Recently a piece of news reached me through the Ace of Spades HQ blog and it made me chuckle. It seems a Cleveland Ohio book store decided to highlight all the books by female authors (that they were aware of) by turning the books by men backward. See, that way you can't see their titles or author, just pages.
They did it for a few weeks for "Women's History Month" according to the article at the Cleveland Scene, as a way of "silencing the male voice." One publishing house raved:
This articulates the display’s effect admirably in terms of speaking and silence, but the visual effect—a clear picture of the gender disparity in the canon—is what’s stunning.
But are there so few female authors out there? Are women in disparity in publishing and literature?
As a published author with 8 books under my keyboard, I've got some experience in the publishing and literature business. I have self-published them all, for a variety of reasons I've gone into elsewhere. There was a time when I tried very hard to pitch my book to agents. My theory was, self publish the first one and establish that I have readers and the ability to do it, and use that as a springboard into what at the time I thought was the "mainstream."
I noticed something while pouring through the lists of thousands of literary agents. There was a consistent theme, a repeated fact that stood out very noticeably after a short time.
Literary agents are mostly women. By a fairly large margin. In fact, it became surprising to find a man who was an agent. After a while it was kind of an amusing game, picking through the list like looking for a four leaf clover. This is a pretty well established and known fact, one examined in this Quora article.
I was going to question whether there really are, since in general people tend to seriously overestimate the percentage of women in any mixed group, but then I checked the AAR membership list and saw that 37 of the first 50 names are indeed female.
The author claims this is some cruel trick by the publishing business to keep women down because of the "glass ceiling" of course. But if you examine publishing, you find the same phenomenon in place. Most editors and people who work at publishing houses are also women. That article about the bookstore above? No men work at the shop. In fact, women's voices are very well represented in publishing overall.
Publisher's Weekly ran an article about this phenomenon entitled Where The Boys Are Not. They said comfortably that everybody knows that women dominate publishing:
It’s no secret that lots of women work in publishing. But just how many more women work in publishing than men? In PW’s recent Salary Survey (Aug. 2) one statistic stuck out: 85% of publishing employees with less than three years of experience are women.
In Random House, they reported that more than half their executives are female. Women by a huge margin are the ones in publishing from top to bottom. Even in this Book Seller article that complains too few women are in charge of publishing they admit:
- Eighty percent of Pan Macmillan's staffers are female
- Women sit on HarperCollins' UK executive board
- Penguin Random House UK has core divisions run by women
- Hachette UK operates with women as division heads
Look over a list of desired books from publishers and the genre agents are looking for the most: Women's Lit. Chick fiction. Strong female characters. Romances (strongly preferred by women over men). They are actively seeking these kind of books. Why? Because women read more than men, on the average. According to industry studies, women account for a whopping 80% of the fiction market. And that's the audience publishers are trying to reach.
They do worry about how they aren't getting the male 18-35 market which for some reason advertisers believe is their sweet spot (the age range of adult men with the least disposable income and interest in books). But they focus on their reliable market.
Further, women are dominating sales. Female author sales have been accelerating over time. In the last decade, the top 10 best selling authors in the last 10 years are women. 21 of the top 50 are by women. Women's total sales are booming, dominating the literary book sales for 2017.
I brought this up, based only on perception rather than hard data, in a writing group as an effort to encourage the women writing there. Instantly I was jumped upon and told that with a quick internet search, thousands of articles by women complaining about sexism and lack of representation in the industry were easily found.
Which was baldly ridiculous -- people complaining about something does not indicate its presence, only their discontent -- but not worth arguing over. I just found it odd that this person was so determined to undermine confidence and hope in these ladies. But that's a very common theme online and in the publishing world, with people complaining that women don't get enough attention and fame and publishing. Even in this article celebrating female dominance of publishing, there are complaints that women aren't taken seriously in literature.
Part of that effect is just authors angry they aren't getting published, and thinking it must be some cruel conspiracy against women to keep them out. Sexism is always an easy excuse for your own failings. But the thing is, there might be something to it: just not against women. Reading the list of agents, I found another oddity: many agents who said specifically that they would only take female authors. Not a single one said that about male authors.
There was a time, long ago, when female authors would pitch a book under a male name, in order to be published. Women were considered frivolous, not writing serious books, and often the male-dominated publishing industry wouldn't even consider a book by a girl. Now, its getting to the point that everything is reversed: you're better off using a female name to get an agent and a publishing contract. Mind you, I wouldn't go through traditional publishing, but its an interesting thought.
Why do women dominate publishing? I don't know, probably a natural attraction to editing and print, probably the same reason women buy so many books, and probably at least in part because of a deliberate effort by publishers either to achieve some social justice goal or because as I've seen happen a lot, when a woman gets into a position of hiring, they tend to hire other women.
This effect it does cause some problems for men trying to get books published that men like, which then leads to fewer men buying and reading books, which makes women dominate the industry even more.
But in the end, one thing is clear: women do not need help in the book publishing and printing business. And certainly they don't need to hide men's books to bring some mythical sense of equality and justice.
Mind you that won't stop the calls. Just like the ridiculous myth that girls are ignored in school and need more attention (a myth everyone knows is a lie from their personal experience in school) the lie is more useful than the truth, so it gets repeated.