Back in 2015, The Guardian and The Bookseller published a talk by novelist Kamila Shamsie at Hay Festival where she suggested that a Year of Publishing Women would help to reset the gender imbalance for published authors.
She backed up her contention with research by author Nicola Griffith which showed that books by and about women are significantly less likely to win literary prizes or receive as much critical recognition as their male counterparts, and proposed that it should take place in 2018 to coincide with the centenary of female suffrage.
However, despite causing a stir among the book trade, only one publishing house assumed the mantle: Sheffield-based And Other Stories, an independent press which publishes a mixture of translated and English language authors (it made its name with Deborah Levy’s 2012 Booker Prize-shortlisted Swimming Home). Elsewhere, the idea was greeted with varied and often muted responses. Lionel Shriver called it “rubbish” because the suggestion that women needed special help was “problematic and obviously backfires”.
Predictably, most of the big publishers remained silent.
So, eight months on, what has happened to the Year of Publishing Women? And why did an independent press in the North of England decide to take on the challenge when others wouldn’t?
“It was on our radar because we do a lot of translations and we were aware that there is a massive inequality in the number of male and female writers being translated into English,” explains Stefan Tobler, founder and publisher at And Other Stories (AOS). “For every woman that is translated, around two men are translated and that’s been a statistic for quite a while.
“We work quite organically so we’re open to translators getting in touch and suggesting authors and authors can also submit directly. But, of course, naturally we trust the authors we already have and because, like the publishing industry in general, we were publishing more men in translation, some of those men were then recommending other men.”
It’s not always the case that recommendations are male. For example, the Mexican author Yuri Herrera has largely recommended female Latin American writers and AOS has gone on to publish two of them, Rita Indiana (Tentacle, Nov 2018) and Cristina Rivera Garza (The Iliac Crest, June 2018).
Tobler says: “We realised when Kamila’s challenge came along that it provided an opportunity to, instead of relying on what happens on its own, to really make a public call for more submissions by women authors and more submissions of women authors that we can translate. We just saw that [the Year of Publishing Women] could help us rebalance the list and support Kamila’s point that there is a wider problem in the industry and the amount of attention given to women writers.”
And Other Stories stays loyal to its authors where it can but found that, by not publishing any of its regular male authors in 2018, it freed up more space in the catalogue for new voices. “Of the 10 authors being published this year, nine are authors we haven’t published before. The one we have is the Italian author Fleur Jaeggy whose Sweet Days of Discipline is her second book we’ve published, and we will continue to publish her. The new authors are really special, and we will continue working with them.”
By embarking on the Year of Publishing Women, I wonder if And Other Stories has published writers that it might not otherwise have come across or been able – or had the time – to publish?
“It’s hard to say,” says Tobler. “We started with Ann Quinn and when Jane Hodgson, the editor of The Unmapped Country, said she was collecting Quinn’s lost pieces to bring it together, we would have done it anyway. Every book, if you look at it, I’d say we would have done that regardless. But then, of course, if we had some of our male authors to fit into the year, it would’ve potentially meant that some things were delayed, or we couldn’t give as much attention to these 10 books. It meant we could really focus on them.”
The idea was greeted with mixed views by the trade including those against initiatives that were at the expense of other, male, authors. Some said that publishers should focus on other voices marginalised within the industry.
“There were a few people like Hannah Westland [a publisher at Serpent’s Tale] – she and I went on Woman’s Hour to talk about this – and she was very much saying, ‘This isn’t an issue. This is sorted. Let’s look at other things instead’ and I’m not saying this is the only issue. Publishing needs to be less white, middle class, London-centric for a start, but I don’t think it’s an ‘either or’ situation. Some people disagreed, and some people didn’t sign up because there was a feeling of ‘well, haven’t we done this?’
“We certainly don’t want to give the impression that in taking up the challenge, and I don’t think Kamila was trying to give this impression in her provocation either, that we think that nothing has been done and no progress has been made. There have been so many amazing changes in British publishing, whether that’s the setting up of the the Women’s Prize for Fiction or imprints like Virago, to make things more equal than they are in many other countries.
“One reason we were so aware of the issue was because we publish so many translations, and the authors which are being promoted by foreign publishers and cultural institutes are more likely to be men from many places in the world where feminism hasn’t had the impact that it has here. There are certainly lots of places where people are aware that gender inequality is perhaps an even more pressing issue in publishing that it is here. I think some people criticised it because it was a sense that because so much work has been done, do we really need this, and we agreed with Kamila that there is still the need for more, particularly with a perspective on international literature.”
So, what – if anything – has the initiative exposed? “By doing this year of only publishing women it has allowed us to bring out a wider range of voices and stories.”
Tobler pauses before talking me through the stories published so far this year, and we realise that they are predominantly female stories with women protagonists. “I guess the more that you publish, the more you would hope that the protagonist of the story would change.
“It’s been fun to be publishing new voices and then those who needed to be rediscovered, like Ann Quinn. There were obviously a lot of people who knew her writing and were keen to let more people find out about her, and then from that to those new writers who haven’t been published before in English, and writers like Amy Arnold (Slip of a Fish, Nov 2018) – the winner of the Northern Book Prize – who hasn’t been published at all before. She’s never had anything published in print before and she was the strongest submission.”
He adds: “It was a nice coincidence that the winner of the prize was a woman, so we could publish it this year.”
Does Tobler think that being an independent, not-for-profit publisher allowed the company more freedom to embark on this initiative? And did larger publishing houses refuse to get on board for fear of a backlash or losing money?
“Definitely. I mean, we have to not lose money or else we won’t be here next year, but it does mean that we don’t have to make money for investors and, ultimately, we know we want to focus on books that are works of art and great writing, and not focus on the genre ends of the market that other people are doing well already. We don’t work in that regimented, efficient way that some larger publishers do. It’s great having that freedom.”
What are the plans for 2019?
“We’ve got some brilliant female authors who weren’t in this year which are coming up again. In the past, we published one book by Swedish author Lina Wolff called Bret Easton Ellis and The Other Dogs – which you can tell by the title, she’s got a great dark sense of humour – but her next novel comes out next year and is called The Polyglot Lovers and it’s just brilliant. It’s a bit of a take-down of male authors taking themselves too seriously.”
And Other Stories is currently trying to get all this year’s books finished as many of the titles are also due to be published in the US. Next year’s plans look similarly ambitious. “We’ve got lots more good books including a couple of authors from this year,” enthuses Tobler. He laughs before adding: “Including some great male authors, but we promise it won’t be a year of publishing men.”
“Has anyone called for the Year of Publishing Men?” I half joke.
“Do you know what? I think someone might have.”
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
Main image: the And Other Stories team, Stefan Tobler second from right