As a woman, a writer and recently published author, 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.”
Yes! I thought. 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 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 and 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 from the independent presses of the 70s isn’t to plead for someone else to start a press and offer better opportunities, it’s to stand up, use the technology available and become our own publishers. Many of us are already doing that.
The latest publishing revolution is well under way.
I began this article by saying that I’m a recently published author. It will be obvious by now that I’m also 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 or even a second choice. I chose to self-publish because — quite aside from whether they would accept my work or not — I don’t like what the traditional publishing houses are offering.
I spent several years producing audio books for authors published by the major houses and witnessed neglect and sometimes mistreatment of not just authors but also of their work. And that destroyed any romantic notions I had about the industry. 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 has 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 its own merits and getting on with producing the next one because even we self-publishing authors know that what sells your first novel is your third (at least). If a traditional publishing house or agent comes across my work and wants to discuss an arrangement then, of course, I’d consider it but I’m spending my energy on producing work and getting it to readers, rather than on perfecting pitches to companies with business models based on exploiting their content creators.
So thank you, Ms. Shamsie, for your provocative piece. I will watch with interest to see how the industry responds but I’m not waiting, and I’m not alone.
As Long As She Lives is now available, worldwide, in paperback and eBook.