Fraught questions about race and gender have emerged as a dividing line in British publishing, just as they have in other areas of civil society like politics, universities and the media. Yet there seems to be an omertà that hangs over people in publishing when it comes to discussing this with people outside the industry. Most of the people I reached out to for this piece either politely declined, ignored my request or said they would speak to me under the condition that much of what they had to say had to be non-attributable.
No one wants to rock the boat. Everyone seems to know everyone in publishing, and speaking publicly about such a contentious subject can look like airing the industry’s dirty laundry.
The debates about identity politics within publishing reflect what is playing out in society more broadly. Conversations around race and diversity took a heightened turn after the murder of George Floyd in America two years ago. A tragedy that happened thousands of miles away became a moment of reckoning for many British institutions, prompting them to acknowledge a lack of progress in tackling structural discrimination.
Meanwhile, the debate over the conflict between transgender and women’s rights has become increasingly polarised, with accusations of bigotry flying around as questions about the relative importance of someone’s biological sex and gender identity in determining their access to single-sex spaces remain unresolved. Publishing has been a key arena in which this debate has played out after JK Rowling, one of the world’s most successful authors, made a public intervention in support of the gender-critical tax lawyer Maya Forstater in December 2019.
People in publishing are increasingly nervous of causing offence. I have been told that some books are being rejected not because the publishers don’t think the books have an audience, but because they don’t want to upset an online mob. Many publishers have introduced sensitivity readers—freelance editors who check manuscripts for potentially “problematic” passages—because they don’t want to offend marginalised communities.
Perhaps the most high-profile example of the pressures publishers face around offence was over Kate Clanchy’s Orwell prize-winning memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. Clanchy was condemned for using derogatory language to describe her students in the book—she described one student’s “chocolate-coloured skin” and an autistic child as “jarring company.” She parted ways with her publisher Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, because she felt the company didn’t show her enough support in the face of what she considered to be unfair attacks.
Other big names in publishing were caught up in the affair: Philip Pullman, the author of the trilogy His Dark Materials, weighed in to defend Clanchy on social media with a tweet that compared her critics to the Taliban. Some people called this intervention racist. He has since resigned as president of the Society of Authors, the leading trade union in the UK for writers. Carmen Callil, the founder of the feminist publishing company Virago, also quit her membership. She believed the organisation did not show enough support for Clanchy and Pullman.
Opinions are divided as to whether all of this constitutes progress. Callil tells me, “we are the servants of writers. That is what a publisher is. Their first job is to make sure their author is okay.” But others think publishing has played an insufficient role in advancing racial and LGBT+ equality, and that freedom of expression is often used as a figleaf to excuse bigoted views and reinforce an unjust status quo. Authors like Rowling and Clanchy are on the wrong side of history, so the argument goes, and publishing should be on the right side. They point to publishing’s diversity problem: while at entry level, the profession has greatly improved the diversity of its intake, at more senior levels, publishing is disproportionately white and middle class.
There are also those who believe publishing suffers just as much from a lack of viewpoint diversity, leaving it prone to groupthink. Publishing is regarded by some as a left-leaning industry. Mark Richards, who founded the small independent publisher Swift Press two years ago, tells me the issue isn’t that publishing is too left-wing, but that many who work in it have stopped being liberal.
“Publishing has always, at the margins, had arguments about what is and isn’t acceptable to publish,” Richards says. “But there was always a general understanding that our job as publishers was to enable debates, not to take sides. That’s the biggest change: it now feels to me that on a number of complex and difficult issues, very large parts of publishing have decided to only publish one side of the argument.”
The point of publishing, Richards says, is to “help and allow conversations that a society is having with itself.” He tells me the story of John Murray III, who published Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. Murray disagreed with the book so much that he wrote a book under a pseudonym critiquing it; yet he still published Darwin’s classic.
Richards decided to re-publish Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids after she ended her more than 20-year-long relationship with Picador. Has he had much negative feedback from readers? No, in fact: “we’ve had dozens of emails of support from members of the public.”
The lack of viewpoint diversity has made itself most felt in the debate about trans and women’s rights. There have been books published on both sides of the debate in the last 18 months, but people I spoke to observed that publishing has treated one side, the “gender critical” perspective that self-declared gender identity cannot wholly replace biological sex as a category in law and society, less favourably—despite the public demand for these books.
One of the most high-profile gender critical books published last year was Material Girls by Kathleen Stock, who left her job as a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex after experiencing bullying and harassment because of her views. Some trans activists regard her opinion that biology matters for women’s sports and single-sex spaces as transphobic, despite the fact Stock has also argued that trans women deserve respect and dignity.
The controversy surrounding Stock meant there wasn’t great competition between publishers for her book, to the surprise of Ursula Doyle, publisher at Fleet, an imprint of Hachette. “The book seemed to me so calm and well reasoned, and the subject was so alive!” Doyle’s priority for non-fiction is finding good books on topics that people care about. That’s why she bought Stock’s book. “You can’t work for a corporate publisher and then complain it’s not some sort of collective,” she tells me.
Stock’s literary agent, Caroline Hardman, tells me: “We should be prepared to talk about difficult things and confront them, and to avoid them isn’t healthy on a personal or on a society level.” Hardman also represents Helen Joyce, another gender critical author who last year published the book Trans. Joyce’s previous agent had ended the relationship with her because she disagreed with Joyce's stance on gender.
I ask if there was pushback when she submitted the book proposals to publishers. “Most people gave standard editorial reasons for rejecting the book. Some said they were not sure about the argument. Others said they wanted the book to platform “both sides” of the debate. And others predicted there wouldn’t be any sales because of a lack of reader interest.”
They were wrong: both the Stock and Joyce books are bestsellers. Yet they were treated very differently to another 2021 bestseller that advanced arguments from the other side of the debate: Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue. Faye argues in her book that the concerns that many feminists raise about the conflicts between trans women and those born female are fundamentally misguided.
Major booksellers, like Waterstones, have appeared to take a side in the debate. Faye’s book was widely promoted. Hardman tells me that Joyce, meanwhile, was not invited to sign her books, and the book was never featured in promotional email newsletters. James Daunt, the managing director of Waterstones, even wrongly claimed in an interview with the Times in November 2021 that Joyce and Stock’s books weren’t bestsellers.
No bookseller is, of course, obliged to stock or promote any book. But they should be serving their readers rather than their own ideological bias. That is their job. The success of Stock and Joyce’s books illustrates there is a hunger for them, and booksellers should reflect this rather than try to deny it.
It’s worth noting that many mainstream publishers, however, have published authors that are disliked by the progressive left. Allen Lane have published Jordan Peterson, Niall Ferguson and Eric Kaufmann. Douglas Murray has been published by Bloomsbury, and his most recent book, The War on the West, was published by HarperCollins. These authors receive negative responses online, but these pale in comparison to the hostility meted out against the likes of Kathleen Stock, JK Rowling and Kate Clanchy.
Right-wing men are expected to have contentious views, but for women from a centre-left or liberal background to espouse certain controversial views almost feels like a betrayal. These women are viewed as heretics (they’ve deviated from what they should believe) rather than infidels (people who are not expected to believe in certain doctrines in the first place). And heretics are typically punished more severely than infidels in many religious or ideological movements. This level of hostility in turn makes many publishers more reluctant to take them on or publicly defend them.
Much of the increasing polarisation we see in publishing and other parts of British civil society also reflects the deep divisions in America, and there is anxiety from many publishers and agents that the US culture wars are seeping into Britain. In America, for instance, the debate over trans rights seems more heated. I ask Hardman if it’s more difficult to sell these controversial books in the US. “The strongest response I ever got came from America,” she says. “An editor at a company said ‘we like to think that what we publish increases the social good. And this book does not do that.”
Why is there so much hostility over there? She thinks it’s because people on the liberal left don’t want to be associated with Republicans and the Christian religious right. There isn’t an equivalently large Christian right challenging theories around gender identity in the UK, so there is more space for women to criticise it from a left-liberal perspective.
Sensitivity reading, when freelance editors comb through manuscripts to ensure descriptions of people from marginalised communities are authentic and do not cause offence, is one practice that has been imported from the US. Some of those I spoke to for this piece said that while in theory it sounds like an admirable thing, in reality sensitivity readers often try to find fault in places that are strikingly benign. One agent, for instance, told me that a sensitivity reader picked up on a description of Afghanistan as a “failed state” as offensive, and recommended it be replaced.
Andrea Henry, an editorial director at Picador, and one of the few senior black women in the industry, offers a different perspective. “I think it’s useful to make people think again about the words on the page. You don’t have to accept what the sensitivity reader throws up.” She argues it’s a tool we should employ, but with care.
Keren David, an author and an editor at the Jewish Chronicle, is a sensitivity reader for books with Jewish content. She argues sensitivity reading “opens the door to people writing” rather than closing it down. David believes that “anybody should be able to write about any cultural background they want to but they need to do it with knowledge and understanding, and a sensitivity reader can help with that.”
To me, however, this should form a natural part of any editing process. Authors often ask experts on what they’re writing about to read parts of their book in order to make it as accurate as possible. But my conversations suggest that some publishers use sensitivity readers not to inform the edits they suggest to authors, but rather as a quick-fix to cover themselves against charges of racism. This can end up handing veto power to a single individual. It wrongly suggests that one individual can speak authoritatively on behalf of all other people from the same racial or ethnic background on what is and is not acceptable.
But a working-class black person from Yorkshire doesn’t necessarily have the same “lived experience” as a rich black person from Hampshire. I ask David if she ever feels anxious about speaking on behalf of other Jews. She tells me she uses her experience as an editor of a Jewish newspaper with a diverse readership to inform her feedback on how Jews with different approaches might feel about a text. She also says sensitivity readers only make recommendations; they never enforce.
But others are concerned that the pressure for authors to comply is just too great. Marina Warner, a distinguished author and a former president of the Royal Society of Literature, tells me that there has been an increase in morality clauses in contracts between authors and publishers. These are stipulations that allow a publisher to drop a writer for what a publisher deems unacceptable behaviour. In a speech she gave on this issue in the summer of 2018, when she was still president of the RSL, Warner warned that being “a good person” was increasingly conflated with “good writing,” and that there is growing pressure on writers “to be a personality and perform in public.” Every single person I spoke to for this piece told me that social media—in particular, Twitter—has contributed to this.
And there are concerns about perceived double standards when it comes to sensitivity readers. Some people’s offence seems to matter more than others. Grace Lavery, a trans professor of literature, compared her flaccid penis to a miscarried foetus in her new memoir. Many women found this offensive. Authors like Lavery often write to deliberately provoke and challenge. It is part of their appeal. Yet it appears fine to be provocative on certain issues and to offend particular people—some women—but unacceptable to fall foul of newly-created shibboleths, such as describing ethnic minority people in a certain way.
Another impression I have been left with writing this piece is that, despite the fashionable new emphasis on inclusivity and “being kind,” there seems to be an increasingly detached relationship between authors and publishers. Warner tells me “when I started writing, editors were very much friends with their writers. I always felt my publishers were my family.”
Publishing is no longer a family. There is less tolerance for viewpoint diversity, and this makes the relationship between author and publisher more transactional and brittle. People are terrified of being described as a bigot, and so are quick to dissociate themselves from anyone else who is contaminated with this label, however unfairly.
For Jamie Joseph, an editor at Ebury, an imprint of Penguin Random House, publishing ought to ultimately be about what the readership, not employees, want. “Publishers need to cater to a range of viewpoints,” he tells me, “and there’s a danger of filtering just towards the views of your own staff rather than actually serving the readership, which is your primary duty as publisher.”
There remain many race, gender and class inequalities in our society. It is noble that publishing wants to fix its diversity issue, but there is a risk that publishers confuse this mission with sacrificing pluralism. Their role is not to tell us what or how to think, but to give society access to the best books to allow us to come to our own conclusions.