In which a literary agent in Sydney, Australia attempts to decode the world of publishing in order to assist writers. And sometimes to get things off her chest.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
I wonder if you've been keeping up with the recent debate about a perception of bias against women in the publishing industry (widely defined to include publishers, publications, writing prizes, and book reviewers)? And if you are across the debate, what are your thoughts?
Love your blog, by the way, and only wish you'd post more often.
Okay, last point first - thanks for the compliment, and the reason I don't post more often is, first, that people don't ask me questions that often any more and, second, after four years of doing this I don't have too much left to say that I haven't already said. Oh, and there's a third reason: blogging takes up a fair bit of time and I seem to have more to do than ever, what with the keeping up with digital issues and whatnot. So even if I wanted to blog about non-questiony things, I just wouldn't have the brain power or, frankly, the time.
Now, to your question.
Yes, I've been keeping up the debate. I try to keep up with current debates in all sorts of things because it makes me seem less unedumacated when I talk to people.
I don't think the problem is bias against women in the publishing industry. I think the problem is bias against women in the culture generally. Male sports players, male musicians, male writers, male film-makers, male newsreaders dominate our cultural outpourings. Et cetera. This is not new news. We have a male-dominated culture - for now. This is not to say that all men support this culture, or that men are solely responsible for it.
Why it seems weird in publishing is that women buy most of the books. Often they buy those books for men and, rightly or wrongly, they have their own perceptions about what sort of books men will read. As do the men themselves.
This often goes no further and is not more complicated than the author's name on the cover. Female name: men don't buy. Gender-neutral name (i.e. female author uses initials or has a first name that is gender-ambiguous): men probably buy. Male name: men buy. NB: women will buy books by anyone for themselves, but not usually for their son, father, brother or husband. (This is my observation and not a scientific statement.) But I know men who are really eclectic readers, in that they will read books in any genre, but they categorically will not buy a book written by a woman because they think it has no relevance to them. Apparently women don't have the same issue regarding male authors - and thank goodness, because Dan Brown and John Grisham et al would never have had careers.
So where does this bias start? At school? In the home, when those men are little boys being read to by their parents? Who knows. But it's there. And booksellers and publishers are businesses - they will go where the money is, so they are reluctant to publish books in certain genres that will only appeal to women. That's why you see a lot of authors with initials on the covers of crime novels and thrillers. And not just in those genres: JK Rowling, anyone?
This debate has focused on so-called literary fiction. There has been a lot written about it by people far more eminent than me. But, in short, the genres that women traditionally read and write are not, and are unlikely ever to be, considered to be 'literary' fiction. So that genre is in the blokes' domain. Hence, there are more blokes nominated for literary prizes for literary fiction. As far as I'm concerned, they can have fun with their prizes while Harlequin laughs all the way to the bank and dominates the publishing landscape in the digital age. But I am not a literary novelist trying in vain to get published in a genre that seems to favour people with different chromosomal structures, nor am I a book reviewer or someone trying to get a book reviewed. I completely understand their frustrations. And to that I shall say what I usually say to people seeking to change institutions and institutional structures: subvert from within.