Pick up any book at the bookstore: more than likely it was commissioned, edited, proofed, designed by women. In fact, the United Kingdom publishing industry is made up of an estimated 50%-70% women. Until Helen Fraser retired in 2009, the biggest three publishers in the UK by market share had women in top senior roles: Helen Fraser, Managing Director of Penguin UK; Gail Rebuck, CEO of Random House; and Victoria Barnsley, CEO of Harper Collins. The industry is no longer populated by autocratic pipe-smoking gentlemen in tweeds and well turned-out girls in pearls. Rebuck, Fraser, and Barnsley are a world away from either of those gender stereotypes associated with earlier 20th-century publishing.

Yet, pick up a book on the history of the publishing industry, again probably published by a female-dominated publishing house, and you’ll find it strangely lacking in references to book women. An outsider to the industry would never guess that most “book people” are book women.

Men such as book historians Robert Darnton and John Feather espouse theories that justify an inclusion of women in the history of books, and yet, this history remains to be written. Meanwhile, feminist book historians have focused on feminist publishing to the exclusion of women in the mainstream.

Understanding gender as an aspect of book history

Arguably the most influential theory of book history in recent years is Robert Darnton’s communication circuit, “a general model for analyzing the way books come into being and spread through society” (Darnton 2006, p.10). This continuous cycle illustrates the relationships between the various agents involved in the life of a text, with complexities of interdependence and influence. Darnton argues that the book as an historical object cannot be fully understood without taking all of these agents into account. The agents include authors, publishers, readers, and distributors.

Figure 1.1 Robert Darnton’s communication circuit (2006)

This understanding of the book as manifestation of a complex network of influencing factors is central to book history. A comprehensive understanding of all of the factors involved would require a cross-disciplinary approach to researching an infinitely-expanding web of complexities, which causes Darnton to describe book history as “interdisciplinarity run riot” (Darnton, quoted in Vander Meulen 2003, p.171).

Murray accepts the “interdependence and dialectical tension between the book industry and larger societal context,” which defines Darnton’s model and others like it (Murray 2004, p.14). However, she argues that Darnton’s model is “mono-gendered” and Feather’s A History of British Publishing (1988) is typical in its “total omission of gender as a differential in the publishing equation across 500 years” (Murray 2004, p.10). Similarly, Travis states that book historians have “lagged behind when it comes to theorizing gender” (Travis 2008, p.276). Murray also states that Darnton has failed to notice that gender plays a “determining role at every stage of his [Darnton’s] communications network” (Murray 2004, p.14). As Murray points out, Darnton chooses as a case study an eighteenth-century text (2004, p.14), allowing him to discuss “bookmen” (Darnton 2006, p.11), thus avoiding gender altogether.

Problematically, Murray’s model is specific to feminist publishing, and so it remains that gender has yet to be made an explicit factor in the circuit. As Travis argues that “talk about women is not necessarily talk about gender” (Travis 2008, p.275), it can also be said that talk about feminist publishing is not necessarily talk about either gender or women.

Like Murray, I took Darnton’s model as my starting point. Unlike Murray, I attempt to look at mainstream publishing and the industry as a whole.

A change of gatekeeper

The publisher is the decision maker, the manager, the enabler, who provides the link between author and reader. In the contemporary UK publishing industry, it is most often the publisher who links the author to distributors, printers, booksellers, and suppliers, in addition to providing the necessary capital, editorial services, sales, and marketing, as well as identifying and defining readerships (Clark & Phillips 2008). It is the publisher who allows the author access to the publishing process. Although there are many people within a publishing company who could be defined as, or represent, the publisher, the ultimate choice and responsibility rests with those at the top of the hierarchy. Until at least 1970, those at the top were almost exclusively men (Baird-Smith 1999). However, this has changed dramatically in the past forty years.

In Feather’s approach to publishing history, in A History of British Publishing (2006), he acknowledges the validity of the balanced and circuitous nature of models for understanding book history, such as Darnton’s communication circuit. However, he writes that “[t]he publisher— whether a person or a company” is central to the publishing process, and should therefore be the focus of a history of publishing (Feather 2006, p.3). Although Spender uses different terms and writes from a different and arguably more political perspective than does Feather, her concept of “gatekeeping” (Spender 1983, p. 25) stems from the same awareness, which causes Feather to place the publisher at the centre of his model.

For Spender the gatekeeper’s choices are political, but Brewer paints them as far more whimsical, depending upon the “personal interests and sympathies” of the individual publisher (Brewer 2006, p. 323). In either case, the publisher’s choice to allow the author access to the publishing process is subjective. Either way, the gender of the publisher could alter the nature of those personal and political judgements, which is of particular interest if it is agreed that the publisher, as gatekeeper, is key to the communication circuit.

Further, Bourdieu’s concept of the struggle for the monopoly of power which dictates literary legitimacy (Bourdieu 2006, p.100) is a struggle for the position of power that the gatekeeper holds. If the gatekeeper’s nature changes significantly, for instance in terms of age, class, or gender, then literary legitimacy will be differently determined, and the gates will be differently guarded. Thus, the publisher can be seen as central to the models of Spender, Brewer, Bourdieu, and Feather, and the publisher in a position of considerable power.

Unfortunately, despite historians’ obvious awareness of the central role of the publishers, little research exists on how the industry may have changed in the light of a large amount of this power being in female hands for the first time.

A model for understanding the impact of women in the publishing workplace

Whilst it may be true that Darnton does not make explicit the impact of gender on the communication circuit and chooses to discuss a period when women played a far smaller role in the publishing process, Feather limits his discussion of women in the industry in the period 1970-2010 to a cursory paragraph on feminist publishing (Feather 2006, p. 206). None of the theorists, from Adams & Barker to Vander Meulen, has specifically addressed gender—it is an influencing factor implicit in all approaches. Although none has chosen to directly address gender, they have provided frameworks that incorporate it, perhaps not consciously, but with an awareness of the great number of complexities at play, which theoretically include everything from the psychological profile of the bookseller to the gender of the printer.

Masculine and feminine qualities can be found in almost equal measure in men and women (Claes 1999), so to measure the impact of a masculine versus a feminine approach would not be to measure the impact of a rise of the number of women in publishing. Rather, the question is whether the industry has been affected by its being run by people who do not support (in that they do not benefit from) the patriarchal agenda and who have different tastes and interests from the typical publisher.

This applies not just to gender, but also to race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and so on: anything which could be seen as a deviation from the straight-white-male norm. These factors have not been made explicit as categories of analysis in these models because “[c]atergories of analysis are not analytically neutral” (Boydston 2008, p. 558). They reflect the historian’s personal interests, and their absence may signal that something ‘has been missed or suppressed’ (Boydston 2008, p. 560). In this case, the absence of gender reflects the male-dominated nature of the field of book history, and, until recently, the publishing industry; in a mono-gendered world; gender is not a differential. Publishing, however, and therefore its history, is certainly no longer mono-gendered. If gender can be understood as “a key field of experience for both men and women” (Boydston 2008), understanding that men are as gendered as women, then gender can be seen as relevant to all, and therefore an essential element of a theoretical framework for understanding publishing history.

However, to theorize gender as an aspect of book history does not require a new model of book history, but rather research can be based on existing models. The rise to between 50% and 70% women working in the publishing industry can be viewed from two perspectives: both as a socio-political change which has had an influence on the industry, and as a change in the central player in the publishing process.

In order to make explicit the role of publisher as gatekeeper, whilst maintaining the circuitous nature of the communication circuit and the relationships and influences within the circuit, a minor revision of Darnton’s circuit is required. (See figure 1.1). Rather than placing the author in an equal position to the publisher, the author is placed behind the publisher, outside of the circuit, showing the dependency of the author on the publisher for access to the circuit. A line has been added between the author and reader in order to illustrate the direct relationship between the two, and a line from reader to publisher to illustrate the circuitous process of feedback implicit in the entire circuit. Importantly, the publisher is at the top of the cycle, signifying the role of manager or overseer. This makes explicit the role and the relevance of the nature of the “one agent at the centre of the cycle” (McCleery 2002, p. 163). (See figure 1.2).

Where publishing historians have failed is not in providing a theoretical framework for understanding the influence of workplace demographics, but in applying their theories to arguably the most significant internal change in the publishing industry in the late twentieth century next to conglomeration.

Figure 1.2 Revised communication circuit

General neglect

Neither Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to the History of the Book (2009) nor Feather’s A History of British Publishing (2006) dedicates more than a page to women in the publishing workplace in the latter part of the twentieth century. Feather merely writes, in a section on diversity in publishing in the period:

Women had played a part in the book trade since the seventeenth century, and women were important as buyers and borrowers of books, especially for certain kinds of “library fiction” such as romance and historical novels. Publishing houses had female employees, but usually in comparatively lowly positions, even though they might be more influential than their status suggested. (Feather 2006, pp. 205-206)

Here, Feather is referencing a period prior to that of the main focus of the section. Despite implying that something has changed, he does not go on to explain how or why. This contradicts his assertion that the publisher should be the focus of publishing history— he suggests that a demographic change of a political and social nature has taken place, that the nature of the publisher and publishing company has altered due to social and political factors, yet he gives women credit only for feminist publishing, which is a small part of the UK publishing industry.

In addition, The Oxford Companion to the Book (2010), which has been described as saying “something about almost everything that matters in the world of writing, printing, publishing and book-collecting” (Malcolm 2010), contains no reference to feminist publishing or women in publishing in its index, excepting one reference to the Women in Publishing organization and one to Virago Press. This is representative of the neglect which Hemmungs Wirtén (2009) and Murray (2004) write.

Theories of book and publishing history, however, do clearly justify the inclusion of a study of the effects of workplace demographics in publishing histories covering the period in question; the impact of such a massive internal shift is more about just individual publishers and cannot be dismissed until it has been more thoroughly researched.

An anxious gentleman

Although Feather generally avoids the term “gentleman publisher,” he does seem to mourn his death. He writes of the vulnerability of tradition and of the family business, and lauds the generation, which revitalized the publishing industry in post-war Britain (Feather 2006, p. 210). This was the last generation of the archetypal gentleman publisher, such as Allen Lane and Mark Longman, who were the last in line of a long generation of Longman men. Whilst he accepts the weaknesses of a system dependent on heirs and inheritance, he does describe the man in charge as the “driving force,” who, in general publishing, aimed to promote “a cause or interest without actually losing money” (Feather 2006, p. 206). He writes about the dying off of these family businesses in relation to conglomeration, in that a “commercial revolution with deep political roots” meant the end of this type of publisher and publishing. Historic names in publishing, passed down from father to son, of which he describes Longman as an “outstanding example,” become ‘merely’ imprints which served the purpose of a mega-corporation” (Feather 2006, pp. 200-222).

For Feather, conglomerates represent not only an attack on the family business and the patrilineal principles of inheritance and tradition, but also an attack on Britishness (Feather 2006, pp. 208).

The sentimentalization of the gentleman’s occupation is explicitly a reaction to conglomeration and globalization. However, the particular focus on the men of the period and the patriarchal traditions which supported them suggests that the feminization of the publishing workplace may have contributed to the negativity about the current publishing industry. There is perhaps an underlying anxiety regarding a change of gatekeeper. This sentimentality is by no means unique to Feather: the dying off of the gentleman publisher, the beginning of the age of monopolies and mergers, and rise of the number of women working in publishing out with the typing pool are often interconnected in histories of publishing.

For instance, to Steel it meant the end of  “a world where employees, particularly women, had to know their place’ (Steel 2010). Like Feather, he connects this “gentlemanly institution” with Britishness. In addition, Baird-Smith, in his Lament for Publishing, celebrates the “towering individuals” who ran publishing houses, “autocratic men, often but not always people with literary passion and wide culture” (Baird-Smith 1999): the ultimate and most trustworthy gatekeeper. He adds that in the 1960s, prior to the “gobbling up” of British firms, publishing staff were either gentlemen or players, the players always being addressed as Mr… (Baird-Smith 1999). Clearly this description does not include the “fleet of girls from Roedean and Sherbourne,” who treated publishing as a “finishing school” (Baird-Smith 1999).

Overall, the picture of publishing prior to 1970 is painted as quintessentially British, traditional, patriarchal, and almost selfless in its efforts to publish quality literature. Most significantly, it is painted as being run by autocratic, cultured, and characterful men, supported by girls in pearls. Sentimentality for the time before conglomeration cannot be separated from sentimentality for an industry that revolved around a few patriarchs, where the gentlemen and the girls knew their respective places. To laud the era of the gentleman publisher is surely as much a comment on the feminization of the publishing industry as it is on conglomeration.



Book and publishing historians have not yet written of the impact of women in the mainstream publishing workplace; rather, a predominant interest has been the mergers and conglomeration which characterized the publishing industry in the second half of the twentieth century, which is often coupled with nostalgia for the patriarchal and patrilineal nature of publishing pre-1970. This is despite the implicit acceptance by a number of prominent historians, such as Robert Darnton and John Feather, of the ways in which political, social, and economic factors influence the publishing process and its products, of which the feminization of the publishing workplace is a significant example in the period in question.

However, an incorporation of existing theories of and approaches to book history does suggest a way forward in qualifying, and eventually quantifying, that impact. My intention is not to dismiss the work that has gone before, but rather to expose “flaws and fallacies in previous research” (Colgan & Francis 1991, p.16), with an aim to moving towards an understanding of the impact of women in publishing to be incorporated into the existing body of work. Finally, it is intended that the revised communication circuit, which incorporates various theories and approaches, will be useful in understanding not only gender in the publishing workplace, but also race, ethnicity, class, and so on.

To justify a study of the impact of a change of workplace demographics in the UK publishing industry, the revision of Robert Darnton’s communication circuit combines the concept of gatekeeping with the accepted wisdom of a publishing circuit, which is influenced by a number of external factors. This revision illustrates the role of the publisher as central to the publishing process, and highlights the ways in which gender—either the gender of the gatekeeper, or gender as an external influencing factor—could influence the publishing process. It is hoped that this revised communication circuit will provide a useful framework for further research into the impact of women in the publishing workplace, as well as for research into other demographic changes in the industry.


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