend to fall back on positions that other and exoticise writers.

The Society of Authors exists to protect writers’ interests, to mediate in disputes, and to ensure that all of its 12,000 members’ voices are heard – a near-impossible task. As its chief executive, Nicola Solomon, told me: “I always remember that when we had our 10,000th member join, we had bags [made] which said ‘10,000 members, 10,000 voices’. Obviously, our members have a lot of opinions. It is the fact that they are opinionated that makes them writers.”

Solomon was refreshingly forthright when it came to suggestions that freedom of expression is in peril. Far more concerning than a case like Clanchy’s, she argued (whose books continue to be published, and who is free to say what she likes on Twitter), are less headline-grabbing developments such as publishers’ “morality clauses”. These, Solomon said, “allow publishers to drop you just because of something you’ve done outside of your book – even if they knew that about you anyway. If you’re a children’s writer, and you turn out to be a paedophile, I would have sympathy with a publisher who wanted to drop your books.

“But if you’re Julie Burchill, and you’ve been taken on because you’re Julie Burchill, and then you say something controversial, I think: hold on a minute, you bought Julie Burchill because she’s controversial. And you haven’t got a right then to drop her book.” Burchill’s contract for Welcome to the Woke Trials was cancelled by Hachette in 2020, after she posted Islamophobic tweets directed at the journalist Ash Sarkar. She later apologised and agreed to pay Sarkar substantial damages; Burchill’s book was eventually published by the American Academica Press.

Such clauses, Solomon said, are more common in the US, but are increasingly making their way into UK contracts. A clause might include rights of termination if a writer “shows due lack of regard for public conventions and morals”, or if allegations of damaging behaviour come to light. One such clause was invoked to cancel the further US publication of Blake Bailey’s 2021 biography of Philip Roth, after Bailey was accused of sexual assault – allegations which he denies. The work remains in print in the UK.

Lesser charges of disreputable behaviour might be levelled at many more authors. How far should a morality clause’s remit extend into writers’ lives? It is flippant, but not necessarily wrong, to observe that bookshops might become noticeably depleted if their powers were enacted. Despite the cyclical complaint that too many books are published, nobody actually wants a decline; it is in the interests of readers, writers and publishers to enable more, not less work.

The recent demise of the 50-year-old Costa Book Awards, which recognised “well-written, enjoyable” fiction, biography, poetry and children’s books, was a sign that the trade is shifting in other ways. The Costas were widely seen to have encompassed literary quality, accessibility and a variety of writers. Their disappearance indicates a change in the order of business – a sense that glitzy ceremonies and corporate marketing campaigns don’t gel as they used to do. The complaint that big prizes such as the Booker Prize favour deep-pocketed conglomerates over small presses has become louder, along with a sense that publishing’s old hegemonies are dead.

The story of the demise of publishing has been written before of course. But the recent divisive rows have proved energy-sapping, reductive and inimical to its values – of enlargement, detail, nuance and empathy. There is a tightrope to walk: if it is to remain a cornerstone of the culture, publishing must avoid being dragged into confected controversies, while remaining open to criticism and the necessity of modernisation. Can it pull off such a highwire act? One thing is clear: to resolve its identity crisis in the age of social media, the book business needs new thinking, new voices. The wisdom of the old establishment is no longer enough.

[See also: Why libraries matter for Britain]

Alex Clark is a critic, broadcaster and the former editor of Granta magazine

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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party