Call the Midwife and the curious case of Schrodinger’s Queer

Call the Midwife head image

I have been catching up with Call the Midwife (CtM) lately – don’t judge, I’m a sucker for a good BBC domestic drama – and in between sobbing pathetically through a box of tissues per episode (I’m a sympathy crier) and la-la-la-ing through the overt religious stuff, I do enjoy it. Yes, sometimes the sheer GOODNESS of the main characters sets my teeth a little on edge, but on the whole I get caught up in the storylines, it’s historically pretty accurate, and the writing packs an emotional punch as evidenced by the afore-mentioned tissues.

I just have one pretty hefty issue with the show that reached boiling point last week.

(Don’t read any further if you don’t want spoilers on character arcs up to episode 6.4).
Continue reading

On book reviews, BAME authors, ghost writers, diversity, and THAT BOOK

So recently a celebrity published a book, that book had had the input of a “consultant” (industry speak for likely ghost-written), and a famous author wrote a review-slash-comment piece in the Guardian ostensibly denouncing the practice of celebrity authors and ghost-writers.

The book? The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain.
The reviewer? Jenny Colgan.
The review/comment piece? Here in the Guardian.

My problem? The ill thought through, and racist tone that permeated the article, turning what should have been a book review into an ugly example of a systemic problem that plagues not just my industry but the wider world we all live in.

OK, let’s get a few things out of the way first.
Have I read the book in question? No.
Will I be reading the book in question? It wasn’t on the TBR list before this but it sure is now.
Am I a published author? No. (Aspiring, yes. Completed manuscript, no).
Do I understand how the publishing process and world works? Yes.
Am I from a BAME background? No.

So what qualifies me to talk about this? Qualifications, or lack there of, have never stopped anyone saying anything on the internet before, but I do have four+ years working in Rights at a major publishing house, and ongoing employment in the publishing industry on the HR side. In a previous career I helped the disadvantaged back into education and employment. I am an avid reader. I am not perfect and do not have all the answers, but I am a functioning member of society with empathy and an awareness of the world around me, and a willingness to learn.

I am also queer, non-christian, and a woman. I have used a wheelchair in the past, have suffered severe and debilitating physical illness, and continue to battle with mental health concerns. I have, at one time or another faced (and continue to face) potential discrimination. I am white, however, and currently able bodied, as well as being highly educated, from an upper middle class background, and I am fully aware that I have passing privilege. I am lucky – many others aren’t. This isn’t a post about me, but having this information might help explain to you, the reader, why diversity is a hot topic for me and something I will vocally promote on twitter, tumblr, and to everyone who will listen.

I believe to the very core of my being that diversity matters. Diversity in the workforce, in the media we consume, in our leadership… Across the board, the world is better when as many people as possible are represented. I also firmly believe books are one important tool in improving diversity and access to ideas is fundamentally important. The publishing industry – and media as a whole – as it stands is too white, too cis gendered, too heterosexual – both the authors who are published and the people doing the publishing.

Would my life have been better if as a kid/teenager if I had had access to books with bisexual characters in them, or if I had seen them on TV? Without a single doubt, yes. Hell, seeing/reading about anyone under the LGBT+ umbrella would have helped me as a queer kid stuck in rural Somerset in a time before the internet. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a young kid from a BME/BAME background to see a book written by and about people who look like them or have home lives like theirs.

Don’t believe me? Read some #ownvoices.

The situation is dire enough that an 11 year old girl, Marly Dias, felt compelled to start a campaign #1000blackgirlbooks because, in her words:

“In my fifth-grade class I was only able to read books about white boys and their dogs. I understood that my teacher could connect with those characters, so he asked us to read those books. But I didn’t relate to them, so I didn’t learn lessons from those stories”

interview in the Guardian.

Related to this point is that pretty much every study ever shows that people become readers, and enjoy reading, when you get them young. Why is reading important? Well for starters, around 50% of the prison population in the UK is functionally illiterate, which in turn impacts their potential for future employment, and employment is proven to significantly reduce reoffending rates… I’m not saying if you don’t read you’re going to become a criminal, but if you CAN’T read life is substantially harder for you. And if the books you are told to read as a child don’t appeal to you or seem relevant to you, then it isn’t surprising that you won’t read them and in turn come to feel that books and reading aren’t for you.

Which brings me, in an admittedly roundabout way, to what prompted this post in the first place. This review of The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain, most well known for winning the Great British Bake Off in 2015, and a Muslim woman of colour. The review is by Jenny Colgan, successful author of lots of books, and a (presumably) Christian white woman. Colgan wants us to believe the piece is about the dubious practice of celebrity authors and ghost-writers and how the popularity of celebrity takes away from “proper” authors.

That is not what the piece is actually about at all. The whole article leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, but a few things really stand out. Beginning with:

“Hussain is just so brimful of talent… Does she really need to put her name to a novel, too, when there’s only so much shelf space to go around?”

Er, hold on a minute. Firstly, Ms Hussain can only be a baker? If she is that talented, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that she might be able to write too? Many people have double careers. If we’re talking authors alone, Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor. Virginia Woolf was a Publisher. Murakami ran a coffee and jazz bar. Vonnegut was a publicist. Octavia Butler washed dishes. T.S. Eliot worked in a bank. Toni Morrison worked as an editor.

Why can’t Hussain write a book? Writers can, and do, come from any conceivable background. Being a baker does not preclude writing talent. Yes writing a good book is hard but a lot of people have done it over the years and a lot of people will continue to do so for many years to come.

About that whole “consultant/helper/ghost-writer” topic. We simply do not know how much of the book belongs to Hussain, and how much to Ayisha Malik (a talented novelist in her own right who, incidentally, also has a second career). The delightfully ambiguous “written with” on the title page could cover everything from Patterson levels of input from Hussain all the way through to Naomi Campbell’s “I didn’t read my own book”. There are some sensible and fair criticisms to be made about ghostwriting and celebrity book publishing, but if you are going to make them, MAKE THEM, and don’t hide them in something you are calling a review that criticises just one person.

Is it that Hussain doesn’t look like we expect authors to look, or that she comes from a background we don’t usually find authors coming from? She didn’t follow a traditional path to getting published – that doesn’t mean her book isn’t worth space. To me, it means it is worth twice the space because she HASN’T had the privilege, opportunities, or access that your more common white author has. It is hard to draw any conclusion from this comment other than the fact that the idea of a multi-faceted successful brown Muslim woman is just too alien to be believed.

Secondly, “only so much shelf space to go around”?! This sentiment is repeated in the last paragraph with the line “it feels greedy”.

How… How can someone actually write that? Nadiya Hussain has just as much right to write, or co-write, a book as any of the rest of us. It escapes me how anyone can actually flat out say that this woman of colour – TWO women of colour if you count the ghost-writer – are taking up space, being greedy. There are gazillion white women celebrities out there with books/clothing/perfume lines. Where was the ire then? Where are the Guardian comment pieces about Katie Price? Or Zoella? Or the Middleton sister? Any of these? In writing this review and not one of the others, Jenny Colgan chose to take umbrage at the one woman of colour who has dared to stick her head above the parapet and that is unconscionable.

She does helpfully go on to say that if we want to read warm-hearted sagas about second-generation immigration, Meera Syal is a wonderful novelist. Yes, Meera Syal is a wonderful novelist, but one person cannot tell the stories of an entire culture, which doesn’t even get into the point that Syal and Hussain are from two different cultures. (Meera Syal’s family comes from the Punjab; Nadyia Hussain’s from Bangladesh). It’s not inconceivable to think that Syal’s experiences will differ to Hussain’s.

Sometimes flipping an idea can help illustrate a point: how many light and entertaining books about a straight white girl who is disappointed in love, moves to a new location, takes up a new hobby/career, finds herself, and falls in love again should be published? Whose voice out of the many in that robust part of the market should we pick to highlight as the only one we are supposed to read?

The review reaches it’s peak when it says:

“I was hoping for insights into a culture I don’t understand as well as I’d like”.

To paraphrase several twitter conversations I had since the review went live: WHAT THE ACTUAL EVER LOVING FUCK?!
The implication that a book by a BAME author has to teach you about their culture is insulting. You cannot, I repeat CANNOT, bemoan that somebody hasn’t laid out their a culture and religion as exotic decoration and ‘learning experience’ for you.

Yes, a fiction book by a BAME author can teach me about a culture different from mine, but only in the way that a fiction book by an author from France might incidentally teach me about living in France or being French. Or a book by a Scottish author living in a castle can teach me about a life of privilege. The purpose of a fiction book is not education, it is entertainment, and if you go into it expecting education, rather than enjoying a book on its own merits, then you need to rethink your attitude and check your privilege at the door, not attack the author.

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is a book about second generation immigrant women by second generation immigrant women – not exactly common on the shelves or bestseller lists. The world didn’t exactly need another Jilly Cooper novel, or another James Patterson – but, because books are NOT the zero-sum game the reviewer claims, we got them. Here’s a thing: maybe this book isn’t for you. Shocker, I know, but not everyone wants to read the same books. Not everyone looks like you or enjoys the same things you do. Not every book is published with you as the intended reader.

I would ask Jenny Colgan – all of us – to think, for a minute, of the bespectacled child avidly reading in the library so lovingly described in the opening of the review and realise that they might be Black, or Asian, or mixed race. Or Gay, Bisexual, Transgender. Now tell me the type of book YOU’D publish to help them dream, help them realise that books might one day be their life? Perhaps an author with some degree of shared life experience is better able to show them that they are not alone and that there are other people in the world who are like them, who understand where they are coming from.

Simply put, I hope this book sells like hot cakes. I hope The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters goes to the top of the charts and stays there for ages. I hope Ayisha Malik made a deal that gets her a portion of the royalties and she earns lots of money and goes on to write even more books of her own. I hope the exposure she gets means her own titles get more readership. I hope Nadiya Hussain goes on to write more books, or cook things, or… whatever it is she wants to do with her life. I hope young girls and boys from BME/BAME backgrounds see these books and think “Hang on, I can do that too!” I hope people keep reading, that people keep talking, that soon the fact that I had to write this 2000+ word blog is no longer necessary.

But until that day? Diversity matters. Check your privilege. Listen to people who are different from you and stop expecting the world to only serve up products you like. Become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Don’t stop questioning. Use your privilege for good, to build people up and amplify the voices of people who are less fortunate.

And if you really want to read some more and educate yourself about the experiences of people who are different from you? Reading The Good Immigrant is a good place to start.

(This post was written after conversations with a couple of very intelligent and wonderful women – thank you. Cxxx).

In which I confess things about code

I have a confession and my confession is this:
I have a masters degree in computer science and am an out-and-proud geek, yet I couldn’t code my way out of a wet paper bag.
 
Ask me to use existing software to work out the viewshed analysis of an ancient Mesopotamian settlement, or display the pottery distribution of an Egyptian burial mound and I am *there*. I’ve even been known to set up the odd blog and website in my time, tinkering with templates and settings and what-have-you. I wrote this post using markup language to make certain words bold and create the hyperlinks and so forth.
 
But ask me to do anything more complex than working out why something isn’t displaying as italic on a webpage and I am lost. Honestly, anything more involved than coding a simple webpage (and let’s not forget using tables for layout was still an accepted practice when I learnt, gods help me) and I am stumped.

Suggest I create a computer programme from scratch? I will laugh and laugh at you. And then go hide under my desk hugging my MacBook, sobbing, feeling like a traitor to my geek-self.
 
Coding is a skill set I have just never learnt.

I’m clearly not scared of computers or technology and I have been playing with them since my father first brought one home in the late 80’s. I cut my geek-teeth on DOS and the C: prompt.

Somewhere along the way, however, I fell into the role of playing with (and frequently breaking!) the software that my brother coded. I became all about making existing software dance to my tune – learning what could be bent to do what was needed, and what you just had to work around because “it wasn’t built for that”. When faced with these limitations however, for some reason, I never thought “well, the tool I want doesn’t exist, so why don’t I just make my own?”

Which is crazy, when you think about it.

Because I am, first and foremost, all about learning the WHY. I have to figure out how things work and their underlying logic. It’s why I am constantly trying new things, picking up new hobbies. I am driven to understand how things are put together. So it would make sense, wouldn’t it, if I was to learn more about how the software I love playing with was coded and put together?

It’s not really because I doubt my ability. I’ve just… never learnt. Is that because I was never given the opportunity? Was it assumed that the boys would learn this stuff whilst the girls would just learn the touch-typing? Did I mentally just put this stuff into a “the things my brother does” box and move on to other things?

No matter.
 
2015 seems like the perfect time to change that. And Emma Barnes couldn’t agree more – her clarion call in the Bookseller lays out wonderfully all the reasons we should, every one of us, be reaching for that how-to guide. (Whilst Publishing-centric, the argument holds true for any industry really).
 
It really isn’t rocket science. Learn to code and you will be much better prepared to understand what is possible and to know when the tech-heads are having a laugh and taking you for a ride. You’ll be better placed to articulate what you actually want. You will be able to understand the limitations – certain things HAVE to be done certain ways because you decided things right at the beginning. Do ISBNs have 9, 10, or 13 digits, for example. Only code the capacity for 9 into your programme at the start and… Oops! Time and money to fix.

I’m not saying we all have to become professional coders and build our own Twitter, or version of Word, our own publishing platform, or a remote control that turns the kettle on in the morning three minutes before the alarm goes off so it’s boiling when I stumble into the kitchen…

(OK, someone has to build me that. NOW.)

I’m not saying you have to build a whole new thing from scratch. We can’t all be the ideas people and we can’t all have the desire, or quite frankly the time, to be the next Silicon Valley innovator. But in this day and age of open source, RaspberryPIs, and APIs, I do think we all need to educate ourselves and learn at least the basics.

Computers don’t scare me. Code, for some reason, does. A little bit. So here I will make my stand and say “Enough”. I will not be defeated Ruby, or Python, or Java, or (insert programming language here). I am reaching for the coding tutorials and I am excited about it.

I really am.

Who’s going to join me?

 

Social Media works – or how Tumblr made me buy a book

Let me set the scene. It’s a Monday, about 4:45 on a sweltering summer afternoon. It’s that time of day when you’re still working but the heat is starting to get to you, and your other colleague is leaving early, so you give yourself permission to take a five minute break and look on twitter and… The next thing you know it’s an hour later and you’ve only just managed to pull yourself out the Tumblr hole you fell into. Plus you’re £11 the poorer and payday is still a week away.

I blame Alana Whitman.

See, Alana retweeted this which lead to this, and the art was just so good (in particular this caught my eye), and I figured any author that inspires this much love and creativity in her fans might be worth a second glance.

So I followed the link-brick-road to Rainbow Rowell’s tumblr.

I don't know if hearts are coming out of my eyes, but they should be.

Along the way I got sidetracked by Tamora Pierce’s tumblr. Yes, Tamora Pierce has a Tumblr. The real Tamora Pierce. *Nods* Go, I’ll wait here whilst you go roll around in that glory like kittens in catnip.

Back to Rainbow Rowell and her rather awesome Tumblr.

It is the Tumblr of someone who is actively engaged with, and clearly passionate about, her readers and fans. I found her voice delightful, the things she reblogged made me smile, or think, or both. Her fans were witty, talented, and informed – it takes a solid talent to come up with this Hobbit/BBC News mashup. And (without struggling too hard, I will admit), I found myself in love with her world. Before I knew it, I’d followed yet another link and was buying a copy of her book, Fangirl. Not just any copy either, oh no. I was buying the fancy hardcover special edition. In all it’s pink glory (oh my gods, it’s so bloody PINK!)

Had I read a single word of the book before I purchased, like a sample chapter? No (beyond snippets in the fan-art). Has anyone I know read the book and recommended it to me? No.

I’ve gone on record about how I feel about book recommendations. Plus I really don’t like spending hard earned cash on a book I hadn’t even heard of an hour ago, let alone the fancy-pants hardcover when I could get more than 50% cheaper as an ebook without having to wait 2-3 days for delivery.

So what made me this time?

It all comes down to a masterful use of social media, in particular Tumblr. Without hammering me over the head with BUY ME!!!! messages, I was sold. There are no links at the bottom of each post asking me to buy the book. Yet I bought it.

As I said, a masterful use of social media, because I don’t think it was ever planned to be a masterful use of social media. It is genuine.

The cynic in me cries out that this could be a masterful use of social media by a very savvy PR team at the publishers. If this is the case, which I sincerely doubt BTW, my hats off to you. I don’t begrudge the sale.

Because people say social media is easy. People are wrong.

I have done the research!

Yes, the entry (and cost) points are low, but the only easy thing about it is how easy it is to do badly. It’s damn hard to maintain a group of followers, keep them entertained, engage in conversation, build a profile, all the while retaining a coherent voice and identity, let alone keeping a rabid fan-base happy. People have the online attention span of a brain injured goldfish these days.

It’s not just one blog post, or some tweets, or a facebook broadcasting updates. It’s building all of these, and other, tools into a constantly evolving web of conversation, across a multitude of channels. It’s grabbing my attention before I’m seduced away by the next Benedict Cumberbatch gif.

It’s luck. If I’d looked at tweetdeck 30 seconds later, I’d have missed the retweet that started everything.

To be good at social media (where good = building and maintaing an audience) you need to embrace both the permanence and impermanence inherent in the internet. What I tweet now is broadcast then forgotten, but people read on a time delay, they link to archived content, a conversation you thought closed suddenly spawns a new hydra-head. And you have to keep up with it all. It requires time, and energy, and is intangible because no one can possibly track what influenced a particular sale.

Unless it’s the sale to a slightly bonkers publishing blogger in Oxford, but that’s by the by.

It’s stupidly tricky to do an ROI (return on investment, yes I do know what I am talking about 😉 ) on a full social media campaign. You can try, with trackable urls and cookies and google analytics and other fancy thingamajigs, but there still comes a moment in a sales meeting when you have to justify sending 100 proofs to book bloggers on the off chance they might generate a sale or three.

Social Media is word of mouth. It’s the newsboy on the street corner shouting the headlines. It’s the Regency ladies in their drawing rooms a-twitter about the latest three volume novel. And it isn’t a campaign that you can give a month to and then focus on something else. Fangirl isn’t Rainbow’s current book, but if I like it I’m sure to buy her other stuff (power to the backlist!!!). Part of what makes her Tumblr, and Twitter, so engaging is that they have history. They’ve been active for a while. It’s safe to fall a little bit in love because you know they will be there in the morning.

You can’t quantify it. Ten tweets doesn’t equal one book sale. But sometimes one Tumblr post can.

(I didn’t start this post intending to rant about social media and marketing and communities, but that’s where I seem to have ended up. It’s clearly where my head is right now. )

Broken

I’m a little broken at the moment. My neurotransmitters have gone on safari without me and that old friend depression is kicking my butt, ably abetted by another old chum, Chronic Fatigue. Joy. I’m getting help, but I’m a little further down the rabbit hole than I like to be right now. I’m doing everything I need to be doing and I know that this too shall pass. Having been on this particular merry-go-round a few times before, I know this, which is bizarrely rather reassuring.

So I don’t write this to solicit sympathy.

Rather, I feel the need to explain why I am being a crap friend and human being right now. I’m ducking out of engagements, avoiding people, hermitting, making shit excuses for not doing things, not to mention ignoring people I actually care a lot about. There have been a fair few instances where I’ve made plans and then cancelled at the last minute. Not to mention the emails I have still to return. I am sorry. Some days are better than others and I just never know how a particular day will go. I honestly, sincerely, plan to follow through on the things I commit to. I’m just failing.

I hate failing.

Grrr. Silly body.

Bear with me, please, lovely people. Pretty please. I am working on restoring normal service, but part of that process is giving myself permission to be a bit pants at this whole “having a social life” stuff. I know it’s rather dull to ask “what did you do at the weekend?” and for me to respond every time with “slept, didn’t leave the house”. It is also mildly distressing that my most meaningful relationship right now is with my duvet and a giant penguin called Archibald. Then there’s my attention span. Brain injured goldfish have nothing on me. I’d like to be able to concentrate on something more complex than the plot of the latest Nora Roberts novel, but… Nope. Endless Gilmore Girls reruns is about all I can handle right now.

Here’s hoping things will return to an even keel soon, because if nothing else I don’t think my book group will agree to my literature choices much longer…

What can you do? Just be yourselves. After all, that’s why you’re in my life in the first place 😀

Just keep bringing the tea, keep asking me to do things, and please don’t be upset if I say no.

Oh, and make sure you step between me and any hairdressers or tattoo artists. If you let me get a buzz cut or more ink, I will not be amused.

Twitter, anonymity, and social networking

It hit me today; I have been using the name “Cas” for 13 years. What started out, longer ago than I care to remember, as an RPG character, has become so much more. In many ways it has become my “real” identity. I’ve talked about identity countless times before, so I’m not going to bore you with the detailed arguments again. (Though there are some gems in there, in particular this one, so do go read!).

However, identity is something I find myself reassessing a lot at the moment, with my current job getting my real name more online traction than I am perhaps totally comfortable with. Not being comfortable with my online presence is a new feeling for me. I have always been honest, occasionally brutally so, online. I share details about my life where other people might choose not to. This is how I live my life and it is how I have chosen to live my life. It is vitally important to me that both the bad and the good are talked about. The chances are, if I’ll talk about it over a cup of tea with friends, I will talk about it here on Bright Meadow. Sometimes I will sit on a topic for a while, but most things do get written about eventually.

I also tweet a lot as BrightMeadow.

Over the years I have developed the “Cas” personna into one I am comfortable with online and, in some contexts, offline. Cas is an adorable ditzy klutz with an abiding love of tea and penguins, who finds the humour in most situations, hides insecurity in a sarcastic wit, and who occasionally talks a little bit of sense about topics which interest her.

You would be forgiven for having the an impression that I am totally open about everything. I am not. I self-censor and editorialise constantly. Even though Bright Meadow and Cas are personal and real, everything I post is filtered through the fact that it is ridiculously easy to work out my real name. There are things I will NEVER talk about online, whatever the channel. Just as there are things I won’t talk about offline to anyone but the very closest people.

Most importantly for the purposes of this discussion, is that I do NOT use the Bright Meadow identity for work in any way. If you talk to me on twitter (or here for that matter), you are talking to Cas, not CLK or the company she works for. If you ask me something work related, I nicely, but firmly, direct you to my work email/twitter. I toyed with merging the two for a while, with being “open” about Bright Meadow, but I decided not to at the moment. There is just no way I could blog and tweet the way I do as Bright Meadow whilst retaining the professional air required for work. Most of the time I actually like the small amount of separation I have maintained – it is good that work and play are distinct.

The boundary between personal and work is blurry, but it is there and I know it. Before I say anything I always gut-check and, if doubt, I won’t publish. Yes, my tone is often frivolous, but it is always carefully considered. On the blog this might be obvious: the Girls & Geeks piece was rewritten 21 times, and languished in draft state for over a week before I pressed publish. This very post has been kicking around in my brain, and various draft states, for nearly two years. (That’s not even the longest – the dyslexia piece took five years). On twitter it is less obvious but trust me, every word and retweet is carefully considered.

I like to think this is partly what makes me so fun to talk to on twitter and has helped keep this blog going as long as it has.

That very longevity and success, however, has led to my current dilemma – the overlapping communities of followers I have. I have been using twitter since pretty much the start and as I have always been involved with publishing to one degree or another, a LOT of the people I follow and talk with are in that field. I am fortunate to work in an industry full of lovely, talkative people, who like to network just as much as I do. Such interlinking networks is a natural result of having work and your personal interests overlap as much as mine do. I’m not sure how to work any other way. The thing is, in the last year or so I have reached the point where the people I have been talking to for years as Cas, I need to connect with as CLK…

As mentioned above, I am firm on the personal/professional divide when it comes to social media. Not to mention it seems sort of skanky to try and trade on that connection – to go up to someone and go “Hi, we’ve been talking for years on Twitter, now I am going to ambush you for work”.

So not my style.

But it’s hard, really hard sometimes, when someone I class as a “friend-of-Cas” completely blanks CLK. More times than I care to admit I want to send them a message and go “but you love me!!!!” There are also times when I’m engaging online as Cas and get looked down on, when I want to whip out the CLK card and go “but you were asking my opinion yesterday!!!!!

Not to mention now every time I meet someone new (if they are in publishing), I have to decide if I want to trust them with the “real” identity behind Bright Meadow.

These aren’t issues unique to me, and I do not claim to have any answers. Nor is it exactly a question unique to social media, because we all have various negotiated identities and interlocking networks of connections, and have done since we first sat down round a fire and gossiped with our fellow cave-dwellers. What social media and our hyper-connected lives do is amplify those networks and give a perception of impermanence to what we say that masks their underlying permanence. A tweet is scrolled into oblivion within minutes, but its shadow remains in a Google cache forever. Where once we went home and could bitch to our family/friends about our coworkers, now we are all following each other on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and god knows where else and it is all too easy for words to have unintended consequences.

Once upon a time no one would have heard my opinions of that Women’s Hour programme but the colleague who was unlucky enough to phone me just after it aired. Thanks to the miracle of blogging and twitter, it got picked up and read by (among others) people I’d mentioned in the article… Gulp. All to the good, and knowing that was likely to happen did focus my writing REALLY well, but there were also arguments/evidence I couldn’t use because they fell on the wrong side of the Cas/CLK divide.

We are encouraged to open up, and share with everyone, but we often don’t think of the possible implications until they bite us in the bum. In one regard I am fortunate that I started the process of curating my online identity early and I am proud of what I have built. The flip side of that coin is that I have to be hyper-careful about what I say and yes, this has led me to being silent on certain topics and sometimes I have to build from scratch professional connections I already have personally. It is a small price to pay, I guess. I have drawn a line in the sand that (currently) works for me. It isn’t perfect and I can’t imagine that my solution will work for everyone/anyone else, but it is a compromise I can live with.

Side question – at what point does as pseudonym become a nickname?

Girls and Geeks in Publishing

I have a Master’s degree in computer applications. My thesis was on the dissemination of ideas and interactivity surrounding academic publishing. I have worked in a big publishing house. I have worked with app developers. I have always been interested in computers and software. I was five or six when I used to pay my brother 20p to teach me how to use DOS. I had a 2nd gen iPod before they were cool. I played online games when you had to use dial-up and lost everything when your mum picked up the phone to make a call. I play interactive stories written in 140 characters. There are few things I enjoy more than playing with new technologies.

I spend my days talking to, and working with, publishers, be they big, small or any size in between. I read trade magazines, I read the Bookseller, I read Wired and Gizmodo, I subscribe to more mailing groups and online forums than you can shake a moderately large stick at. I am a reader. I am consumer. I am a an author. I am friends with academics publishing scholarly articles. I am friends with authors publishing e-books and print books, and the publishers printing those books.

I can hand-code websites from scratch. I am a geek.

I think by any estimation it is safe to assume I know at least a little bit about what I am talking about.

By the way, I am a girl.

And I want to respond to some of the things said on the “Women in Publishing” Woman’s Hour programme on Monday 19th August.

It was an interesting show, and one I thoroughly recommend you listen to.

The main premise of the programme was to ask whether there are fewer women reaching the top in publishing in the digital age. Author Kate Mosse interviewed Ursula Mackensie on her role as Chief Executive of Little, Brown. She talked to Lennie Goodings, Publisher at Virago. She also had Clare Alexander (agent), Anne Sebba (author and chair of the Society of Authors) and Philip Jones (editor of the Bookseller) in the discussion. A lot of what was said was reassuring to hear – jobs going to the best people, regardless of gender.

At around 14:40 in the show, Philip Jones said (I paraphrase) “There is an argument that digital brings men to the fore… that men like gadgets more than women do”. He did go on to list several digital chiefs in big houses who are women, and states that he does not think women are being displaced because of digital. But his comments followed on from Clare Alexander saying (again I paraphrase) “there is a danger that publishers feel on the back foot, and in order to confront a digital world they need digital people, and publishing is in danger of defaulting to male and soldier mode”.

Firstly I want to address the comment “men like gadgets more“. Yes, Philip qualified his words to say he didn’t personally think this was true. However, on a daily basis I find that the perception in the industry is that it IS true, despite the fact that 80% of all tech decisions are influenced by women and around 50% of gamers are women. The number involved in creating technology, and devising the strategies to implement those technologies, is falling and this is just plain wrong.

What worried me, perhaps more than this comment being said by a very important voice in the industry, is that no one really challenged him on it (at least in the final edit of the show).

The wider discussion about the perceived need for the “warrior man” to take the publishing battle forward in this hostile new digital landscape also needs addressing. I need to focus my argument a little, so I won’t go into women in the armed services and the fact they are on the front lines as I write this, but I do want to draw your attention to the comment as I find it indicative of an entrenched belief that one gender or another has superior qualities in a particular arena, and taken to its logical conclusion, it implies women should step back and let the men take over and save us.

I want to be clear: whilst this particular comment was couched in a jokey “oh, we don’t really believe this” tone, it was still said by one of the illustrious, respected women on the panel. A leader in this industry thinks, at least in part, that we are damsels in distress, in need of the guidance of a strong male hand. Until this woman had given voice to the idea, I hadn’t actually given credence to the idea that a portion of my industry could believe Digital = Male.

Boys and girls are different and I thank the gods for that every day, because that is what makes life so much fun. But every single person is different, regardless of gender. Nor do I think the wider conversation should all be about women. It’s a joke that the average publishing person is a white, middle-class, Guardian reader called Emma, but we wouldn’t need bodies like EQUIP if it wasn’t also true. Publishing is probably 70:30 women at the lower levels.

But women, in general, are not the decision makers or the ones setting the tone of our industry. The upper echelons and decision makers are overwhelmingly male.

To get back to boys and girls and technology, I want to share a little anecdote. In my old Rights team, it was the boy who clung to his manuscripts, print copies, and physical colour print-outs to sell from, long after all the women had embraced the iPad and digital layouts to display our picture books on trips and at fairs. Yet I was at a conference a little while ago and there wasn’t a single woman on the tech panel. It isn’t that there are not women in technology. I can name many. It is that when putting together a panel, the default reaction seemed to be “technology = boys”.

It wasn’t even a very interesting panel.

I firmly believe the best person should get the job. That is a given. But time and again, I come across women who are reluctant to put themselves forward because they don’t feel good enough. We do not put our hands up and say “I can do that, I have something to say”. So jobs go to the people who do put themselves forward and, often, it’s the men.

I am NOT saying every techy role in publishing – or any other industry for that matter – needs to be filled with a woman. I am NOT saying every company needs a female CEO. All I am saying is that we need to take a long, hard look at our perceptions about what goes into a given role. There are perception battles that need to be fought across the industry. There are personal questions we all need to ask relating to what we think we can do.

Women might not be being actively displaced from the digital roles they currently hold, but I do think there is a very real danger that they will soon be missing out on the new opportunities that are coming through.

Comments
Comments are open because I think this is a topic which deserves people talking about it. Please, share your opinion below, but please do so respectfully. My full comment policy is outlined here, but boils down to the following: no spam and no meanness

Feel free to challenge me, question, or scold me, if you should so wish (praise is always welcome too), but try and do it without being too nasty. Let’s keep the conversation rolling 🙂

Further reading:
Women in Publishing
Equality in Publishing
Guardian article on Six ideas to get more women involved in the tech sector
Lady Geek
Report on Women’s Careers in the Technology Industry
Academic study finding the numbers of women in Science and Technology fields alarmingly low