By Jessica Saenger*, edited by Ben Steward. The ‘homocleansing’ of the Russian edition of Victoria Schwab’s Shades of Magic series offers a topical hook on which to hang the publishers’ dilemma about duty to authors and their duty to stay in business.
This month the hit American author tweeted her outrage at learning that her Russian publisher had ‘redacted the entire queer plot w/out permission’. She added: ‘I was absolutely horrified. Wouldn’t have known if not for a Russian reader who read both editions. Publisher in total breach of contract.’
There are two strands to Schwab’s indignation: the redaction – or censorship – and the manner of that redaction. Quite apart from normal contractual requirements, simple courtesy would dictate that any author deserves fair warning of significant plot changes, whatever the reason. If this didn’t happen here, then the publisher may well have infringed the author's moral rights and be in breach of contract. That is for Rosman and Schwab to work out, although unquestionably the writer is entitled to be upset at discovering by chance that her work had been mangled.
That said, Schwab would do well to take a breath and consider where best to direct her wrath.
Explaining itself in the business daily, Rosman admitted it had censored a romantic scene between two characters in the second book of the Shades of Magic trilogy ‘so as not to violate the law banning the propaganda of homosexuality among minors’. In other words, to avoid criminal liability and having the book wrapped in plastic and given an 18 rating in Russia – thereby losing a large chunk of Schwab’s target readership – the publisher did what the law wants and altered the offending scene. It is Russia’s oppressive gay propaganda law that lies at the root of the problem, not the publishers who obey it.
The law imposes fines and up to three years in prison for giving minors access to content in which gay relationships are treated as equivalent to ‘traditional’ relationships. When it passed in 2013, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Russia had violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
In addition, such laws also present a more insidious threat by passing the censorship buck to businesses, while the authorities can look uncompromising on conservative family values. And this law is well policed: the Kremlin uses it to create and maintain a sanitized mediascape where certain worldviews are illegal and only ‘right-thinking’ citizens have the right to self-expression. As well as being a deterrent to creativity, forcing publishers to do the policing puts an excessive burden of responsibility on them.
But the Shades of Magic case also raises other broader questions around copyright and licensing. It may be that this case is just the tip of a much larger iceberg, where systematic sanitization just goes unreported. If so, we have to ask ourselves where the line should be drawn. What problematic publishing behaviours may actually be justified to avoid a regulatory backlash? Does self-censorship play a part? What realities must publishers consider when negotiating rights deals in restrictive markets?
The questions are manifold, but two things at least are beyond doubt: trust is the basis of the publisher-author covenant, and freedom of expression is the bedrock of this industry. Protecting both of these is paramount.
Publishers and authors need to explore the issue in an open, collaborative way at international level. They should share lobbying strategies to challenge draconian laws and work together for legal environments that enable, not hinder, creativity. And they need to talk about the pressures, best practices, ethics and the realities of operating where freedom to publish is poorly protected without putting businesses or employees at risk.
The IPA is the optimal forum to drive forward this conversation, which will be in focus at our International Publishers Congress, in New Delhi, next February.