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Publishers acting swiftly on books tainted by sexual harassment

by | Apr 3, 2018 | Sexual Harassment


“It’s a pretty tumultuous time,” one literary agent commented to the New York Times. “It’s hard to get it right all the time, but I do think people understand now that these situations are more often about power, and not about sex.”

If they do, it may be the result of the #MeToo movement. That movement has had a remarkable effect on America, changing the game in many instances of alleged sexual harassment or misconduct. The effect has cascaded through industries including entertainment, journalism, government and finance — and now book publishing.

Last month, a novelist named Anne Ursu wrote an article calling out sexual harassment in children’s publishing. That led to accusations appearing online, often anonymously, against prominent male authors. Ursu says she has heard from about 100 women in children’s publishing who say they’ve experienced harassment.

“We are losing talent because of this,” she said, “and we need to find a way to privilege the women who have been hurt over the men who make publishing houses a lot of money.”

That may be more likely in publishing than in other fields because women dominate the industry. According to the Times, women make up about 80 percent of those working in the field. However, authors are typically not the employees of their publishing houses, which makes it harder to hold them accountable.

Nevertheless, after the outpouring of complaints, a number of authors lost their agents, their book deals, or both. For example, Penguin Press dropped a book project involving disgraced journalist Mark Halperin. Ballentine canceled a contract with James Dashner, author of “The Maze Runner” series, after several women accused him of sexual harassment. Jay Asher, author of “Thirteen Reasons Why,” was dropped by his agent after a number of online sexual harassment and misconduct complaints.

Some publishers use “author conduct” clauses in their contracts to let them void deals when authors are caught committing misconduct. Others feel it is not their place to police authors’ morals. Still others feel that pulling existing books from the shelves amounts to censorship.

Canceling contracts and book deals is costly, but many feel it’s worth it to support the #MeToo movement. Moreover, many in the industry worry that books won’t do well in today’s climate if they are associated with someone involved in sexual harassment.

Ultimately, the #MeToo movement may be transforming the industry.

“Apparently no industry is exempt from the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and misogyny,” said an associate publisher and editorial director at Charlesbridge. “We want the children’s publishing world to be a safe and equitable space.”

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