“When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.” Ian McEwan, The Guardian
Linen Press exclusively publishes women’s writing under our banner ‘for women, by women’. I’m frequently asked why. The question is posed with genuine interest and curiosity. Or bemusement. I’ve been accused of running a sexist press and told I’m backing a loser. One of my own authors occasionally broaches the topic of allowing entry to males. I’m sticking to my guns. Linen Press a tiny indie with a passion for women’s writing and will continue as what the trade dismissively describes as ‘a niche market’. This put-down is wide of the mark since 80% of fiction in the US, UK and Canada is bought and read by women. Book groups and literary bloggers are almost exclusively female.
The assumption behind the questions is that by cutting out male writers, I have thrown away my chances of publishing a best seller or a massive crowd pleaser. Men write those. I concede that the statistics are not favourable. While women read books written by men, men do not reciprocate so I’ve lost a lot of readers before I start. This may be a knock-on effect of a predominance of male authors being taught in schools (have a look at the reading lists) so that generations of school kids grow up thinking men write ‘important books’ – early impressions that are reinforced by the a very uneven meting out of the glittering prizes and the reviews by ‘serious’ or popular book editors. The numbers speak for themselves:
- 22% of the authors shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non Fiction in the past decade have been women. 30% of winners have been women
- Prior to the Orange prize, 11% of the authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize were women
- 38% of the authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the past decade have been women
- 4% of winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature have been women
- 30% of the winners and 32% of those shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award n the past decade have been women
- 25% of books reviewed by established national newspapers are by women.
I know the odds are against women writers, but it doesn’t worry me one bit. It’s a challenge. And recently women have been pushing through; Hilary Mantel has twice won the Booker award and best sellers by women are stacked on the shelves: Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games.
So yes, there are financial risks but against them I weigh the rewards of working closely with accomplished women writers. I edit meticulously, chapter by chapter, line by line, batting sections back and forth over months, developing a rewarding professional intimacy both with my authors’ prose and with the women who write it. The husband of one of my authors died a few days after we started working on her novel. Several weeks later my father died. There was a constant undertow of grief and grieving as we re-shaped the prose, and I believe the novel is better for it. We trusted one another. We allowed expressions of personal emotion into the editorial commentary in our frequent emails. Would I achieve this level of intimacy with male authors, an intimacy which opens the way to a deep, genuine and candid discussion of the writing?
My role model is The Women’s Press, established in 1978, but no longer in business. Gone are the days when I walked into book shops knowing I’d find a separate stand with the striped spines of The Women’s Press on one side and the green covers of Virago on the other. I worked with MD Kathy Gale for seven years on three projects and understood that the press thrived because famous, award-winning authors remained loyal – Alice Walker, May Sarton, Stevie Davies, Janet Frame and others – because they believed in the ethos and integrity of the press, and respected Kathy’s amazing editing skills. From the proceeds of book sales from their high profile authors, The Women’s Press championed writers from unusual ethnic backgrounds, and experimental and lesbian writers who, in the 1970s and 1980s, were still a small minority and so a bigger risk for a publisher. I’m hoping for the same kind of loyalty from Linen Press authors who may be heading for fame. The biggest risk for me is desertion to a bigger publisher after I have invested my skills and energy, my time and finances, and the efforts of the whole Linen Press team, but so far all but one of my authors remain fiercely loyal. The exception recently left us. I had picked up her novel because it had a good concept even though the efforts of a high profile agent had failed to place it. I re-structured and re-wrote it over four months, gave it coherence and polished the vocabulary. Then came a lucrative serialisation contract and Linen Press was coerced into handing over all rights. Without legal fire power, I had to comply.
Yes, there are risks but I believe we will publish that best seller and we will be granted that starry award. I want it because a Linen Press author has written a superbly crafted, emotionally engaging book and deserves the recognition. And I want it because the limelight of publicity will shine vicariously on the other gifted authors on my list. That limelight depends on my judgement of submitted manuscripts, my skills as an editor, and above all else, my authors’ exceptional talent. I am very optimistic.
Lynn Michell writes and runs Linen Press, a small indie publishing house for women writers. It’s a fine balancing act but ever since she saw Elvira Madigan, she’s secretly wanted to be a tight rope walker.
Her previous 14 books are published by HarperCollins, Longman and The Women’s Press and include an illustrated writing scheme for schools and Shattered, a book about living with ME. The books closest to her heart are fiction: Letters To My Semi-Detached Son and her debut novel, White Lies, set in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau uprising. Her next novel, Run, Alice, Run, a wicked retort about the invisibility of middle-aged women, is published in April 2015 by Inspired Quill.
When not writing or editing, you’ll find her building a house and moving rocks to create a landscape in an oak clearing high above a small village in southern France. Hands on.