Women Writing: Views & Prospects 1975-1995
Panel Session: Publishing: Fact and Fiction / Elizabeth Weiss
- Women working in book publishing
- Women employed in the publishing industry
- Small women's presses
I have been asked to talk about women's experiences working in book publishing and current trends for women in the industry. I have focused on two kinds of publishing work:
- women employed in the commercial publishing industry
- small voluntary women's presses.
My talk is based on my experience working for the commercial publishing house Allen & Unwin, in the industry organisation Women in Publishing and for the small voluntary publisher Women's Redress Press.
Publishing is often seen as a 'nice' career for women, and the commercial book publishing industry certainly employs a lot of women. It is a very middle-class career and, in fact, one of the few occupations for which a university degree in English literature can be said to be a direct qualification (if not essential). Women are typically employed as editors, proofreaders, indexers, designers, publicists, secretaries and in production and marketing.
I am examining the work of editors in particular, because this job is probably one that is most specific to book publishing. The traditional attitude towards a book editor is that their work should be hidden: the seamless mending of other people's writing from behind the scenes. When Beatrice Davies, a well-known editor who worked with Angus & Robertson, died a few years ago it was considered high praise that this extremely skilled editor never wanted to grab any of the limelight for herself. A good editor is patient, meticulous, sensitive to the author's intentions and can juggle several things at once. These are typically feminine skills, and it is no wonder that editing is often seen to be women's work.
In medium and large publishing houses, the gender balance is usually firmly skewed towards women, but the most senior positions still tend to be held by men. Admittedly there are increasing numbers of high-profile women working as publishers, that is, commissioning authors (and I am thinking here of Jane Palfreyman at Random House, Meg Fraser at Readers Digest, Bryony Cosgrove and Julie Gibbs at Penguin, Sophie Cunningham at Allen & Unwin). But at the end of the day, it is generally a male managing director who holds the purse-strings. Before I get too carried away about discrimination here, it is probably worth remembering that the persistence of the glass ceiling is typical of Australian industry in general.
Many women are attracted to book editing because of the contact with the literary world and writing, and because it is a skilled and clean job. Many women are also attracted to working as book editors because the job is seen as flexible. It is possible to work full time, part time or as a freelancer, and many women find book editing a useful job to combine with child rearing. The typical pattern is to start out working as an editor in house, to develop skills, then to move in and out of freelance and part-time positions depending on family responsibilities.
So book editing is a nice, clean, skilled job for women wanting a flexible career. But there is a flip side. Rates of pay in the book publishing industry are not high compared to the rest of the private sector, and with some recent changes to work patterns, many women in the industry are likely to see their incomes fall.
Rather than employing a number of copy editors and proofreaders in-house, publishers are increasingly outsourcing this work. They are employing managing editors in-house and using freelancers for copy editing and proofreading. This means that publishers can more readily adapt to shifting work loads than if they used only in-house editors, and the per-hour rate may be cheaper than employing staff. For example, Butterworths, a legal publisher, pays $17-$20 per hour for copy editing, and $13 per hour for proofreading. Also, most freelance editors do not charge fully for the work they do. They know that book budgets are tight, and they want to be sure of getting more work. So publishers are in fact better off financially than they would be with in-house staff. Most freelance editors say that even if they have a steady flow of work, their income is not as high as it would be if they worked in-house.
Over time, this emphasis on using freelance editors means that it is harder to learn the craft of editing under supervision in-house. In fact, I know a number of freelance editors who have never worked in-house. It may also mean that the skills base will decline. Certainly earlier this year there was a lot of talk about a shortage of experienced freelance editors, and I wonder if this problem will increase in the future. Another concern is that the emphasis on working to time and to budget as a freelancer probably also means that manuscripts are not given as much time as they need in many situations.
There is another threat to book editing. Changes in technology over the past ten years have demystified the publishing process and made it more accessible to ordinary people. Until recently, books were edited by editors, and typeset by typesetters and published by publishers. The advent of desktop publishing has meant that anyone with access to a computer and a word processing package could do their own typesetting cheaply and without much experience. The result has been a publishing explosion as organisations and individuals get into the act. And the books are often poorly produced and unappealing.
Recently, the growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web means that not only can people do their own typesetting, but they can reach their audience for minimal cost. They no longer need to invest in a print run and tout their book around themselves. Rather they only need to set up a home page on the Web, or put their material on someone else's.
I work mainly with academic books at Allen & Unwin, and I hear a lot about the Net. Apart from computer geeks, academics are probably the adults with the most exposure to the on-line world. In the last few months, I have been hearing a number of academics saying excitedly that they no longer need book publishers because they can publish and distribute their work themselves. They are right, of course. A number of academic journals are already published on the Net and this number will increase.
These cyberoptimists do not think that their writing needs filtering through the skilled hands of an experienced editor-they are confident that they can communicate directly with their audience. I do not think it is scare mongering to suggest that this attitude is likely to spread in academic circles.
General books and fiction are not as strongly affected as educational titles by the growth of the Net at the moment, but I wonder if the Net will mean that writing and publishing processes will change so as to reduce the importance of the editor in clarifying and packaging an author's work.
I now take a break from speculating about the future of book editing to look at small women's presses. My comments are based heavily on my experience with Women's Redress Press, a publishing collective that was established in Sydney in 1983. Redress was founded with great enthusiasm at several large meetings which were attended by leading figures in the women's movement. I was not there at the time, but I have been told that everyone felt that it was time to set up a women's press in Sydney to give women writers better exposure than they had through mainstream publishing houses, and to give women's issues a greater chance of being heard. In these aims Redress was following in the footsteps of UK women's presses Virago and Women's Press, which had been very successful in creating a high-profile niche for women's publishing. For example, many bookshops stocked Virago and Women's Press titles on special shelves where the distinctive green spine and black and white diagonal stripes acted as a beacon to the informed woman reader.
The feeling at the time was that many kinds of women's writing were not accepted by mainstream publishing houses because they did not appeal to male publishers. The success of Virago and the Women's Press suggests that they were right: they were able to pick a major gap in the market. Women buy far more books than men, and they were obviously delighted that they were being offered more than the traditional fare of romances. Women writers and readers had become far more conscious of themselves, their lives and their needs, as a result of the growth of the women's movement, and here were some presses catering to those needs.
I am not sure whether Redress publications have fully lived up to this goal of social change through publication, but they certainly have contributed to the growth in the awareness of women's writing in Australia. Notable publications include:
- For the Record: one of the first collections of Australian women's short stories
- Luxury a collection of poetry by Kate Llewellyn
- 200 Australian Women:: Redress's one-volume answer to the Australian Dictionary of Biography
- Easy Come, Easy Go, by Pamela May: one of the first Australian lesbian novels
- Give me strength, /Forza e coraggio, and Who Do You Think You Are?: two volumes of migrant women's writing
- Bodylines, Shrieks: Theme anthologies.
Since I first became involved with Women's Redress Press, I think a lot of energy has gone out of the organisation . The rationale of encouraging women's writing because it was not accepted by mainstream presses seems to lack the bite it once had. My impression is that mainstream presses soon realised that women's writing was commercially viable, and have taken it up with enthusiasm. Take for example the growth of women's crime fiction. The increasing number of women publishers commissioning work has no doubt helped increase the variety of women's work that gets published. And bookshops no longer stock Virago and Women's Press fiction titles on separate shelves; rather women's novels are generally integrated with general fiction. I hasten to add that not all kinds of women's writing has been taken up enthusiastically by the mainstream. For example, mainstream houses have only recently started publishing lesbian writing. However, I think the trend is clear.
Women's Redress Press now has trouble attracting voluntary workers, and many authors now seem to see Redress as a last port of call after the rejection letters have piled up. Over the last few years, my impression is that women working with Redress see it more as a way of getting publishing experience before going for a job in publishing or trying their hand at editing, rather than as a way of achieving more lofty social and literary goals. Redress also faces a tougher economic climate as printing costs rise as a result of the current paper crisis, and many big bookshops are increasingly reluctant to stock small press titles. (For example, Angus & Robertson refuses to see representatives from smaller distributors.)
The situation of women's book presses also reflects that of the women's movement as a whole. Much of the enthusiasm and optimism of the 1970s and early 1980s has now dimmed, partly because some of the goals have been achieved, and partly because of more difficult economic times. Young women are very active, but not necessarily in the same way as their activist foremothers.
It seems to me that the energy in small, voluntary women's publishing outfits in Australia is not found in book publishing any more, but in electronic publishing. Despite all the dire predictions that the new on-line world will exclude women, there are quite a large number of women using the Net (some statistics say up to 30 per cent of Net users are women) and there is some innovative on-line publishing coming from women.
The major Australian example of this is geekgirl, which is published both in paper and on-line. The editors and publishers are Rosie Cross and Lisa Pears. The magazine has a different feel from some of the older print-based women's magazines like Refractory Girl and Scarlet Woman. There are articles by and about men in their second issue, for example: Ken Wark on Tokyo and an article about Noam Chomsky. There seems to be more of an interest in lifestyle and image than in social issues per se. And there is a fascination with the technology itself: how to use it and what it can do.
Books have for centuries been the major medium for communicating new ideas and they have a strong cultural position. But book publishing is a very mature, even an over-mature industry, and it is no longer the sole vehicle for new ideas. It is now competing with new and older electronic media. The kind of work women do in the book publishing industry and the position of publishing women's books is inevitably affected by the changing status of books.
- Since this paper was delivered, Women's Redress Press has decided to close.
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