Women in publishing

Portrait of George Eliot, the female author whose real name was Mary Ann Evans
George Eliot. Why’d she have to publish under the name George?

When I was a kid, I read without looking at the name on the cover. Many of my favorite authors were men, but I didn’t notice that at the time because I wasn’t keeping track. Once I had kids I started making more of an effort to read works by women, because I wanted to read things that talked about these new experiences I was having as a mother. That was when I got into Margaret Atwood, Isabel Allende, and Joshilyn Jackson. Their work felt much more meaningful than anything I’d read before, because it dealt with specifically female experiences I hadn’t heard talked about. Since then I have generally picked books by women a bit more often. I’ve learned that I’m more likely to enjoy them.

But I worried about that, because I’ve seen the hashtag #misandryinpublishing and I didn’t want to contribute to a situation where men’s perspectives weren’t given full airtime. So recently I did the research so I could find out the actual facts. Are men facing a bias against them when it comes to getting published?

The short answer is no. Here is an article about gender balance in book reviews. As you can see, women are getting reviewed a lot less often. It’s unclear whether men are reviewed more because they get published more, or whether men get published more because publishers are hoping for good reviews, but the fact is that most publishing houses publish quite a lot more books by men than by women.

Why the disparity? Is it because editors are sexist, because men are better writers, or because men submit more in the first place? This writer can testify that men are submitting more, but that this shoudn’t account for the disparity because they are submitting work that isn’t ready. In other words, men are submitting more out of overconfidence, and a lot of this is going to be rejected out of hand because it’s not good or polished. And of course, we can’t count the manuscripts by women that never got written because the women who wrote them were taught their whole lives that they were never going to have anything valuable to say.

We can pretty much rule out that men are better writers, because women have (finally) reached near parity on the New York Times bestseller list. Which is really a massive accomplishment considering women’s books are only 30% of the books published. On the other hand, women are buying half the books, so it’s no wonder they’re managing to avoid the imbalances you get when most of the decisions are made by male editors.

I feel that it’s important for all voices to be represented in literature. Literature is the closest thing we’ve invented to telepathy; we learn to see through another person’s eyes and find out how they see the world. Stories make us empathetic. For a woman, reading a book by another woman can give that wonderful thrill–another person like me, someone who has had the experiences I have! For a man, reading a book by a woman can give him an insight into what women’s experiences are like and cause him to empathize more with women. It’s good all around! So why is the publishing industry printing only books from one perspective? Even thinking of their bottom dollar, they should be broadening what they publish.

But we don’t have to wait around for that. Women can, right now, defend our time and our right to sit down and write, because we have something to say. We can submit our work even if we’re worried it’s not good enough, because guaranteed there are hundreds of dudes with work worse than ours who sent theirs in already. And we can buy books by women. Not because we’re straining at some kind of fairness that has nothing to do with what’s inside the book, but because the books are actually different. They mirror different experiences; they feel different as you read them. We need to be reading both.