Equality in publishing: gender is not the only agenda

4041668533_2d4daee55d_zRecently there has been much ado about gender inequality in publishing. In The Bookseller, Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote about two literary prizes whose shortlists were dominated by male authors, and argued this as the tip of a deeper rooted problem, which then became the subject of Porter Anderson’s Futurechat on Twitter.

Ms Rentzenbrink particularly drew attention to the fact that the Goldsmith competition aimed to celebrate fiction that is, in the words of its press release, ‘audacious and original’. As she said:

‘So that’s 18 books singled out for praise in the space of a week only one of which was written by a woman. Why is this? Are women incapable of writing audacious and original fiction? Not much cop at sharing their experience of the world?’

But something seems to have been missed as everyone joined the uproar. There it was in the Goldsmith prize rules, bold as brass. Self-published novels are not eligible. Check it for yourself.

self-published books are not eligible

(I can’t find a list of rules for the Samuel Johnson prize, which Ms Rentzenbrink also cited and accounts for her total of 18. Update: an enterprising commenter found a cached version. The Johnsons do not exclude self-published books, so no argument there. UPDATE April 2016: a Twitter friend tells me she talked to the Samuels Johnson, who told her they do exclude self-published books.)

Gender lottery

Now, we’d probably all argue that the gender line-up in the final shortlist is most likely a matter of chance, not conspiracy. Ms Rentzenbrink felt it was a symptom of a wider attitude problem.

And I contend that this exclusion of self-published books is another.

Especially from a prize whose goal was to find ‘audacious and original’ fiction. Because they are more likely to find it from indie authors than from the output of traditional publishing.

But the crap, Roz

Now yes, some indie fiction is unripened. Inept. Hobby work. Personal therapy. All possible literary sins can be seen in self-publishing – but self-publishing is also where you find original, finely honed work that should have been on a publisher’s list if market economics allowed. (NB: anyone quoting this line had better include its full context or I will smite them with my hairdresser’s zombie homage to Ulysses.)

Ms Rentzenbrink’s discussion of gender is a call for equality and fair chances, to judge a book and a writer on merit and nothing else. So while the industry beats its breast about the gender thingy, it should also address the exclusion of independently published fiction. Double standards are rather unattractive, aren’t they?

Indeed, like Ms Rentzenbrink, I can show that this prejudice against self-published authors goes further than just a few competitions. Some quarters of the publishing world still dismiss it as vanity press. I’ve written in a recent blogpost about how the Royal Literary Fund dismisses applications from authors who are not ‘commercially published’, as they put it. (You might wonder about their imprecise use of the word ‘commercial’ here. I certainly did.)

I thoroughly support the upholding of standards. Crikey, that’s how we pull ourselves up from our first amateur efforts. But we need to ask how quality should be judged.

A spectrum view

This question will become increasingly significant in coming years. There will be many more authors releasing their books in new ways. ‘Totally self-published’ and ‘totally published’ will simply be opposite ends of a long spectrum. Indeed they already are.

There follows a brief diversion into details that may be familiar if you’ve known me for a while. I shall render it in brackets so that you may skip if you wish.

(Some of us authors are publishing professionals as well as writers. In my case, I ran an editorial department for three years and trained other editorial staff. I teach writers how to bring their novels up to publishable standard, and I’m rigorous about it. Ask any of my editing clients. Ask The Guardian. I am every bit as qualified to make good publishing decisions as, well, a traditional publisher. I treat my own work just as ruthlessly, as a matter of pride in my art and respect to the reader. Rant ends.)


In which I invent two new buzzwords

In the coming years, increasing numbers of significant books will be produced with these new models. This is an age of options.

So far, most of the discussions about successful self-publishers have concentrated on business. But fiction is an art too. Just as film has writer-directors and auteurs, and music has singer-songwriter-producers, we will see the self-published author who is characterised by a strong creative vision and artistic proficiency. Just as we’ve seen the rise of the author-entrepreneur, we will also see the rise of the author-director, the author-auteur.

Phew, I didn’t know I was going to write that. I might have invented a new monster.

Back to the Goldsmiths competition exclusion. We should be as committed to seriously tackling this issue, this blindspot, as we are to scrutinising gender prejudice. It has just as much potential to unfairly disadvantage authors whose work deserves critical recognition.

So what are the objections to including indie authors ?

There seems to be only one, really.

But the crap, Roz

Yes, there are so very many books.

Clearly there has to be a sensible method of triage for competitions, professional bodies etc. But here’s a suggestion. Judges and gatekeepers, you don’t have to read all of every book. You do as any sensible reader would – read the opening. Do the page 99 test. If that’s not good enough, no reader would continue. Throw it out. Pick up the next book. Then read the real contenders properly.

There’s nothing to be afraid of.

Thanks for the pics Dino Talic and Elliott Brown on Flickr

Or is there? What might I have missed? Let’s discuss.

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  1. #1 by dcwritesmore on October 11, 2015 - 1:24 pm

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 11, 2015 - 5:56 pm

      Aha, good sleuthing! I’ll amend the post. And, hurrah, self-published books are not excluded from this prize.

  2. #3 by geraldhornsby on October 11, 2015 - 1:41 pm

    “Judges and gatekeepers, you don’t have to read all of every book. You do as any sensible reader would – read the opening.”

    There you are. It ain’t rocket science. I can’t remember how many well-intentioned self-published books I’ve put to one side after less than two minutes’ reading of the “Look Inside” feature. And, indeed, I’ve just done the same to a traditionally-published book by A Very Big Name. You can tell, you really can.

    I get very fed up with the “boo to self-publishing because it drowns out the ‘proper’ books on Amazon” (other book retailers are available).There’s far too much snobbery in book publishing.

  3. #5 by Michael W. Perry on October 11, 2015 - 2:26 pm

    Why fight when you can simply bypass a barrier? Create an award for self-published books in various genres and work hard to make who wins meaningful.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 11, 2015 - 5:59 pm

      Michael, that’s a good point. Any volunteers?

    • #7 by danholloway on October 11, 2015 - 6:28 pm

      The problem with that is Goldsmiths is set up for exactly the kind of book self-publishing should be excelling at, and the kind of book that will give self-publishing teh artistic as well as the commercial credibility it deserves. It’s a matter. As such, this is a battle that should be fought. There are lots of self-publishing awards. None of them does what the Goldsmiths does, and the self-publishing community is, I fear, somewhat trepidatious of trumpeting the kind of experimentation that Goldsmiths seeks out, so I don’t think we’d do the job better as things currently stand.

      • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 11, 2015 - 7:19 pm

        Dan, I fear your ultramarathon mind is running away with you a little here. Could you say that again so the rest of us can catch up? 🙂

        • #9 by danholloway on October 11, 2015 - 9:15 pm

          Simply that we shouldn’t be setting up an alternative to Goldsmiths but fighting to be in it. Goldsmiths is a unique prize in valuing innovation and experimentation, exactly the qualities self-publishers are free to pursue – it’s made for self-publishing in other words. I called them out on it when they first set it up and they promised to review the situation, but clearly haven’t.

  4. #11 by acflory on October 11, 2015 - 10:41 pm

    I have my reader hat on now, and I can say categorically that indie science fiction [including yours Roz] is by far the most innovative that I’ve read in a long time. The best Indies write genre, not formula. How much more audacious can you get than that?

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 11, 2015 - 10:44 pm

      Thanks for the Lifeform Three compliment, Andrea!

      • #13 by acflory on October 11, 2015 - 10:51 pm

        -grin- It’s up there with favourites like Dune and Left Hand of Darkness. I keep hoping you’ll write another.

  5. #14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 12, 2015 - 5:44 am

    On Facebook, I was asked: ‘why not just stay indie, with indie writers forming their own prize committees in the manner of indie film festivals’ (I paraphrase). But I don’t want to be part of a two-tier system – indie world and traditional world. I want to be in a world of writers and books, and judged by one standard.

    If you’re friends with me on Facebook you can see the whole thread here: https://www.facebook.com/roz.morris.7/posts/912459842124091?pnref=story

  6. #15 by Mina Chara on October 25, 2015 - 3:47 pm

    While I agree that self published or not, a good book is a good book, and would prefer to see us all judged by the same standard, a prize for self-published authors might be just what we need. It would be a good way to reduce some of the stigma still attached to self publishing. I know I’m tired of being asked if I’ve been ‘properly’ published.

    • #16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 25, 2015 - 3:54 pm

      ‘Properly published’ – yes, definitely a question that carries a lot of baggage, Mina.

  1. Top Picks Thursday 10-15-2015 | The Author Chronicles

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