Since we launched in February 2020, a growing number of writers have come to us for advice and support – Gillian Philip, Julie Burchill, Helen Joyce, Allison Pearson and Holly Lawford-Smith – and around 300 authors have now joined as members. It’s becoming increasingly clear that freedom of expression is under severe pressure within the literary world, with publishers and literary agents often failing to defend their authors when their speech rights come under attack.
Two of the FSU’s ongoing cases highlight some of the biggest threats that writers face in an increasingly politicised literary landscape.
Sibyl Ruth worked for the literary agency Cornerstone as an editor, purportedly on a self-employed basis, until she was dismissed for tweeting lawful and innocuous gender-critical views. With the FSU’s help, she’s now filed a claim for discrimination and is currently preparing for an upcoming hearing.
In the publishing industry, self-employment and/or temporary contract work of this kind is rife and, as Sibyl’s case demonstrates, empowers employers to side-step employment protections. As the author Nick Tyrone pointed out in Spiked recently, the fact that so many authors are getting “openly ripped off” and left with few if any workers’ rights, is becoming a “major problem” in the publishing industry.
Whether writers like Sibyl are contractually employed is therefore an important question of law, as without such status they don’t benefit from employment legislation preventing unfair dismissal. If the FSU can take a case like Sibyl’s to court and get a ruling that ‘self-employed’ authors are in fact workers, it will be of ground-breaking importance for pay and conditions in the industry.
And not just for pay and conditions, because when publishers designate freelancers and other precariously employed people as ‘independent’, they don’t just “rip them off”, as Nick Tyrone puts it – they also gain the power to silence them. The ruling handed down in Maya Forstater’s Employment Tribunal last year established that gender critical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act 2010, but that judgement is rendered meaningless if gender critical authors like Sibyl Ruth can simply be described as ‘contractors’ and deprived of its protections.
Similar issues are at stake – and capable of legal resolution – in the case of former children’s author and gender critical feminist Gillian Philip.
With the generous help of FSU supporters, Gillian last year began a legal claim for unlawful discrimination against her former publishers, Working Partners and HarperCollins, on the grounds that they terminated her contract to write children’s books because she stood up for JK Rowling on Twitter. She convinced the Employment Tribunal that her claim for discrimination was submitted in time, but lost on her claim that book packager Working Partners employed her as a ‘worker’ rather than a ‘contract writer’ and therefore wasn’t entitled to protection under the Equality Act 2010.
Gillian now has leave to appeal that judgement in the Employment Appeal Tribunal, with a hearing scheduled for September 2023. A win would be a game changer – across the UK, the publishing industry would be required to treat assembly-line writers as ‘employees’, with all the attendant employment protections and protections against unlawful discrimination that follow.
It’s time these high-handed employment tactics of the UK publishing industry were challenged, and the FSU is proud to be leading the charge in the fight to defend the legal rights of thousands of precariously employed people who make their living through creative expression.
We hope that as many authors as possible will join the FSU, whether to protect themselves, to defend their peers or to build a public voice capable of putting the case for freedom of expression as robustly as possible, and to that end we’ve set up a Writers’ Advisory Council. If you know of anyone that might be interested in this offer, please do direct them to this page.