The Winds of Diversity Sweep Through the Halls of Publishing

“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”
― Socrates

Gossip kills. Or at least it kills careers. Whispering Hit Men have taken out a hit on publishing in the last week with another round of so-called scandals, but really are they any different to the ‘news’ that a Virginian democrat wore blackface thirty years ago? These sorts of stories are indicative of society at large. Whether it is fake news or personal vendettas, the news has been weaponised. They are simulacra, problems that merely look like problems and that resemble problems more with every angry Tweet and opinion piece. What has got everyone so riled up now?

First there is the sad case of Amelie Wen Zhao. She had a fantasy novel coming out, hotly contested by publishers at auction. Last week a Twitter mob attacked her, accusing the book of perpetuating racism, enabling ableism and other crimes against humanity. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before, and in fact I have previously written about such cases. The difference now is that Amelie is Chinese herself and should have plenty of experience with censorship. What is scarier about Western censorship is that we do it to ourselves. The mob looks for any discrepancy they can find and amplify it to such a degree if only to show in-group adherence. Amelie has now decided not to publish the novel and publicly apologised for her atrocious and unthoughtful behaviour. It is clear that many people were enraged but never even read the book (this selective fact finding is indicative of all  ‘important”political’ discussions) and merely jumped on a hate wagon to complain about, among other things, plagiarism (apparently whole sections were stripped from The Hunger Games). The fact these people don’t know their history and cannot see the similarities between this and being denounced by the Red Guard is not surprising, but it is frightening. This was her public apology, the equivalent of being made to stand in the town square with a board around your neck as your neighbors hurl rotten fruit at you.

From what I can tell the book seemed to be trying to tackle the issue of slavery from her unique perspective, but it seems blacks and black history is still top of the hierarchy and she didn’t do a good enough job. Oh well, live and learn, Amelie! May your dreams never be crushed again.

The second major case of gossip is the ‘unmasking’ of Dan Mallory. Author of bestselling book The Woman in the Window under the pseudonym A J Finn, he has had a tell-all hit piece published in The New Yorker by a journalist who not only digs up dirt on his publishing career, accuses the book of plagiarism and harasses his family, but takes way too long to read. Seriously, this could have been edited down just a bit. This kind of gossip masquerading as news is the new normal, and reminiscent of the Russian collusion stories that come out every now and then. Heck, both stories even involve urine which of course had the entire publishing industry giggling like schoolchildren. Of course, besides the fact that no one takes any of it with a grain of salt (how true is it, and how can we know when all we have to go on is the article), it was immediately picked up as an example of ‘mediocre white men failing up’. No, not of a literal psychopath scheming and getting what he wanted, but it was generalized to all white men in the industry, and presumably all industries. Like you could call this sort of heist mediocre, anyway. Bitches.

Events like this allow those with an agenda to beat their war drums and march on the White Man. Wei Ming Kam and others are calling for a witch hunt, stating that if Mallory was able to do this, then just think about how many others like him are out there. Of course, all this does is stoke paranoia rather than seeing it as an exception. Mallory has come out and said the lying about the brain cancer did happen, which means that some of his other tall tales are probably somewhat true, but overall does it take away from his book success? Don’t you get paid well and climb the corporate ladder by bullshitting anyway? What exactly did he do wrong except make some social faux pas most probably as a result of serious mental issues? That is for the crowd to decide. I am reminded of Jon Ronson’s book on shaming and events like the dentist whose business was destroyed on Yelp because he was a big game hunter. Things are much worse now.

The flip side to all this shouting down White Men is the articles and essays complaining about how hard it is to be in the industry if you aren’t a White Man. Take for example this quote:

But at her new company, Scholastic, she was one of few queer women of color.

No shit, that by its very definition is going to be a rare bird. Exactly how many queer woman of colour does a company need to be diverse? You want to give me a quota, sweet cheeks?  Now check out this delicious sentence:

A Black former editorial assistant says she was satisfied with her starting salary until she discovered a few months later that other women of color in the same role were getting paid more, even though they had less experience.

Don’t you just love the infighting? Newsflash, people, you get paid for what extra you bring to the table, not your ability to complete a set of tasks. And we notoriously overestimate our own ability anyway.

Complaining about the supposed inequalities is a deliberate tactic because suddenly the reader of articles such as this is made to think that this is a Bad Thing in and of itself. It’s insidious and constant and publishing is slowly succumbing. Just yesterday I walked past the meeting being held by our Diversity Committee (all white girls) and I shuddered as I felt their collective psychic energy wash over me. If it is deemed that there is a problem, well, you have to fix that problem! But is it about representation or do these women just want more money?

“I don’t think promotions correspond to someone else’s other life choices,” says Yee, who now works in San Francisco, Calif., as an editorial coordinator for a different academic publisher. “How well I do at my job should be based off of how I’m doing, not whether someone else takes maternity leave.”

The trope of the promotion is people competing for it. That is, competing for an opening. Promotions are not just handed out because you did a gold star job. Publishing budgets are tight, the competition for jobs is fierce and yet these brown girls think they deserve handouts for doing what essentially anyone could do and plenty of others want to do. They don’t want to pay you more because the big houses are beholden to shareholder profits, and the small houses literally don’t have the money. When someone like Mallory is earning $200,000 a year it’s because they are signing significant authors.

Fundamentally, Dan Mallory got promoted because he’s extremely clever and charismatic. Brown girls don’t get a promotion because they are none of those things, and in fact probably create resentment. Feeling entitled won’t help, but maybe being loud enough will.

That said, publishing houses are famously cumbersome beasts, giant tanker ships that take forever to take a new direction. That’s why companies like Wattpad are going to start to tackle this diversity issue head-on. They have started their own publishing imprint based on algorithms and with an eye on inclusivity. I say good luck to them, especially with those pesky racist AIs. But if small publishers and start-ups are going to take this market, why should the big houses bother? I don’t see much potential in the woke market. I mean, sure the white population that makes up the huge markets of the US, Canada and Commonwealth rights is slowly declining and being edged out by endless brown people, but as we see in the case of Amelie, they will eat themselves. There are too many markets to attend to. Yes, there are the odd foreign or immigrant stories that take off, but by and large men like to read thrillers and women like to read Liane Moriarty. Like a democracy, publishing requires a homogeneous reading public in order to work at scale. In order for this to work in the shifting demography of the West, expect books to get even more bland and inoffensive.

Publishing is legacy media, but it is and will outlast the news industry. Thankfully profits were never high in the book trade, so it’s not hard to keep expectations reasonable. But there is still a worry that publishing will follow the same mistakes as newspapers and digital media companies like Buzzfeed. Publishing is counter-intuitively safehoused because they offer one thing and one thing only: stories. The internet has too much noise at times to sell those stories, too little prestige to make them worth picking up. The technology of a paper book is yet to be surpassed. The only worry is that publishing houses will try to move outside of what they do best. The more you try to push LGBTQI themes or refugee sob stories, the more people you are going to push offside. Don’t get political; it is not our job to push a political agenda. It is our job to publish good books. This reminds me of a wonderful anecdote I overheard the other day. A WOC I work with (try saying that five times fast) said that her friend in another house voiced their opinion over the publication of a book about the First Fleet. This friend was told by management to ‘keep your politics to yourself’. There is hope out there, after all.

This is all to say that nothing above is new. Authors have always been censored. Publishing frauds are a dime a dozen. What is new is that a supposedly diverse book is self-censored, and a fraud is exposed that has nothing to do with the book itself. (The hit on Mallory seems more fit for the likes of a gossip rag if you ask me. The word ‘schadenfreude’ springs to mind.)  Publishing houses will always move into new markets but they need to keep scale in mind. Gossip hurts and it will end up hurting not just individual authors, but bottom lines too. If these examples are anything to go by the voices crying out to white-ant publishing are only going to get louder and meaner.

Author: Mason Masters

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” - Flaubert Writer. Editor. Literary commentator.

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