Sexual Harassment: Books -- Our report on the state of the publishing industry

Book publishing isn’t all Harris tweed and horn-rims — sometimes it’s every bit as tawdry as a Jacqueline Susann novel. While hanky-panky is not part of the job description for young women, most in the business agree that it’s a common fact of bookish life. Not all men in publishing, of course, are guilty of harassment — far from it. But the fact is that publishing is still a man’s world — although women constitute over half the work force, most never break the middle-management barrier, and Putnam’s Phyllis Grann is the only woman president-CEO of any major New York publishing house. So men still make the rules — and the passes.

”If you’re a man, and you’re in publishing,” says the female managing editor of one publishing house, ”it’s like being in a giant grocery store, surrounded by all this food, and being told by other men, ‘Take whatever you want.”’

Some fairly prominent male bosses are neither genteel nor subtle about the taking, either. The president of one of the largest houses regularly paws his young female staff at office parties. A famous nonfiction author makes lewd phone calls to publicity assistants, with his inventive suggestions for extracurricular activities. One publisher regularly addresses his female employees as ”c—.” And in the executive suites of at least two major publishing companies, fold-out sofas are the favored piece of furniture.

”Let’s just say there’s an enormous amount of ‘arbiting’ going on in the sexual arena,” says an assistant at one of the largest houses. ”It’s where the power politics get played out.” A female editor is even more explicit. ”If an editor is sleeping with a boss, she’s in the spotlight,” this woman says. ”She gets to buy the books she wants. And her books get attention.” And if she spurns the boss’ sexual advances? ”Then she can forget it,” the editor says flatly.

There are even repercussions for women who don’t play the game. ”Fear of losing your job is not the only form of sexual harassment,” notes another female editor. ”These women are gossiped about and they’re the object of unpleasant office scuttlebutt. They’re humiliated.”

Things could be worse — in fact, they once were. Says one 25-year industry veteran, ”It used to be if you wanted to work in publishing, you had to be prepared to play by the unwritten rule: Sleep with thy boss.” These days, she says, a young woman might get harassed-but it’s highly unlikely that she’ll be handed a ”put out or get out” ultimatum.

One harassed 30-year-old editor, a woman who says she was ”pinched on the butt and told to wear shorter dresses and higher heels” as an assistant, is plotting the ultimate revenge. ”I’m writing a publishing roman a clef,” she says, though she adds, ”I’m going to have to wait till I leave the business before I publish it — otherwise I’d be out of a job.”