By Esa Grigsby
Using popular politics for marketing a political book makes sense. My last post referenced this when Macmillan expedited the pub date of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. It’s not clear what spurred this decision, but expediting the pub date was a political statement, a middle finger to Trump, whosetweets made his stance on the book’s value and relevance clear. By doing this, Henry Holt and Company caused a scene that exploded all over news outlets, causing Fire and Fury‘s name to pinball around the internet. Whether this move was an intentional marketing tactic or not, it still served as one, and elated Democrats and furious Republicans bought it in kind.
But what about using politics to market non-political books? How can publishers cash in on socio-political trends along with the rest of the world, without sacrificing authenticity? In the interest of keeping this post a manageable length, I’m going to focus on feminism; on the ways feminism is used to sell us things, and how publishers can accomplish authenticity rather painlessly. This is an amazingly complex issue and this blog post can’t delve into it all, but the links in here should lead you down an endless rabbit hole that I’m just now leaving behind me, for a little bit, for my mental health.
The issue of authenticity arises because using feminism to market a book including a strong female character doesn’t necessarily tell us what the book is about. All it does is tell us that the book is filling a gaping hole in the literary canon, a term that refers to all the books in the world. The canon, according to the Women’s National Book Association is predominantly populated with cis, white males. Basically, the politics of Wolff’s book and the politics that helped sell it have the same content and message. Feminism and a fiction book featuring a strong female character do not. While the book becomes a tool for feminism by providing girls with a role model, the book is bereft of the politics and theory that spurr the movement—references to these happen inexplicitly and in the background of the story’s narrative. So, for example, the Hunger Games trilogy has feminist themes but isn’t necessarily about feminism.
In fourth wave feminism , this is where companies can get themselves in trouble. In an interview, Everyday Sexism Project founder Laura Bates states that if a company uses the fact that feminism is #trending to advertise their products—if they “femvertise”—they must also make sure that the products themselves have the “principle of equality at heart,” or, at the corporate level, “embody that message by acting internally on issues from equal pay to parental leave.” Show us you actually care.
A non-literary example of this femvertising pitfall is Unilever’s Dove beauty products. The Real Beauty campaign focuses on women on an individual level, leaving viewers with a “feel good” message of empowerment. However, as Bitch Magazine co-founder Andi Ziesler mentions in an AdAge interview, Dove’s parent company, Unilever, also contains the company Fair and Lovely, which sells skin-lightening cream in South Asia. Ziesler says that if companies aren’t accountable on a systemic level, ads like Real Beauty “aren’t progress, they’re pandering.” Nosheen Iqbal of The Guardianseconds this statement, while adding the fact that this type of femvertising, which appeals to the individual, is easy to perpetuate with shares and likes and you-go-girl comments on social media. This is likely why advertisers like it; going viral means more visibility for their product. But it forgets that the root of the issue is systemic. So, by holding different values in its separate companies, Unilever is blatantly showing us that they don’t care about empowering women, they care about making money, and it just so happens that feminism sells in the States and perpetuating the idea that lighter skin is more beautiful sells in South Asia.
The individual attention and the feel-good messages are examples of good advertising, and companies shouldn’t be punished for good advertising. The problem arises when their values don’t line up with their ads.
In publishing, Henry Holt and Company made a political statement by expediting the pub date of Wolff’s book, thereby aligning themselves with a liberal, and therefore feminist, audience. However, Henry Holt is also scheduled to publish Bill O’Reilly’s newest book in the fall. For those who have forgotten, Bill O’Reilly was fired from Fox News—a conservative news outlet—for numerous sexual harassment claims against him by women. Henry Holt is standing by their man, (their cash cow), and his newest book is being published in September.
Publishing, an industry that’s 80 percent female, has the potential to push back on this superficial femvertising, but systemic sexism is present here as well. Although women make up 80 percent of the workforce, they hold only 49 percent of managerial positions. This is why women dominate the Indie publishing scene; they’re fed up with trying to claw their way to the top and are taking off on their own to create the type of work environment they want. Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press shows how feminism can be incorporated at a systemic level. “If men are putting things into the world that I don’t want to forward, I will say that we are a women-run press, I’m not interested, and here’s why. I don’t know if that changes their perspectives on submitting to a women-run press, but it’s an opportunity I have to use my voice and say, ‘This is not okay with me.’” It should go without saying that as publishers, we must make sure that our mission, our books, and our best practices line up with our advertising if we wish to be taken seriously. Forest Avenue Press does this, Henry Holt and Company does not.
Is it surprising that Forest Avenue Press’s Publisher is a woman, while Henry Holt’s president and publisher is male? Not at all.