In sheer number, women—primarily straight white women—are the backbone of the publishing industry. PW’s annual salary survey showed that women represented 74% of the publishing workforce in both 2015 and 2016, a figure in line with the Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey of 2015, which found that 78% of those working in publishing are cis women, of whom 88% are heterosexual and 79% are white.
But there is a persistent pay gap between publishing’s men and women: in 2015, men earned an average of $96,000, and women an average of $61,000. One reason for the gap is that men often hold higher positions than women in many of the biggest publishers, particularly in management, where salaries are the highest. That combination of factors—the salary disparity and difficulty climbing the corporate ranks—is one reason a growing number of women have moved on to independent publishing, in many cases starting their own publishing houses.
Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, says her frustration with mainstream publishing is that “the executive level is usually [mostly] men, and the decisions handed down from the top and certainly financial decisions are largely made by men, while the underlings—the editors and most of the marketing team—are women. The pay gap is also embarrassing.” She considers the industry to have serious gender problems.
Warner got her start in publishing at North Atlantic Books and at Seal Press, where she had a “feminist awakening.” She describes herself as having been “one of those women who didn’t think I needed to be a feminist because we have equality. What a total joke. I was just young and naïve. Through all the books I worked on at Seal, I became a full-blown feminist.” Once Seal was acquired by Perseus, the mandate shifted from being “a very feminist, mission-driven experience to a much more commercial one.” Warner says that, working in a women’s press, “you can’t deny [gender discrimination] anymore. You see it everywhere you go. Seal Press has since been acquired by Hachette, and they laid off the female publisher and rolled it into an imprint with a male publisher. I just think that’s emblematic of what happens in traditional publishing. It’s all about the bottom line. We want to make money too, but not at the sacrifice of some of the core principles on which we were founded.” Warner left to start She Writes Press with Kamy Wicoff, founder of shewrites.com, an online community salon space for women writers. In 2014, She Writes was acquired by SparkPoint, whose CEO is Crystal Patriarche. Both She Writes and SparkPoint’s SparkPress imprint use an author-subsidized model that allows Warner to keep to a content-driven mission.
Dominique Raccah—founder of Sourcebooks, one of the largest woman-owned independent publishers in North America, and 2016’s PW Person of the Year—points out that gender disparity spans the entire book industry, noting that, among booksellers as well as publishers, the workforce is “largely female, but ownership is not always female. You’ve got that problem in publishing where the management will become less and less female the higher up the hierarchy you go. And I said that out loud—that probably won’t make me popular,” Raccah says. On being PW Person of the Year, Raccah says that she was “surprised that they would think of me, and that is partly because I still think that for women it takes us a long time to get an idea of who we are.”
Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae remembers that, when she worked in editorial at Faber and Faber, there was one female director at that time, in charge of thrillers and cookbooks even though she “was very smart and literary.” When McCrae joined Graywolf in 1994, the staff was four employees putting out around eight books a year, and now the publisher has 13 staff members and publishes 33 titles a year. Was it hard for McCrae to work her way up? “In retrospect there were elements of a glass ceiling. It was so glassy I didn’t necessarily see it at the time. I think it’s gotten better and better over time. I remember in the early 1990s my friend left publishing altogether, because she didn’t think she could get a job that didn’t involve being bullied by an egotistical male. I do think things have changed, and I do think publishing has been good to me.” She believes that, in terms of gender representation, “publishing is better than other professions. Women on an individual basis are treated very well, and I think there are a lot of women running literary agencies. I don’t know enough about statistics, but there are many very powerful women in publishing. That’s been the case for a while now. You hear them being talked about in revered tones—not dismissed or reviled.”
Striking Out on Their Own, Together
Some women PW spoke with said they felt they had to start their own businesses because they didn’t see an opportunity to rise up the ranks in the companies where they worked, both inside and outside of publishing. Rhonda Hughes, founder of Print Vision and Hawthorne Books, remembers when she was 27, working as a sales rep for an overseas print broker, whose owner she approached about being a partner. He told her he’d consider it; yet soon after, he brought in a young man and made him partner. “I realized then that it was just not going to happen. So I went to Oahu, sat on the beach, and came up with this business called Print Vision, which I still own. I left because I realized I wouldn’t get what I wanted unless I left and did it myself. The same thing with publishing: I realized I could move to New York and be an assistant editor and get paid nothing and be really poor, which I didn’t want to do, or I could do this on my own.”
C. Spike Trotman, founder of Chicago’s Iron Circus Comics, notes that running her own business as a woman relieves her from having to trust the big publishers to make changes. “I don’t trust the intentions and motivations of a lot of large publishers. I think a lot of people at the top especially are extremely resistant to change. They have to be dragged kicking and screaming to expand the scope of their publishing even slightly.”
Amy King, a founding member of VIDA—a nonprofit feminist organization that has worked to create transparency around the lack of gender parity, the marginalization of people of color, writers with disabilities, and queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people—points out that change is almost always small-scale and often among nonprofits. “The problem with the big publishers is that they are just so beholden to the profit margin. There’s not a lot of incentive, and not one figurehead saying, ‘Hey, we need to change the face of publishing.’ They’re all about making money. The problem is you don’t see an immediate turnaround on your investment because you’re investing in people.”
Trotman says of starting her own business, “Every time I hear a news story about how so-and-so did something terrible at a party or a conference, I know I’ve made the right decision by starting my own publishing company,” because those are the types of people she would have had to deal with on a daily basis if she had not moved on. “Quite frankly, speaking for myself, I do just fine by myself out here.”
Many women in publishing who came from other male-dominated industries think those experiences helped them when starting their own presses. Publisher Georgia McBride of Month9Books got into publishing by accident when she decided to put together an anthology with authors she knew through her popular tweetchat under the hashtag #YALitChat. Previously, she had worked in “very male-dominated industries: the music industry, the internet business, technology, product development, and software development. There weren’t really a whole lot of female influences at the time. It was also very difficult for me personally because you’re constantly being challenged and questioned and constantly having to be more and do more. You’re not expected to succeed and not expected to do well.”
Laura Stanfill, publisher of Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Ore., recalls getting “so much flack” when she ran the local newspaper. “I was the gatekeeper, and yet I learned to expect dubious gazes when I walked into Chamber of Commerce meetings, because they didn’t think I was qualified,” Stanfill says. Spending years in a male-dominated career, she adds, “played into my fearlessness when I was starting a press as a woman. So the transition [to publishing] wasn’t so shocking.”
In starting new businesses, many women reached out to other women for support. When McBride founded Month9Books, she contacted women she had known from the business side of publishing to be mentors to her. Without their support, she says, she doesn’t think she would have been able to achieve the things she has “in the time frame that I have.” Stanfill cites Hawthorne Books publisher Hughes as a role model. “While I met with a lot of male publishers too, Rhonda’s persistence in encouraging me to follow my heart and taste really shaped the early years of the press and who I became as a publisher.” Stanfill also joined Women in Portland Publishing (WIPP), and she says that attending monthly socials with other women in publishing helped her find her voice as a publisher.
Raccah emphasizes that collaboration is an important factor in success. “I do believe we’re at a moment when there’s an opportunity for lots of different peoples to work together.” She cites her work with Little Pickle Press as an example; Sourcebooks recently acquired the publishing rights to Little Pickle’s titles. “I think that successful female entrepreneurs working together is going to be more and more of a trend as we go forward. We have to help each other to succeed.”
Rana DiOrio, CEO of March 4th and founder of Little Pickle Press, says the relationship with Sourcebooks is “very synergistic” and cites Raccah as one of her biggest inspirations. “She just breaks the rules, she doesn’t take no for an answer, she asks why and what if.” DiOrio—who came up in investment banking, where “there were no women at the top echelons, and it was so competitive that there wasn’t a supportive nexus”— welcomes “women helping one another. Unlike other industries, in publishing, women leaders support women leaders.”
But, says Raccah—a member of the Committee of 200, a group of the largest women-owned and women-run businesses in the country—large women-built businesses are still thin on the ground though there are many women-led startups. At Women 2.0, a network for female founders of technology ventures, Raccah notices that “they still have the same problems we had 20 years ago. Women are still having problems getting funding and growing bigger companies.”
Raccah points out that gender disparities in publishing also affect authors: “Women authors do not get reviewed at the same level as guys; it’s just a fact. There’s been a lot of data about it. Women are not winning prizes at the same level as men are. We even have data that says a book is more likely to be reviewed and garner good reviews with a man’s name on it. You’ve got great authors who get rid of their women’s names. They become J.K. Rowling. Women-oriented genres are less valuable and less valued than male-oriented genres.” It is, she says, “mission-critical that we continue to work hard at helping all people tell their stories. I particularly love helping women tell their stories, helping tell the stories we don’t know, and helping girls to identify bigger visions for their lives.”
Amy King of VIDA says that, in schools, “syllabi are stacked to promote male voices. We are conditioned to prioritizing those voices.” King recalls an adage: “Boys grow up reading books by boys, and girls grow up reading books by everybody.” She pointed out that, while a certain book written by a man might be classified as nonfiction, the same book, written by a woman, will end up in lifestyle or memoir. A good example would be journalist Suki Kim’s 2014 book, Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite; Kim wrote about the experience of having her book packaged as memoir despite her intention for it to be serious nonfiction.
Emily Gould, who co-runs the Emily Books imprint at Coffee House Press with Ruth Curry, adds that there is an “outsized reverence” that is reserved mostly for male authors “and a scant handful of women who are mostly really old. You have to be so old to finally deserve to be taken as seriously as mid-career male novelists are. You basically have to be Ursula K. Le Guin or dead—those are your only options. That’s what we are trying to chip away at.”
Rosalie Morales Kearns founded Shade Mountain Press in 2013 partly because she noticed a gender disparity in the journals and presses to which she submitted her own work. “For decades I would just look at the contents pages of the very important literary journals, and sometimes they were 100% male. I would think to myself, am I the only one that feels really burned by this?” After VIDA published its first count in 2010, Kearns says she noticed that “editors started being more self-conscious about their lists being so male-heavy.”
Trotman of Iron Circus has seen a shift in the comics industry, where the accomplishments of women have been “underappreciated” and, until recently, women as a market were simply ignored. Trotman says that, while the mainstream comics industry has taken steps to look for more women writers and creators, “the gender disparity is still ridiculous, and the focus of mainstream comics hasn’t changed from superheroes.” Comics, she says, are still associated with stereotypical “teenage-boy interests” and “definitely not written with a potential female audience in mind.” According to Trotman, it’s in the indie and underground scenes where women readers and creators are finding a home.
Stanfill of Forest Avenue is also looking to empower women by providing them opportunities. “So far I’ve only given anthology collections to other women because I feel like those opportunities are hard to find,” Stanfill explains. While Stanfill does accept manuscripts from male writers, they must have feminist sensibilities. If they don’t, she will send detailed response letters. “If men are putting things into the world that I don’t want to forward, I will say that we are a women-run press, I’m not interested, and here’s why. I don’t know if that changes their perspectives on submitting to a women-run press, but it’s an opportunity I have to use my voice and say, ‘This is not okay with me.’ ”
Publishing is not only fairly male in its leadership, but also blindingly white overall. Gigi Ishmael, president and publisher of family-owned and -operated Ishmael Tree, says that, while both her mother and grandmother were businesswomen, serving as role models to her, she still had “a lot of issues breaking in. There were times that people just didn’t want to talk to me. Not only am I a woman, I’m a brown woman too. I get looked at kind of strangely.” Because she’s Muslim, she adds, there’s additional discrimination in getting into certain stores and libraries. “They will automatically think that we’re terrorists or that our entire catalogue is about national security. [People] jump to that even at the book fairs.”
Issues of diversity extend, of course, beyond gender and race to sexual orientation, class, able-bodiedness, and gender conformity, among other things. “Publishing has a bigger diversity problems than [just] gender,” says Warner. “If publishing is so white, then acquisitions editors are buying things that are basically cultivating their own interests.”
Stanfill of Forest Avenue realized that, by limiting her press to Oregon writers, she was “perpetuating the lack of diversity in my slush pile.” The latest census data shows that Oregon is nearly 80% white. “Now,” she says, “I wish I had been more activated five years ago to figure out who to reach out to.” She opened her press to national submissions, which immediately increased their diversity.
Rhonda Hughes is also focusing on finding writers of color, citing Roxane Gay’s speech at the ABA’s 2017 Winter Institute as having “really jolted” her. “I realized that I have not done enough to find writers of color. It’s easy for me to say I’d love to find them, but I haven’t done enough outreach.” After author Lidia Yuknavitch recently gave a $10,000 award to a writer of color in Oregon, Hughes obtained the list of finalists and sent each one a congratulatory email with an open invitation to submit work.
For Kearns of Shade Mountain, her mission has always been to exclusively publish work by women, especially those from marginalized or underrepresented groups. “I’m half Puerto Rican, half white,” she says, “so I think that has certainly made me more sensitive and aware of how women from racialized ethnic groups and nationalities are marginalized.” She cites the press’s 2015 novel White Light by Vanessa Garcia as an example: Kearns says Garcia had been turned down by publishers and agents for four years despite having a blurb from Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. According to Kearns, Garcia was being told that, because the narrator was a Miami-born Cuban-American, readers wouldn’t relate to her. “The question of who can relate is being made by a mostly white publishing industry, so they are missing out on these books by women of color.”
Trotman of Iron Circus says she sees “an astonishing amount of ignorance” in comics publishing. “I don’t even think it’s necessarily malicious, but there’s this expectation that women and nonbinary people and brown people and queer people identify with characters and stories that are written by white cis straight men,” adding that it’s been that way for decades. “If it’s a story about a brown woman it’s for brown women, but if it’s a story about a white man it’s for everyone, and that’s the dynamic they’ve internalized and how they’ve approached pretty much anything they might be brought as editors.” Trotman, who identifies as a straight black woman, is a “firm believer in intersectionality. I think a rising tide lifts all boats. I think we all do better when we all do better.”
Climbing the Ladder
Raccah offers a strategy for how women can move up the publishing ranks: diversify their skill sets. “When you’re looking at where the management comes from in publishing firms, it rarely comes out of editorial,” she points out. She says it’s important to ask questions about where women are in publishing. “Are they running business? Are they running finance? Are they running accounting ops? Are they running tech? Are they running sales? We’ve got to diversity our own skill sets. I come out of tech and marketing. That’s turned out to be a really big advantage. That’s one of the things I really learned as I was building Sourcebooks.”
Gould of Emily Books feels that change begins with “more women in actual decision-making roles. Unfortunately for me, most of my skills are in editorial. Editors don’t have a ton of power. The way you ascend in publishing is to develop skills on the business side.” With the exception of people like Reagan Arthur at Little, Brown, she says, “to be in a position of real power you’re going to eventually move away from editing.”
DiOrio says, “What I’ve noticed is that a lot of the disruptive change in the publishing industry is originated by women. What women have done is step outside of the legacy rubric and innovate by doing their own thing.” DiOrio cites She Writes Press as one example of this kind of innovation: “Brooke Warner is in the vanguard of hybrid publishing. Before She Writes Press, that kind of publishing didn’t exist, so these are innovative solutions to an industry where inertia was the most powerful force.”
King of VIDA sees a number of positive changes overall with respect to diversity, one being that even if editors still don’t care about gender and racial diversity, “they aren’t saying it out loud anymore.” She adds that the outpouring of support for VIDA, “despite the climate we’re in right now, is very encouraging.”
Raccah says she is “slightly more optimistic today than I was 10 years ago, because I believe we have experienced in our lifetime, particularly in the last decade, an expansion in readership.” She cites more types of people demanding a wider range of titles, adding that the “interface between readers and publishers is a more permeable membrane. There’s more stuff going between those two groups, and because of that I believe you’re going to start seeing a broader range of people entering the field. This story isn’t sad—I think it’s really important that we acknowledge that. There are parts of the story that are unfinished and challenging. But we’re going someplace, and journeys are always fraught.”