White women in publishing

Plus, the epic quest to surgically transplant a human mind

A survey released last week showed that 81% of people working in US university presses are white. In America as a whole, 61% of the population is white.

This half of the story will be familiar because surveys of this nature tend to attract attention, and rightfully so. When you hit 81% white in a country that’s 61% white, something is out of whack. It does not necessarily follow that university presses are racist — the composition of any workforce is influenced by complicated factors, including the supply of candidates, salaries, and location, to name a few. One might argue that university presses are enlightened, given that they live in a post-secondary world where 90% of full-time professors are white.

A similar racial imbalance exists in general trade publishing, where 76% of the workers are white. Even from a narrow commercial point-of-view, you would think that big publishers, who sell everything to everyone, would want a workforce that more closely resembles their customer base. (The numbers in these surveys mostly reflect the big US publishers, who do most of the hiring.)

Canada is no better than the US. Our general population is 71% white. Our book publishing sector is 82% white.

The racial gaps in publishing have been a source of hand-wringing on both sides of the border for much of the last decade, to no real effect. The numbers have barely budged. The level of concern reached new peaks of concern and activity in 2020 during the Black Lives Matter protests. Future surveys promise to be interesting.


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Another inequity highlighted by the surveys brings far less attention than race. That is the lack of gender diversity in book publishing. The new report on US university presses finds 65% of employees are women. General trade publishing is 74% women. Canadian trade book publishing, too, is 74% women (and 18% men).

Few appear fussed about this. Some see the predominance of women as a correction for past generations when men dominated publishing. Some say that men still get paid more than women in publishing, or that men still dominate in management positions, so never mind that there are fewer of them.

It’s not true that men dominate in management — 60% of American book publishing executives are women. In Canada, there are two female heads-of-firm for every one male. Men, indeed, are paid more, but it’s not clear why, especially when they largely report to women.

A decade ago, Jason Pinter, a former editor at St. Martin’s Press and Random House, took aim at the gender gap. Referring in the Huffington Post to data showing that men read less than women (men are a mere 20% of the fiction market), he asked if it might have something to do with the lack of men acquiring and marketing books.

Publisher’s Weekly followed up, asking a bunch of other publishing experts if Pinter had a point. Hardly anyone thought he did. A Random House spokesman said the gender makeup of his firm was “not an issue of concern or even much contemplation for us. The head of Columbia University’s publishing program, which has been 80% female for most of this century, said, “great literature transcends gender in terms of editors.”

George Gibson, who then helmed Bloomsbury USA, said Pinter’s question was not a pressing issue but allowed it was something to think about: “Women and men see the world differently and therefore it would be healthier to have more men in the business.”

That was it for Pinter.

Two years ago, a novelist whose book had been rejected, presumably by women, tried to bring attention to gender disparities by launching a #misandryinpublishing hashtag on Twitter. It trended for a minute and disappeared, but not without winning the author a scolding from the literary agent Lauren Spieller in the Guardian (agents, too, are overwhelmingly women). She attributed the gender disparity to merit, something impossible to say to any other under-represented group:

Here’s the brutal truth: not every book is ready for publication. Some books are overwritten, or ill-conceived. Others are simply not right for the market, or are too similar to existing titles. Some just aren’t very good.

It remains difficult to find anyone who’ll voice concern about the lack of men in book publishing. Sophie de Closets, publisher of the Paris firm Fayard (second from the right in the group shot of leading French publishers at the top of this page), is one of the exceptions. Around the same time as #misandryinpublishing, she told Publishing Perspectives:

I might surprise you now, because this may not sound politically correct, but what troubles me is the lack of men.

I’m trying desperately to hire men at Fayard. And I’m having trouble finding men who want to work in publishing and finding men who want to work at a publishing company run by younger women than they’re used to. And this is not healthy for an industry that focuses on creativity and culture to have such homogeneity of people.

I mean, we’re a majority of white women, highly educated, born and raised in big cities. We tend to be exactly who the readers are because books are mostly bought and read by women. But we look too much the same.

Being a man, I think she has a point. Yes, there are far more books published now than ever before and, surely, if a man is inclined to read, he’ll find something. But I share a sense that the big publishing houses are releasing fewer good books aimed at men than they once did.

It’s a question that could use more study. I’m not confident that will happen, and less confident that anything would come of it. Meanwhile, as a man publisher at a firm that’s half men, and as a man writer with a man editor and a man agent, I feel like a unicorn. Or a dinosaur.

If you have views on this, pro or con, from any position on the gender spectrum, I’d be interested in hearing from you, either in the comments below or at ken@sutherlandhousebooks.com.


The brain: Three pound of gelatinous convolutions and a hundred billion nerves, invisible in its machinations but responsible for all we think, all we do, and all we are. So long as we have our consciousness, then we are we. Violence, accident, and disease may carve away at our tender bodies, but most people still understand the self as housed in the mind—the repository of our memories, our hopes and dreams. But if you remove the brain from the body that houses it… well, that’s another story. in fact, it’s this story.

And what a story. Brandy Shillace’s Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher is the chronicle of one eminent, albeit controversial surgeon’s quest to transplant the human brain.

When Dr. Robert J. White was a surgery resident in Boston, he witnessed history’s first successful human organ transplant (a kidney). While other surgeons went on to expand the range of transplantable human organs, working with lungs and the heart, and so on, White thought big. Why not attach the head of a sick patient to another body?

He began experimenting on primates, figuring out how to cool their brains to reduce the need for oxygen during the transplant (a valuable medical advance). In 1970, he successfully switched one monkey’s head to another monkey’s body in an eighteen-hour surgery. The resultant beast was never able to move its limbs and died in nine days, but progress!

All of this made White a target for animal rights activists and medical ethicists. It also brought him into a Cold War competition with Soviet physiologist Vladimir Demikhov, who was believed to have sewn two dogs together to make something with eight legs and two heads.

White died in 2010 without having reached his ambition of transplanting a human head, but that eventuality, and all of its attendant ethical issues, writes Shillace in this engaging book, is closer than we think. Indeed.


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