Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Gender in the Publishing World

(there will be many generalisations in today's post, I realise there are exceptions to every rule, and that people are individuals first, categories second . . . but today I am afraid I will be indulging in generalities. My apologies.)

Today I wanted to ask a question that's been on my mind a lot lately:

how big a role do you think gender plays in the world of books?

This is a broad question and meant to be. There are so many different levels on which one can discuss this topic. And it of course depends on your role in this world, there is a different perspective from each area: publisher, agent, author, reader . . .

For example, as an author, I often wonder whether men (or I suppose boys in my case with my audience) are put off reading a book with a female author's name obviously at the bottom. I know lots of boys read JK Rowling, but there was a reason her publisher suggested she use her initials only. Not only did they hope to widen her potential market, they also felt that because her main character was a boy, it was the best way not to alienate that audience.

I have to say that I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of boys who read Alex and really enjoy it. We are told often that boys will not read a book with a female protagonist, and I actually had a boy the other day look at me in shock when I mentioned Alex was a girl. This boy had already read the book, in which I say often that Alex is a girl, and yet I suppose because it isn't about the fact that she is a girl, that she isn't particularly "girly", whatever that is, he actually forgot he was reading about the opposite gender and saw her more as an "everyman" (everywoman?) kind of character. Something, I must be honest, that was indeed one of my goals with the book, so I am immensely pleased. But at the same time, does this mean that if I write a "girly" protagonist I will lose the boys who so enjoyed my other books simply on that fact alone?

As a reader . . . I have noticed that a novel written by a woman that centres around romance (though isn't necessarily a Romance Novel), tends to be shuffled aside as "chick lit", while similar novels by men are categorised as general fiction, and tend to be treated with a bit more respect. I have also noticed that men keen on writing Romance Novels feel a need to change their names to appeal to that audience as well. I have also heard tell of men being frustrated with an industry and audience that is predominantly female, and that the male audience/POV isn't always taken into consideration.

This disparity between the genders seems to exist in every genre. Agent Kristin Nelson wrote in her blog post entitled Dad Wisdom & Publishing:

"From my personal experience (and I really can only speak from that perspective), I truly believe that for literary fiction, it’s much easier to sell boy writers than gals. I know. Who can possibly make such a general statement but I have to say that I’ve encountered several worthy manuscripts that I’m rather convinced that if the writer had been male, the novel would have sold."

She also wrote another very interesting blog entry about the genders entitled PW Survey Says about the differences between genders within the publishing industry itself (an industry, one will note, that is heavily female).

And I find it all so distinctly odd. I do think that there are certain types of fiction in which, for whatever reason, certain genders prefer to write, but if someone from the opposite gender has done a decent job of it in their "wrong" genre, why shouldn't they be allowed the same chances and same level of respect for it? And why is it that two people can write a very similar story, and be shuffled off into totally different categories?

On a personal level I have met some interesting reactions with being a woman who is also funny. Many people (usually men - again generalisation) simply refuse to believe at first that I am as funny as I wind up being in my writing. Even in person I have had men look at me in total shock and say, "Actually you're quite funny." My books get that same response, and I must confess there are times I wonder what sort of reaction they would have got if the name on the cover had been Adrian, and not Adrienne. I wonder if by reading a book with a female name, readers (another sweeping generalisation) expect a certain sincere offering, and when a woman makes an ironic/satirical or cynical joke, the reader gets confused and sees it as not meant to be funny in the first place.

I have no proof to back that last statement up, it truly is just a question lingering in my mind that I'm not sure will ever be answered. But I do think there is an inherit prejudice (either in favour or against) an author of the "wrong" gender in a certain category. Someone will see the name, not even process it consciously, but somehow it will still affect how they read the work.

In fact I would suggest you try this little game at home, where you pick up a book by a female author say, and open it up and pretend it was written by a man and see if that changes your perspective on it (and vice versa)? I have, and I have to admit that there are times where it really changes the way in which I read the book. But maybe that says more about me, than anything else.

So what do you guys think? Am I totally off my rocker? Does gender matter in writing? In the publishing world? Is there a bias for one over the other in certain genres? And really anything else you feel like contributing to the discussion!


Stephen Duncan said...

I knew I shouldn't have left home this morning without my PhD. Dang.

Certainly, gender has some significance in different aspects of publishing. I don't have the stats in front of me, but I understand the book reading audience to be disproportionately female. As a beer drinking, fist pumping, loud-mouthed, occasionally sensitive, male novelteer (not a word - and please stop swooning), I find that to be incredibly daunting. How do I make my books appeal to the greatest audience out there?

But then I look at the books on my shelf. And I’ll tell you, they’re mostly men. That wasn’t on purpose. I’ve never looked at a book and thought, “Geez, some woman wrote this, and now this awesome inside cover sounds less awesome.” If a story appeals to me, then it appeals to me, regardless of the gender of the author.

A completely baseless observation I’ve noticed lately, and I’m guessing these things are cyclical, but it seems male authors are being overtaken by the women. Rowlings replacing Kings. Meyers replacing Pattersons. On top of that, all the authors that I’ve met of my generation that are up and coming are mostly female. Maybe it’s just me. Admittedly, the author circles I frequent are limited.

In the end, I hope none of it matters and that the story sells the book and the book sells the author. Anyway, my two cents.

Anonymous said...

I found in Steven King's Carrie he portrayed female characters well. I don't really think the gender of the author should matter if the character is believable.


TwiceBorn said...

I think the reason some guys put down books writen by females is because more often than not girl don't write enough of the ironic, cynical humor you were speaking of. Your the only female author on my bookshelf that comes to mind right now and the main reason I read your book is because it had a review by Eoin Colfer on the back and I knew I could trust him.
I would love to read more books by female authors, but when most of what is out there is stuff like Twilight which I don't have the stomach for it turns me off.
As for Alex herself, I just think she's a great character. I like female characters just as much as boys.

Becky said...

I definitely think you're right about women in comedy; I wrote and edited sketch comedy in college and had a depressing number of people tell me that girls couldn't write it/should perform it. Not counting me, of course, but you know...Generally. Girls. It was infuriating and I ended up as the comedy troupe's writing coordinator specifically to encourage more of our female members to write.

As for books, I remember thinking awhile ago that Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series really surprised me because it was written by a man but was about body issues, a very female-coded topic (especially with a female protagonist); but I also wondered if it would have been as popular or received the recognition it (rightly) has if it had been written by a woman, or would it have been shrugged off as books by girls for girls? I don't have a real answer on that, but I think it's depressingly plausible.

Ed Wyrd said...

I can't speak to your experiences, and since you're published and I'm still struggling to get published.

However, I can say, that when I was a boy, a teen, and I hate to admit it, even into my 20s, I DID have a bias toward male authors. I just didn't think women could write the kinds of action/adventure, sword and sorcery, bawdy fantasy tales I was reading. And at the time, late 60s and early 70s, that was probably true (but whether that that was a case of women not writing that or publishers not wanting to print it is another story).

I'd like to think I've matured a little over the years (and I think the industry probably has, too) and I'm less hesitant to pick up a fantasy work by a woman. In fact, most of the leading authors in Urban Fantasy are women (which makes me wonder how hard it will be for me, a male, to break into that field).

Unknown said...

Interesting Post.

I used to only read adult books, mostly fantasy/horror, and 90% were from male authors.

Then, since I wrote a YA novel, I started to read 90% female authors. Because 90% of the YA books are written by females.

My first book on submission (a YA) never sold. Maybe some of that had to do with my gender. I don't know. Probably not, but I can use any excuse I want to. ;-)

So my second book on submission is MG humorous geared towards boys. I thought it might sell quickly because that seems to be the perfect fit for the market. But I'm still waiting. Hoping.

Anyway, I don't think most teenage girls would pick up a book by a male author unless it was a girl protag or was getting VERY popular. And editors know this.

I wish more teenage boys read books. Make my life easier.

I loved both or your books, Adrienne. I think, at the MG level, readers don't pay too much attention to the gender of the MC or the author.

Just my opinions.

Adrienne said...

Thanks so much for all your responses so far! It's really interesting hearing the different perspectives out there, and I have to admit especially interesting hearing the male perspective. As you might imagine I really can only speak from personal experience, and seeing as I'm a girl and all, that's the POV I have to work with.

Anyway, I hope people keep posting, I'm really enjoying reading all of these! Thanks so much!

(also thanks for all the compliments, they are so not necessary, but totally appreciated nonetheless!)

KatieB said...

Great post.
I've been wondering for a while now if the gender of the protagonist has anything to do with the marketability of the book. After all, it seems girls can read books about boys without getting cooties, but the same isn't true in the reverse. Would Harry Potter have been so successful if he had been Harriet? I'm thinking no, and it breaks my heart because I think girls need great stories about themselves. (Yours is on the shopping list!)
As a writer and mom of boys, however, I have contented myself with the "write what you know" axiom, and have happily writing about boys. I never imagined - in my blasé post-feminist approach to life in general - that the gender of the author would have anything to do with it (OK, I can imagine some bias in the chick lit and the hardboiled detective world, but not in kidlit!) Wow. Food for thought.

Chris Edwards said...

I've been a guy my whole life and read nothing by a male author until I was about eight years old. It was all Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume and Laura Ingalls-Wilder--stories about kids like me (male or female) in relatively realistic situations. The first male author I read was C.S. Lewis, who simply put the normal kids in abnormal places.

I can't speak for Children's Lit or YA, but for adult novels, I can't see any gender disparity at all anymore. If anything, I'd say women have dominated modern Canadian fiction, in terms of sales and critical success. Maybe their gender informs their writing, but an awful lot of men are reading them anyway, so I say they've tapped something universal.

J said...

Great topic. As you say, it's hard to guess at how much the gender of an author affects the sale of the book, especially general fiction. In my case, I read mostly romance (something I have been doing for years and years, and have no shame in whatsoever!) and honestly, if I ever came across a male author in the romance section, I would be genuinely interested in reading it, providing I was interested in the topic. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there are several men writing romantic fiction under a female nom de plume.

At the same time, however, I think the bias can go both ways; just as a male reader (might) hesitate to pick up an action/adventure novel by a woman, I could see myself (and many other women) hesitating to pick up a romance by a man.

For the record, I wrote a paper on the evolution of sex and gender through the modern romance novel, and was somewhat surprised to learn that romantic fiction makes up a staggering percentage of fiction sales in North America. I think it was something ridiculous like 80%. Crazy.

Anonymous said...

Way behind on my blog reading. Hope this comment isn't too late.

We had a chat about gender perspective last night over dinner. I have an insight that it may be a generational thing. The people at table ranged from 33 male to mid-40s female, to 51 male to 55 female [me]. Each one of us had a different understanding of gender bias. The two younger ones couldn't believe that as recently as 1980, women in Australia at least couldn't serve in general policing. I provided the little gem that it was once legal to advertise jobs in the newspaper as only for Men or Women. [I'll bet there are readers here who didn't know that.]

Anyway, other parts of our conversation were about how the youngest thought that the 'brains' of men and women were different enough to make a difference in their ability to do different things. I asked him if I could slap him right then. He spent the rest of the evening making amends.

So I think you've hit on a topic -- gender bias or discrimination -- that is ready for a new debate, in society as well as in the publishing world.

Adrienne said...

Thanks guys again! I have to admit to loving these sorts of conversations and I appreciate you all participating. And it's never too late to post a comment! So if anyone is lurking unsure if they should or not, I say, the more the merrier!

Polenth said...

I didn't really understand gender roles till I was in my teens, so I had no idea of the genders of most authors I read. I know that's not average though... my peers thought it was deeply important.

In life, people tend to view me as male, even when they know I'm female. To the point that it's not unusual to see someone referring to me as 'he' online, after reading my profile and seeing I'm female. It'll be interesting to see if that extends to publishing.

Tymethief said...

I'm an equal opportunity reader. If you can write well, in a genre I enjoy, then I don't care about your gender.

There are occasions where it does come into play however. Take Elizabeth Moon, I love to read her books, provided the main character is female. On the rare occasions her main characters have been men I have found them unconvincing and the books starring them difficult to slog through. I loved Robert Jordan and am very upset about his early death (particularly since the Wheel of Time series wasn't done yet) but sometimes I want to reach into the books and strangle his female characters.

But when I look at my private library (over a thousand books and ever-growing) my favorite authors are a decent split: Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Moon, J.K. Rowing, Robert Jordan (RIP) Charles de Lint, L.E. Modesitt Jr...

Gender doesn't matter, can you reel me in with your story, do I find your characters convincing... that's what matters.

C. L. Freire said...

I think it really depends on the reader. Oddly, when I started writing my book back in '03, I chose to use my initials (C. L. Freire), for what I later learned was the same reason Rowling's agent suggested she do so.

In general, boys may very well feel weird letting the world know they're reading a "female" author's work, but in the end, if it's a good book, I don't think they'll care as much....especially if it becomes "the thing to read.." LOL

Congrats on the success with Alex. I'm so happy for you.

And thank you for your kind words about Midnight. I was really touched. I will catch with you on what happened on my road.....OMG, what a nightmare! LOL

Hugs and Congrats:)