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And That's Terrible

Are You a Female SF&F Writer? You Might Be Able to Get Published, But Good Luck Getting Reviewed

For the past two years speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons has put their researcher’s hat on to look at gender in genre publishing. Specifically they analyze the breakdown of male and female authors, male and female reviewers, and how many books by male and female authors get reviewed.

So what’d they find about genre publishing in 2012? There’s good news and bad news.

First, let’s get some methodology out of the way: The 1,326 books included in the study were those received by Locus magazine in January, April, July, and October 2012. Locus doesn’t get some genre books that are marketed as mainstream fiction, so those aren’t included. The reviews of 14 sci-fi/fantasy magazines and journals, including Locus, published in the US and the UK were counted.

Now to the findings. The good: The male-female split when it comes to authors is pretty even, with 45.8% of books written by females and 52.5% written by males (the remaining 1.7% is made up of mixed-gender partnerships and unknowns). The genre world’s a bit more dude-heavy in the UK than in the US; only 41.3% of the genre books published in the UK are by women, compared to 47.3% in the US. (I should note here that the representative sample for US books was much larger: 963 to the UK’s 363.)

The UK breakdown is a bit disappointing, but overall I’d say 45.8% is pretty darn good. Surely a similar percentage of reviews, then, will be of books written by women!

Ah. No. That’s the bad news. For nine of the 14 publications included the percentage of reviews of female-written books is around or under (sometimes well under) 25%. Locus itself is about 50/50 (good for them!), and one magazine, Cascadia Subduction Zone (mission statement: “to treat work by women as vital and central rather than marginal”), reviews more books written by women than by men. You can see the chart here. It’s pretty depressing.

So, basically, there are tons of female sci-fi authors out there, but they’re not getting nearly the same coverage as their male counterparts. (Go on, tell me that this particular gender equality is a result of women just not wanting to be reviewed or of women inherently being less review-worthy. Someone’s going to say it. I’m just waiting to see who.) That could be a result of there being many more male reviewers than female (you can see that chart here). But there’s another major factor at play. While the gender ratio of in sci-fi/fantasy is close to even, that’s not the case if you break it down into subgenres; only about 25% of sci-fi books submitted were written by women, while over half of fantasy books were. So there might be an anti-fantasy bias going on here, which in turn could tie into fantasy being perceived as a less “serious” genre, in part because it’s more “feminine” than sci-fi. And around and around we go.

That last bit is just my own opinion. Strange Horizons has given us the numbers; now it’s up to us, lovers of sci-fi/fantasy, to hypothesize what the deal is with the review imbalance and what can/should be done about it. (Ideally the guilty publications will step forward and do their part—wouldn’t that be a wonderful world?) Here’s my view: I can’t imagine that, for the most part, male reviewers see a book written by, say “Jane Smith,” and think to themselves “Ew, that book’s written by a lady! I’m not going to like that!” Overt sexism happens, sure, but for the most part I’m going to err on the side of humanity not being completely awful and say that a lot of the gender bias held by reviewers is unconscious. So I would say that reviewers should confront their own gender biases and make themselves put some serious thought into their selection process if they notice that the last five or so books they’ve chosen for review have been written by dudes.

I don’t know if that would do any good. But hey, it’s a start. And regardless of our differing viewpoints on how this gender imbalance should be handled, we should at least all be able to recognize that it’s a problem. Female genre writers should have an equal shot at getting their books reviewed, and as things stand now they clearly don’t.

What to do, what to do. Thoughts?

(via: io9)

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  • Joanna

    Maybe male reviewers refuse to read any work by female authors because they “can’t tap into the female mind” …or something.

  • Matt Graham

    So there’s a readership if I reviewed these?

    As a reader: I honestly don’t pay attention to reviews of most sort, as I prefer to experience it for myself, but if there’s a demand for this, I’d certainly like to help out fellow writers of any sort.

    As a writer of several formats: that’s bull, and I’d love to help promote and give credit where it’s due.

  • Anonymous

    Do we know how the reviewers/reviews were selected? I mean, is someone in editorial saying “go review this book,” or are the reviews open submissions and they just pick from those? The process might help identify a solution.

  • Matt Graham

    By that logic most of them shouldn’t be reading anything since they rarely even tap into the author’s imagination or themes in the first place.

  • Mark Finn

    It seems to me that with the veritable deluge of pro-female geek websites, not to mention tweeters and bloggers out there, that this is an easy self-correction. I’m not making light of the situation, not at all, but when confronted with “But Mary, that’s the way we’ve always done it,” the best tactic is to just do it yourself and leave the old-timers scratching their head and pondering their lack of relevance.

  • Rebecca Pahle

    I would imagine that it’s the latter, for the most part, but I’d be interested if someone with first-hand knowledge would chime in.

  • Matt Graham

    Especially in today’s world of social media and self-made reviewers and bloggers. Great point, Mark.

  • Matt Graham

    This is how it works, for the publications I’ve written for, online or paper. I’m a freelancer in the most freelancing sense one could imagine.

    The author doesn’t do it. It’s not their job, that’s the publisher’s gig. In fact, even writing about comic books, the direct approach is an amateurish turn off to my editors and myself – though since I create too, I give them a shot. Others aren’t so lucky. Same deal with tossing people your band’s demo. If you have to ask, don’t. Be asked or have someone else represent.

    Your publisher will send copies to every reviewer on the list. These are veteran reviewers or up and comers who have a presence somewhere that the publisher’s PR team thinks is worth your time. My credentials lately: Random House picked me off of some Comics Nexus and mail me things monthly for Toronto publications or Nexus. I don’t have to do everything, but I do no need to keep covering them occasionally to stay on the list.

    Others might send a press release to me (as I said above), and try to hook me into coming to them and saying, “That sounds fantastic, I’d love to review it!”. There’s also a monthly mailing of forthcoming releases that allow me to cherry pick what I’m interested in. No guarantees for all of it, but I’ll get something to review. Dark Horse and Valiant do this with me, as does Harper Collins and Penguin.
    As an author, you can suggest publications, which helps if you have niche audiences that the publisher might not know how to really cater to. Sci Fi and Fantasy have many, many fanbases and sub-genres, so being able to narrow it down can help.

    So I have you book now.

    I put in on my pile of other books. I tend to review in the order I’ve received them, but that’s not a rule. If something really grabs me I want to burn through it right away.

    I read the book. I finish it, regardless of what I think of it. I try to hold my opinion until the very end. Then I review it, which involves summarizes, comments on the style, story structure, POV, themes.

    With comics I give every artist from penciler to colorist attention. I focus on the strengths and weaknesses. Regular MS commenters who know me know I even gave Twilight a fair shot (and liked it for what it was!), so I think I’m fairly objective.

    I certainly don’t shy away from genres or authors I don’t prefer, let alone is gender a factor.

    I say that because most reviewers do stick with what they enjoy. If they like Sci Fi, that’s what they do, and if they hate Political Thrillers, then they don’t even touch them. I don’t like that myself, because I don’t think it keeps you honest. I prefer genres, sure, but to me that creates a bias in itself. Also, many others cross-genre with concepts these days, that it’s hard to really nail certain stories into a type without doing it a disservice.

    Anyway, it’s written, rewritten, edited, submitted, and then it goes from there. Note: a publication can sometimes delay your novel’s review for months, but this is because of lead times or content management on the editor’s side.

    You may or may not even be aware of when or where it’s published.

  • Donna Montgomery

    A lack of input from female reviewers can be a problem for me even when I’m considering a book that was written by a man, because male reviewers are less likely to notice or call out some of the aspects of fiction that bother me. For example, it’s annoying to pick up a book based on positive reviews and then learn that I’ve been stuck with one of those heroines who thinks about her boobs way too much.

  • Matt Graham

    I wanted to follow up on my comment about not approaching reviewers directly.

    I’ve had many people do it, from people making basement comics to Emi Lenox’s wonderful Emitown.

    A direct request from the author puts the burden of impartiality on a reviewer. It’s great you self-published or are taking initiative, but now it’s uncomfortable because I dealt with you personally, and you’re not just “another submission” from the publishing world. Especially heartbreaking in Artist Alley at comic cons.

    And speaking as a creator myself, I’d rather not do direct contact anyway, because I don’t want to be doling out the PDFs or mailing the review copies out of pocket. That’s what the publisher is for.

    Side comment: John Scalzi had an interesting point about publishers and reviews and being paid advances for your work. If they can’t pay you an advance, they’re not putting faith in you or the project (since you’re an investment in the cold light of business), and if they can’t afford to do that, do you think behind the scenes they can afford to get you reviewed and marketed.
    I just wonder if this not getting reviewed thing might also be on the authors somewhat for choosing poor bed partners. Not always, of course. I just like to be open to every angle.

  • Travis Fischer

    I don’t get where the disparity is supposed to be. If 25% of Sci-Fi books are being written by women, and the majority of reviews in this study come from publications that focus mainly, if not exclusively, on Science Fiction, then those numbers seem balanced.
    Six out of fourteen of those publications sit nearly right on the 25% mark, which is exactly what you would expect. Meanwhile, publications that focus on both Sci-fi and Fantasy, climb up closer to the 50/50 mark, which is also what you would expect.
    If you follow the chart, you’ll see a clear trend upward based on how much any particular publication focuses on Fantasy. Which makes sense. If your magazine has a 50/50 split between Sci-Fi and Fantasy reviews, you would only expect about 35-40% of the authors reviewed to be women. The more you focus on fantasy, the higher that percentage goes up. Which is, for the most part, what you see in the study.

  • Ceegee Parfois

    Reviews in newspapers and other publications lead to sales, if no one knows your book exists there is no way you are going to get sales . They also lead to additional publishing down the line and I am willing to bet more lucrative contracts come to those with positive reviews. Someone has to shop your book, or you have to. if the bias is on the publishing company side, it’s one thing, are the books even getting into the hands of the reviewers? Or is the issue one of the reviewers deciding what to review based upon gender. this would need further study.

  • Anonymous

    Absolutely, that’s why this is important. That’s why I was wondering how those reviews are selected: is it a top-down decision, or more random?

  • Anonymous

    As a female sci-fi writer, there’s a definite quiet “don’t emphasize your female-ness” thing in the genre. It’s “not for girls.”

  • Ceegee Parfois

    Regardless, that is why I plan on publishing my works under an initialized pen name; with no photo of the author (me). I’d rather be judged by my writing and not my name or my sex.

  • Chris L.

    I read an absurd amount of books. And I must say, in my honest-to-God opinion, that I tend to enjoy sf/f books written by men a lot more. Half the time, I don’t even pay attention to the author’s name or credentials. I just read the book. It seems to me that women authors spend more time talking about feelings and emotional fallout(s) while men focus more on action and logic. It’s great if I can get both, but if I have to choose then I tend to lean towards the latter. That’s just me. (I feel I should point out that there are exceptions in both cases. I’m only speaking in a general sense.)

    The perfect example of this is author Rob Thurman and the Cal Leandros books. When I first got them, I looked at the name on the cover and figured I was reading something written by a dude. As I read, however, I noticed that Cal (the protagonist and narrator) spent a huge amount of time talking about every emotional nuance shared between himself and his brother. When it was pointed out for the twelfth time how some small action had several paragraphs worth of emotional meaning, it became pretty obvious that Rob Thurman was a woman.

    Whether or not that’s good or bad is not for me to say, but it should be noted that ANY author who finds a balancing point to action and the emotional aspects of the story are extremely successful and will most assuredly be given an all-access pass to the depths of my wallet. The problem is, not everybody’s going to agree on what that balancing point is.

    Criticizing magazine editors just because they review more guys than women isn’t fair. Ultimately, they just want to sell magazines. It’s not right to attack them just because they’re giving people what they want. Just follow the money! The problem isn’t with the magazines, it’s with people. In a perfect world, no one should have to make a conscious decision to read a book by a man or a woman. But people aren’t perfect, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

    And as far as “getting into the female mind” goes, well, that just makes my point. There shouldn’t be a “female mind” or a “male mind”. Not if we’re being fair and unbiased.

  • Kate

    I read a ton, and most of that is in the sci-fi/fantasy realm. I rarely select a book based on reviews from publications; in fact the top five factors in my purchasing decisions are as follows:

    1. Is it from an author I like/have read before?
    2. Is the back of book blurb at least interesting?
    3. Do the book cover comments come from authors I respect? (e.g. “I just couldn’t put it down” – Patricia Briggs)
    4. Have I heard good things from friends?
    5. What’s the buzz surrounding it online?

    I’m going to guess that a lot of book buyers share these criteria So, I guess the good news is that reviews in hard-copy publications aren’t all that important to a lot of buyers. The bad news is that reviews may be a much bigger deal within the industry.

  • Joanna

    ” It seems to me that women authors spend more time talking about feelings and emotional fallout(s) while men focus more on action and logic. It’s great if I can get both, but if I have to choose then I tend to lean towards the latter.”

    Why? Are you a robot or something?

  • Anonymous

    I think the most striking bit of info is the disparity between Sci-Fi and Fantasy reviews. As a long-time fan of fantasy lit I’ve definitely observed this bias, as fantasy work is often seen as less serious, less legitimate literature than science-fiction (some reviewers seem to think all fantasy is children’s lit and doesn’t/can’t deal with big social and political ideas, and others seem to think that anyone can pump out a fantasy novel but that only smart, well-researched authors can produce a quality sci-fi book). Maybe there’s a fear among genre magazines that they won’t be taken seriously if they devote too much of their attention to fantasy rather than hard science-fiction. Thus, they lean toward works that happen to focus more on plot than character, and in my experience it seems that female authors like to explore characters more than male authors do. Female authors seem to be collateral damage as genre circles tend to keep fighting against the low self-esteem seemingly burned into their souls.

    It’s weird that this still persists despite the success of the Harry Potter franchise, the Lord of the Rings films, and Game of Thrones. Fantasy just can’t catch a break.

  • Chris L.

    Nope. I can appreciate both, but I just don’t find one as interesting as the other.

  • Joanna

    Wow, I can’t believe you buy into your own gendered stereotype lol.

  • Matt Graham

    Now I have rewrite half of my scripts. :*(

  • Chris L.

    What can I say? I like what I like. And since pretty much anyone can point something out and call it a stereotype, I don’t really value that line of reasoning.

  • Laura Truxillo

    ” Do the book cover comments come from authors I respect?”

    I used to think of that one as a good policy, but really, now I’m a little more wary, because it’s very obvious that they take the most famous author to comment on a book and slap their quote on. Because Stephanie Meyers has comments on Shannon Hale books, and aside from Shannon Hale’s stories usually focusing on teenage girls as well, the two writers couldn’t possibly be more dissimilar. (Read: Shannon Hale is amazing, and every time I read something by her I feel like I just found a book I’ve been wanting since childhood and didn’t even know it.)

  • Joanna

    I don’t know what kind of books you’re reading but I find that I can’t really differentiate between male and female writers. I reckon the whole “logic is for boys, and feelings are for girls” idea is mostly psychological cos of societal gender binaries. I don’t believe I was raised under the notion of gender binaries (or at least I rejected most of it) so I can’t really tell the difference between male writers and female writers.

  • Karen Sch

    that’s unfair, as a lifelong female reader of sf/f I can say I agree with him, at least as far as “zomg shut up about everyone’s hair/eye colors and how they feel for 5 minutes and have SOMETHING HAPPEN omgwtf.” I admire authors like CJ Cherryh who manage to write action-drama where stuff happens and things occur AND there are some feelings sometimes. You know, balanced writing. Like a professional — not a MAN — might want to put out. I would say that it’s oftentimes female authors who are falling into gender stereotypes — to me, writing about nothing but chara relationships and feels with little to no action is the realm of fanfic, not the stuff that should be published. Frankly I think too much crappy fanfic-like fiction is getting published nowadays, probably due in part to what I hear is pretty much no editing going on in the industry anymore (at least not with genre fiction). One only has to look at romance novels to see loads of talented female writers who can do action and comedy and such mixed in with an equal or greater number of unedited, terribly-written worst-female-stereotypes-nonsense writers who shame us all. >_>

  • Joanna

    Huh. Maybe it’s the publisher’s fault? Seeing emotion-y type stuff and hoping it will appeal to the female demographic? Everyone’s been jumping on that bandwagon since Twilight was released.

  • Chris L.

    Well, most of the time, I CAN tell the difference. And frankly, I don’t think it’s because of some psychological fallacy that I’ve apparently succumbed to. And I’m pretty sure I never said, “logic is for boys, and feelings are for girls”.

    Also, for someone that claims to have rejected the notion of gender binaries, you were pretty quick to point out what stereotype I belonged in.

  • Joanna

    It’s not like I made that shit up, dude =P

  • Anonymous

    I’ve recognized this bias since I started reading in the genre in the 70s. My small, personal reaction to the general marginalization of women authors is to limit books written by men to 10% of my genre reading list and to get recommendation from other readers rather than rely upon professional reviewers.

  • Chris L.

    No, of course not! ; )

  • Anonymous

    “It seems to me that women authors spend more time talking about feelings
    and emotional fallout(s) while men focus more on action and logic.”

    I think the problem with your argument lies here. Your description is a
    little broad, and a bit unfair to both male and female writers. While
    male writers do tend to make it a point to focus on action, I don’t
    think it’s fair to say female writers don’t also include their fair
    share of it or that good male writers don’t incorporate great character
    psychology. I find, in my experience, that female writers have a better
    balance of action/plot and character exploration/development (“feelings
    and emotional fallout” sounds a little too twee and cliche a
    description, and I’m not really that comfortable with it because that
    characterization tends to unfairly infantilize and trivialize the
    issue). Psychological development is maybe a more appropriate
    descriptor for what is a crucial aspect to any good story in any genre.
    I think male writers tend to write characters more as icons: men as
    Marty Stus who we male readers are supposed to aspire to be like, and
    women as objects of attraction and devotion. Female writers tend to
    make their characters more psychologically three-dimensional – and they get unfairly criticized for it.

  • Chris L.

    “Your description is a little broad, and a bit unfair to both male and female writers.”

    I think I stated quite clearly that that was my own opinion, which is obviously different than yours. I wouldn’t presume to speak for all men using only my personal experience as a reference point. And honestly, I really don’t see how my choice of words can be called infantile and trivial, but if it makes you feel better to use bigger words that mean the same thing, knock yourself out.

    “…I don’t think it’s fair to say female writers don’t also include their fair share of it or that good male writers don’t incorporate great character psychology.”

    I’m fairly certain I didn’t say any of that.

  • Anonymous

    It’s clear that you don’t want to engage in an intelligent conversation about the topic, so we can consider it finished…or maybe terminated (it has a few more letters).

  • Kate

    Whoop! Need to clarify: if an author I respect has a blurb, it makes me more likely to purchase. If an author I don’t respect has a blurb, I shrug my shoulders and move on to other criteria; it doesn’t actually make me less likely to purchase a book.

  • Chris L.

    I guess we’ll have to disagree on what an intelligent conversation is as well. Good riddance.

  • Sabrina Pena Young

    Interesting chat. I’m in the process of making a sci-fi version of my opera Libertaria. I’m a composer (who is also a writer in music tech) and we have the same discussions in music. Of course, in composition in the US at least, less than 10% of composers are women, and the performance rate for these women by professional organizations is probably closer to 2% (except the occasional Pulitzer Prize winner). I’m also a music tech expert, and I always find it interesting when folks assume that I am a male. It’s silly, really.

    The same chat about music by women sounding “feminine” can be equally ridiculous. I’ve had folks come up to me and say that I “write like a man” because my music is harsh, weird, electronic, and percussive (I’m a drummer, too). And yeah, I’ve done initials only until my rep has finally made my gender irrelevant in the circles that I care about. On the other hand, I do use my creativity to address issues that might otherwise be ignored or issues that are important from a female perspective.

    Until more women are in influential positions – reviewers, publishers, filmmakers, video game developers, music industry CEOs – there will always be an unconscious gender bias in media.

    So does media change to reflect female voices? Or does it stay stuck in the past? I think we as women need to have one hand pulling ourselves up to the top and the other hand pulling other women up from behind. We can make the change, if not for our generation, for our daughters and granddaughters.

  • Shannon LC Cate

    I don’t know what to do, but I am just going to keep writing and hope for the best.

  • Melissia

    Agreed. It’s not always the case mind you.

    Take the Ciaphas Cain series by Sandy MItchel (a pseudonym; the writer’s a guy)– a lot of focus is on the mindset of the titular character, his manifest character flaws, and the personalities and flaws of the characters he interacts with. That’s what makes it so interesting, and what makes it one of the most popular books in the setting (Warhammer 40,000).

    The books are essentially written as an autobiography with footnotes from his superior (and lover) Amberly Vail, and frequently discussing emotions– the fear he feels, the paranoia, the pride he has over his accomplishments, his friendships, and the character’s somewhat amusing and clumsy attempts to avoid saying that he loves someone (much to the amusement of the footnotes), amongst other things.

    On top of that, Vail’s footnotes and interludes between certain chapters provide comments and counterpoints showing how Cain isn’t always completely honest with himself, as well as add in information that he missed because of his admittedly self-centered approach to writing “his” autobiography.

    Black Library Publishing could use more female writers mind you, having only one, whom only ever co-writes with her husband, but certainly not every male writer does nothing but “bolter porn”, to use a term from the 40k fandom (referring to the weapons of the setting’s Space Marines). If they did, we’d not have the masterpieces in science fiction writing that we do.

  • Anonymous

    I agree. That’s why I made it a point to explain that not all male writers are overly obsessed with plot, and not all female writers are overly obsessed with character…

    “While male writers do tend to make it a point to focus on action, I don’t think it’s fair to say female writers don’t also include their fair share of it or that good male writers don’t incorporate great character psychology.”

  • John Kilpatrick

    I have no wisdom for you, but I will point out that my favorite SF/Fantasy writer, Lois McMaster Bujold, has won the Hugo 5 times. Hugo for best novel 4 times, same as Heinlein. Nebula three times. And yet all the cool geeks wanna read Scalzi or someone else. I keep wondering why more geeks don’t know who she is. How many Hugos does it take?