With the Harvey Weinstein scandal putting a national spotlight on sexual harassment and assault, PW asked female professionals in book publishing about their experiences. Had they dealt with harassment, assault, or predatory behavior in the industry? Do they feel such behavior had become more or less common over the course of their careers? Do they think publishing is any better, or worse, than other fields that have been exposed as particularly predatory toward women, such as technology and Hollywood?
We found that in spite of publishing’s high percentage of female workers (it’s estimated at roughly 80%), the industry still has a sexual harassment problem. (A number of the women we contacted said they had never experienced any kind of sexual harassment at work, but many added the caveat that this made them feel “lucky.”) Women at corporate publishers, by and large, did not respond to questions on the subject. Others who have been in the industry for decades spoke of unwanted physical advances and interactions that edged closer to assault. Younger women in the business spoke with a more expansive view of sexual harassment, citing incidents ranging from physical encounters to unwanted comments, leering, and suggestive language.
One former editor at an independent publisher recounted an episode when, during her time as an editorial assistant, her boss sent her an email describing his feelings for her. She said he told her he was in love with her and didn’t know what to do about it. She consulted a lawyer but opted against pursuing any legal action (in large part because the lawyer indicated how difficult a case would be to pursue). “I just wanted it to go away,” she said. “I should have just left the job. I tried—I applied to dozens of [other] jobs.”
A one-time manager at a small publishing house said the head of her former company would routinely “make offhand comments,” typically to women, that were presented in a joking manner but were, nonetheless, unsettling. (In one instance, he called a female co-worker, who was sitting at her desk with headphones on, a “fugly slut”; although the employee did not hear the comment, others did, and the fact that the line was ostensibly a quote from a movie was, the former manager said, of “little comfort.”) She and other women in her office also dealt with another man who exhibited “highly inappropriate” behavior. The women went to HR as a group to discuss the situation. “It went well—or so we thought,” she said. The women soon realized that what they had shared with their HR representative had been passed along, without their knowledge, to the director, CEO, executives, and upper management at the publisher. The women were then asked to meet, individually, with the company’s CFO. “At no point [in my meeting with the CFO] was my safety or the safety of the other women addressed,” she said. “I never heard from HR again about the incident.” The women who made the complaint all left the publisher, and the man they complained about continues to work there.
Another woman, who works in marketing at a major publisher, said she has been “the victim of ongoing harassment and assault” at her current employer. Noting that she “didn’t know how to stop” the behavior, she said her experience highlights the fact that, despite the industry’s gender makeup, publishers are not necessarily female-friendly workplaces. “I was pushed against walls, cornered in hallways, and groped under my clothes at author dinners,” she said. “In an effort to minimize the damage to our professional environment I brushed it off. When a coworker encouraged me to come forward, I felt I would be the one they fired. I’ve worked in Hollywood, and I never experienced the level of assault and harassment that I experienced here.”
Two longtime salespeople at a major publisher, who both spoke on the condition of anonymity, reported being repeatedly harassed by a buyer at one of their accounts. “For years, at every appointment, he would talk about women’s bodies and my body,” one said. “He talked about erectile dysfunction medicines. He asked about my sex life. After every appointment he would give lingering hugs and press himself against my chest.” Little came of her attempts to change the situation. “Since this store was considered a significant account, and because [my supervisor] was friends with this man, nothing came of my complaints.”
Women who have spent much of their careers in publishing said they felt sexual assault and harassment have not significantly lessened over time. The only real change some noted is that more women are recognizing sexual harassment as harassment, and not merely bad behavior by men.
“When I was growing up in publishing, [sexual harassment] was something I felt I had to be a good sport about—whether banter, innuendo, or something more serious,” said Leigh Haber, books editor for O, the Oprah Magazine. “In the case of the last, the most vivid example I recall is when an author I was working with—as publicity manager at Avon—pushed me onto a bed in his hotel room in between interviews. I was able to knee him and push him off. I was 27 and remember feeling I should just finish out the day as if nothing happened. And that’s what I did.”
Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press, said one issue is that many of the men who sexually harass women assume their behavior is aboveboard: “[They] think they’re being charming, or flirtatious. It’s not something they would identify as sexual harassment—asking girls why they don’t smile more, for instance.” She also believes that the industry’s reputation as a place where anything goes, which adds to the glamour of the business, doesn’t help. “The publishing industry [of the 1980s] had quite a reputation of heavy partying, everyone sleeping with each other,” she said. “I have heard all kinds of stories—mostly from men—about how awesome this time was. I have never heard from women that it was a particularly sexually progressive time. I think the men felt that they had a free pass and that it was better because it was less politically correct.”
In 2014, Laura Dawson, principal of the firm Numerical Gurus (and a PW contributing editor), posted to her blog a list of 12 incidents of sexual harassment and sex-based discrimination that she had experienced over the course of her career. She reposted the piece, titled “Sexism in the Book Industry,” on Facebook after news of the Weinstein scandal broke. She recounted, among other things, being fondled by a sales director who later told her “he wanted to get me into a tent.” Dawson noted that HR ignored her documentation of those incidents.
Dawson said, if anything, she has encountered more harassment since her original post, and is skeptical that the problem has diminished: “This type of behavior has everything to do with power, and the abuse of it. I don’t know if that’s a dynamic that humans can ever rid ourselves of, but we can decide not to tolerate it when it happens.”
PW’s annual salary and jobs survey certainly backs up some of what Dawson highlights—namely the outsize amount of power that men hold in the industry. Despite the fact that men are a minority of the overall workforce, 51% of managers are men. Additionally, men in the business make more money than women. Speaking to this imbalance, Haber noted that, though there are some women in top executive roles in publishing, it remains very “patriarchal.”
Another difficult reality of the book world is that, arguably more so than other industries, success really is tied to who you know. Those looking to get ahead need to make connections outside of their nine-to-five jobs; many women said they realize now how the social aspect of publishing put them in particularly vulnerable situations. We heard from a number of women about incidents that happened in the literary community at large—book parties, readings, networking events, literary festivals, writers’ conferences—where comments and behavior cannot be addressed by HR departments after the fact. Women spoke about encounters, ranging from uncomfortable to dangerous, where, even if they had wanted to, there was no one with whom to file a complaint.
One poet, professor, and writer mentioned an editor who sent her, unprompted, a series of “dick pics.” She also mentioned “the one male faculty member you knew to stay away from” in her M.F.A. program, who “liked to grab butt cheeks and tell bestiality jokes in class.”
Another writer and journal editor, who asked to remain anonymous, mentioned two cases of harassment. In one, an editor at another journal followed her to her hotel room after a writers’ conference, despite her repeated requests to be left alone. Another case involved a friend and fellow editor-writer. During an editing session, he “put his hand on my thigh” and, after she rebuffed his advance, became angry, claiming that she was the one at fault for not communicating her lack of interest more clearly.
The overwhelming majority of women who spoke to us for this article said they felt embarrassed about, or somehow responsible for, what happened to them. One author and translator recounted an incident that occurred at a book fair in 2010. After sitting at a dinner with a publisher, then spending some time with him later in the evening, she reluctantly agreed to go to his hotel room to look at some books. Once there, he attacked her. She managed to break away. Afterward, she said, “I felt embarrassed and stupid.” She added: “I shouldn’t have gone for the nighttime walk. I shouldn’t have gone to his hotel room.” Noting that she has been harassed and attacked on other occasions, she said she felt that this was worse. “This happened in a context where I thought I was safe—where I thought I was with my own people, my colleagues.”