THE BLOG
11/17/2014 02:30 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

Does Publishing Have a Gender Issue - and Can the Solution Be Crowd-sourced?

The commonly-held view is that the world of book-publishing is a woman-friendly one, largely without a serious gender issue. Lots of women with degrees in the arts settling in amongst the bookshelves. There may even be an element of truth to the cliche -- compared to large part of the economy, the middle ranks of the book world would appear to be woman-friendly and with a healthy gender balance.

So far, so good -- but that picture of (relatively) good news disappears the minute you hit the public-facing areas of the book world. In leadership and in creative output, that gender balance suddenly starts to fade, rather dramatically.

At the top level, for example, last year CEO of HarperCollins Victoria Barnsley unexpectedly left her job, while Random House's Gail Rebuck was appointed to the House of Lords, leaving the top rung of the Big Five publishers looking distinctly unbalanced, with arguably only Ursula Mackenzie at Little Brown at a senior level in the UK.

The problem continues at the creative end. A survey from Mslexia has found that women are 50 percent less likely to submit their work for publication to publishers. The last annual VIDA count shows a continued imbalance between the number of men and women published by journals and literary magazines (see the link for details across different publications) and a recent Guardian survey shows a similar picture in the gender of book reviewers, where reviewers and contributors, even to those bastions of correctness the Guardian and the Observer themselves failed to get close to a 50-50 balance.

Make no mistake -- at the sharp end of decision-making and writing, women are still being pushed out. And there may be worse on the horizon. The geeks are coming -- and they're (almost) always boys.

The tech world doesn't have the answer to every creative industry's economic woes, but the book industry will be deeply altered by digitization and as the audience becomes more and more drawn to digital, not physical, products, then the existing imbalance could get far worse. The tech sector is not noted for gender equality (check the Twitter feed from Martha Lane Fox for continuing evidence), and, until educational issues (not least the teaching of code and science subjects) are addressed, that's not going to change rapidly.

This all points to deep structural issues with book and tech industries which tend to leave women outside the positions of power, influence and creativity. There is no such structural deficit with audiences, clearly -- so is the audience the way out?

Crowdfunding models in publishing provide new ways both to ensure that books are made -- but, assuming audiences reflect populations, it is agnostic about the gender of the author, or at least fair-minded. That's the approach of the crowdfunding publisher Unbound who have launched their Women in Print campaign to encourage women to write and submit books to publishers -- after having realized that only a third of its own crowdfunded books were written by women.

And a more balanced publishing industry means more professional women writers and reviewers. More women in positions of influence in the creative side of the industry.

Affirmative action projects can seem patronizing, but without some lever to address an issue which hasn't been solved organically, the idea that short-circuiting the market to encourage, or even fast-track women authors is not a bad one. It's a step onto the foothills -- from then on, it's a flat playing field -- and, after all that, if you aren't being published, then, blame your writing, not your gender.

Correction: This post falsely stated that Gail Rebuck was "pushed" out as CEO of Random House. Rebuck accepted an appointment to the House of Lords, is currently Chair of Penguin Random House UK, and serves on the company's Global Board of Representatives.