Can We Support Women Without ‘De-Supporting’ Men?
That’s a fairly ridiculous term, of course. “De-supporting.” Not an inaccurate one, though. And the reality is that we’re not questioning this these days.
During the Digital Book World Conference + Expo  (DBW) earlier this month in New York — the first of the major industry-facing conferences of the year — one of the most anticipated panels was called Women at the Intersection of Publishing, Finance, and Tech . It featured five very strong women leaders in publishing today:
- Charlotte Abbott  of Abbott Communications,
- Dominique Raccah  (Sourcebooks CEO),
- Susan Ruszala  (NetGalley president),
- Joanna Herman  DeSilva+Phillips managing director), and
- Katherine McCahill  (Apps Channel director with Penguin Random House).
The panel was predicated on a couple of things. DBW director Mike Shatzkin mentioned the swamp of shame and backpedaling that South by Southwest  slogged through last year when it first tried to avoid and then embrace issues of women’s struggles online, particularly in the tech world. And Abbott then opened the panel by positioning women in publishing through the recent Lee & Low diversity study .
While the tech world is male-driven and does indeed present awful problems for many women trying to work that field, Lee and Low in January confirmed that publishing looks gratifyingly different:
Lee and Low puts women at 78 percent of the US industry . Slow down and get your head around this, it’s a key point: More than three out of four publishing workers in the States today are likely to be women. This reflects, in fact, the standard number of 80 percent cited in the UK. What’s more, as Abbott pointed out, Lee and Low sees 59 percent of leadership roles being held by women, so it’s incorrect to believe, as some do, that all executive-level jobs go to men in publishing.
Here is how Lee and Low reports it.
As an industry, publishing is white and female. At the executive level, publishing is 86 percent white, 59 percent female, 89 percent ‘straight/heterosexual,’ and 96 percent normatively-abled. At the editorial level, those numbers are virtually the same, except it is even more dominated by women. When 2015 Man Booker winner Marlon James controversially stated  that ‘we writers of colour spend way too much time pandering to the white woman,’ he was more accurate than he knew: The ‘archetype of the white woman’ setting the tone for the industry is sitting behind 84 percent of editorial desks.
So the two major markets in the big English-language publishing world industry are, for the most part, deeply dominated by women. Nothing here is going to say that this is bad, far from it. But it’s important that we understand this, as you’ll see.
And none of this negates what the panel was doing at DBW. Its main focus was a bit different from ours today, but fully valid. As Kristine Hoang reported for the Digital Book World site,  the DBW panel featured “female publishing executives discussing what it takes to grow their businesses while encouraging gender equality in all sectors of the business world.”
This touched, for example, on issues of discrimination when it comes to venture capital. Sarah Weinman at Publishers Lunch (paywall) highlighted Herman’s commentary on VC from her experience of founding the startup Librify. Weinman quotes Herman:
It played out most strikingly with the final fundraising round, when I was pregnant. I would get comments like, ‘You’re the first pregnant woman who has ever presented to us!’ That makes sense. It’s a reflection of who runs startups. Very few women do, and when they do, they aren’t necessarily having kids. All issues of pregnant women were brand new to [these men.]
And I liked the tack, especially, taken by NetGalley’s Ruszala (who is just this week launching the company’s new NetGalley.de in Germany ). Ruszala said:
Work needs to change for both men and women. Our company is completely virtual. Families have a place in our business. When I think about what women can bring as leaders, I think of the creation of small cultures and developing something good for both men and women.
I’ve said to both Abbott and to Ruszala that publishing at least has the “right problem.” In a world in which most industries are under-representative of women, ours is over-representative of them.
But here we come to my provocation for you today. In an industry that has such a handsome lead in place for women in the workforce, do we not need to speak urgently about how this may impact the readership and consumer base?
Update: In response to some of the comments below, I think it might be helpful for me to take special care to clarify something. Causal blame is not part of this article. I do not mean that we should blame the dominance of women in publishing for the fact that men and boys don’t read more than they do. What I do mean is that the dominance of women in the publishing workforce may mean that the books business is not responding to the lag in male reading as aggressively as it could. Here’s a comparison: The UK industry is discussing whether entirely-female books divisions for children can produce material that will attract very young boys to reading. Could all-men departments get it right for girls? I doubt that, don’t you? That’s a good, healthy discussion, an important one. And if you simply must find blame in things, blame men who are not applying for jobs in children’s divisions, considering kids’ books to be “women’s work.”
Here is the point I’m actually making: Publishing desperately needs new readers. Digital has exponentially increased our output, I call it the Wall of Content. How will we find new readers for our glutted marketplace if we don’t reach out to the half of the population that isn’t reading at anything near the rate that women and girls are? That’s what I’m talking about. As children’s author Jonathan Emmett in the UK says, to be pro-boy is not to be anti-girl. Please try to think past the “blame” element. If you find it here, it’s all yours. I haven’t written it.
‘She’s Our Customer.’ Why Isn’t He?
Sourcebooks’ Raccah is someone many of us admire and enjoy in the industry. She spoke at many points during #DBW16 , as well as on this women’s panel. I want you to hear a bit of what she said on the panel:
All of us are part of a revolution that is actually female-based. It’s really important that we know that. The ebook revolution was driven by women. It wasn’t driven by guys, sorry. And when you look at publishing in general, something like 80 percent of our buyers [readers] are female. So when we’re talking about our industry, we have to think about that female buyer because she’s actually our customer. She’s our customer at our bookstores, she’s our customer at our events, she’s our customer online. She’s our customer.
What Raccah is doing may be correct for a chief executive. She calls it following the data. Looking at the consumer base and estimating it to be 80-percent female, she has positioned Sourcebooks  — one of the country’s leading independent publishers, based near Chicago — to serve those customers. Her staffing reflects the dominance she sees in the market. Women are onboard at about 70 percent, she says, creating products for women. “I’ve really followed the data,” she says, and “I’ve been able to go where the data leads more than some others” might be able to do, for the simple reason that she’s the boss. Good.
And let me be clear, the panel at DBW was not tasked with examining how well (or not) the industry is serving the potential full spectrum of its consumer base. That, however, is what I wish these good leaders had addressed. That’s what I think publishing needs to address. And that’s what gets a lot of looks off into the distance when I bring it up; I’d like to know why: why are we as an industry not more concerned about lagging male readership and buying of books?
Raccah describes Sourcebooks’ “unrelenting focus on the customer — she.” Okay. We get it. She came, she saw, and she delivered to that she. Raccah is satisfied that 80 percent of the marketplace is “she,” and she’s busily and adroitly serving “her.”
Here are my questions:
- So are we content to leave half the potential money — men’s money, the money of male readers — on the table?
- If we arrive, as Raccah describes, to find that “she’s our customer,” do we not want “him” to be our customer, too? If not, why not?
- Are we happy to live in a world in which so many guys don’t read? If so, why?
Let me make this even less comfortable: If things were reversed and women and girls were only 20 percent of the reading consumer base that Raccah was talking about, would we be satisfied with that?
- How can we be content to have so many fewer male readers?
- Could it be because we have an industry so severely dominated by women?
- Would a more evenly-staffed and -led industry produce so much product aimed at one gender or the other?
And, therefore, is it really so wonderful for reading that publishing is so heavily dominated by women? Good women, indeed great women, smart women, capable women, wonderful women. Can you understand that I am not criticizing women or their capability or their rights or their superb achievements and endless hard work, which has put them into the driver’s seat in publishing? I’m celebrating this. As I say, we have the right problem.
But diversity, ladies and gentlemen, is not about exchanging female dominance for male dominance. Diversity is about balance. And publishing does not have it.
If Lee and Low had told us that 78 percent of publishing in the US was male? Gender-geddon: whole male-dominated publishing departments would be blown right off the sides of stately buildings in Manhattan. But because the report came back showing us female-dominated divisions in publishing, we continue to turn our serene publishing face to the world, thinking of ourselves as enlightened and looking for more chances to get some of the best women in publishing into the very top seats.
Is that enough? No. That is not enough. And the missing panel at DBW was about what we’re not doing to raise male readership in our culture.
The leadership of publishing is failing every one of us by not addressing the critical imbalance of female and male readership in the marketplace.
I’m here to ask the women of publishing to do better than they’re doing on this point of lagging male readership. They have dominance in this industry, and therefore, they are the court of our appeal. I am glad to honor and promote their good work. And I want them to take on the problem of men and boys not reading. I see little interest in this problem so far. When you bring it up, you normally get…crickets. Why is that?
In one of her last comments, Raccah said, in publishing, “you are all women.” What she meant is that by comparison to the “Four Horsemen” of the digital apocalypse — Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook — our industry is small and thus reflects the challenges of women in business overall. The book world arrives at the table of commerce as small fry, indeed. Even our biggest corporate owners aren’t the heaving tech-platform giants of the world. This, she mused, puts all of publishing in the position experienced by too many women in business today. That’s a good point.
But as people in publishing — and as people who serve a whole world, not part of one — we are not all women.
And good leadership does not disregard an underserved customer base. And good business people do not ignore an untapped profit potential. And womanhood does itself no good if it replicates, in business or elsewhere, men’s stupid historical oppression of women.
If men and boys, by comparison, aren’t reading as women and girls are, do we share an obligation to address that? Or is it just fine with you?
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