Reality and the Welcome Sign — Gender and SFFH

A few days ago apparently, Julie Crisp, Editorial Director at Tor UK, put up a Tor blog post about how Tor UK is totally open to submissions from female authors, including of course hard SF, but they just aren’t getting as many submissions from women authors as from men. She even offers a handy chart of submission statistics to show this. She just wants to assure women authors that their submissions are welcome at Tor UK.

Which is great, and she seems very sharp and Tor is a highly effective publisher on both sides of the big ocean. But Crisp is nonetheless going ye old route of blaming the women for the systemic obstacles placed in front of them and for the choices of publishers like Tor UK. If the women would just step up, goes the argument, problem solved.

Except women authors trying to break in, who would mostly love to be published by Tor or Tor UK, know it’s not that simple. They have eyes. And what they see is SFFH publishers not publishing as many women, not promoting them as much as male authors, giving them feminized book covers or scantily clad ladies in leather, describing and marketing urban mysteries as paranormal romance, and so forth. In fact, Crisp couldn’t even manage to separate urban fantasy from paranormal romance on her submissions chart. And other editors in the field, as some explained to Crisp and Patty Jansen explained in her blog, are telling women quite clearly that they can’t sell and don’t want hard SF and other types of spec fiction from female authors.

Here, for example, is Tor UK’s book cover for female writer Leigh Evans’ contemporary fantasy The Trouble with Fate: 



It’s given a delicate treatment of lacy trees and wolf silhouette with lovely colors of purple and cornflower blue against white, a partial of a woman’s face and the elegant cursive script. All of which says women’s novel or romance. You will never, ever see the cover of a contemporary fantasy novel by a man get a cover like this. And a large portion of the male fantasy audience (and some of the female audience,) won’t buy a book that looks like this, will assume it’s full of romance and of no interest to them (because men like to pretend they aren’t interested in romance while writing up a storm of it.) In contrast, here’s what Ms. Crisp gave her male author Mark Charon Newton’s book The Broken Isles:

Notice the difference? It’s not that either cover is bad (and both authors are excellent.) It’s that female authors tend to more often be given covers like Evans did, or the twisty, half-naked women, no matter what sort of story they are writing. They are marketed as women authors first, fantasy or science fiction or sometimes horror authors second, and their books are so frequently marketed as for women only. And that means that their ability to reach the widest possible audience is curtailed.

There are thousands of women authors trying to break into SFFH magazines and books, and when they see a real opportunity to do so, they pile in. But when publishers and booksellers show that the opportunity is not really there, then they are likely to go searching elsewhere. In suspense, back in the 1980’s, for instance, women writing thrillers were not getting the support or attention most of the time of their male counterparts. They had better luck in “cozy” amateur mysteries, which were considered lesser and got less attention and promotion. The rule was girls will read boy books, but boys won’t read girl books and so boy books were always better and got more money and muscle behind them. When a woman did well in harder suspense, it was often considered a fluke and a one-off, even in Britain.

Then Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton built success writing hard boiled thrillers, followed by some others. Women authors started pouring into suspense like the sea and publishers finally decided that they wanted them. (Whereupon some male authors and fans started grumbling that women were getting all the slots — which wasn’t true — and destroying the integrity of the field with their girl cooties and women characters lusting over men instead of the far more proper men lusting after women.)

The same thing happened in fantasy in the early oughts. Women in the 1980’s and 1990’s were in the minority when it came to contemporary fantasy. They instead pushed most of their efforts into secondary world epic fantasy. Charlaine Harris was rejected by both suspense and fantasy when she brought them a Southern small town mystery novel with vampires because they didn’t think they could sell it. When she did get it sold, it was published with a romance chick-lit style cover and first sold outside of SFF in general fiction. But the series did well and so did several other women in contemporary fantasy like Kelly Armstrong and Kim Harrison. Publishers decided they wanted the women authors and women authors rushed in because they knew they had a shot, whereas in secondary world epic fantasy, they were getting more and more shut out in favor of male authors.

At the same time, romance publishers were expanding paranormal romance lists. A lot of women went to romance so that they could write fantasy and get it published. The same with YA in the wake of Harry Potter. Women authors were long welcomed in children’s by teachers and school libraries, and so women came to YA in great numbers. So it’s not really a surprise that women make up the larger number of submissions that Tor UK gets for YA and urban fantasy and paranormal romance. That’s where they think they can get in because they see the publishers actually buying female authors and supporting them in those sectors. (And consequently, many males in the field or as fans have complained that female authors are taking all the slots — which isn’t true — and disrupting the integrity of the field with their girl cooties.)

So it’s not enough to simply say that women are welcome. You have to show it’s actually true out in the market. If Crisp seriously wants more women, she’s going to have to go get them, because far from having a welcome sign, the field in general has a “we will barely tolerate you” sign out. If the number of women submitting is smaller, that doesn’t mean that the number of acquisitions from those submissions has to go down. If publishers like Tor UK take more chances on women authors from the submissions they do get, they will extend their market and show women authors it’s worth it to submit because Tor might actually buy more than once in a blue moon.

And if the number of submissions from woman is too low, particularly in fields like hard SF, then publishers should be actively looking for women and soliciting them for submissions. Women do manage to publish short stories with magazines like Analog — go after them. This is what publishers used to do and I’m sure that Tor UK still does, but we also know publishers have less time to do that sort of searching these days. But if publishers really do want to improve the stats with women authors (and minority authors, etc.), aggressive searching is going to be necessary. The magazines have gone through this battle too, and the first response of a lot of editors was just like Ms. Crisp’s — that the problem was that women didn’t submit enough; that it was their fault and their misunderstanding. But Black Gate editor John O’Neill realized the fallacies of that approach after his initial defensiveness, as he talks about in his post “Solaris is Rising, Women Falling.” There are some good tips there if Ms. Crisp is serious about having her staff seek more female authors and putting behind them the same resources and marketing as the male authors.

This is a process. And how fast the process goes depends not on the authors but on the institutions — the publishers and the booksellers — to create the opportunities and to seek to expand their market. Otherwise only a very few women will attempt to beat their heads against what appears to be a pretty solid brick wall. So kudos to Ms. Crisp for taking the first steps to knock a brick out of the wall for her house.

But it’s not enough to simply say that women are welcome. You have to prove it. Prove it better. As the movie saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.”


Filed under book publishing, SFFH

6 responses to “Reality and the Welcome Sign — Gender and SFFH

  1. Great commentary, Kathy. I wish I had something more intelligent to say, instead of just – yeah! what she said! – but there it is.

  2. pattyjansen

    Kat, thanks to linking to my post. I am wondering to what extent publishers have preconceived ideas of their audience’s preferences and to what extent those ideas are outdated. I do not know any of these readers who, according to the industry, don’t read books by women. I wonder how much this is a generational thing. Certainly, the younger generation of boys is growing up with books openly written by women, and I may be leading a sheltered reading life, I have never actually met someone who point blank won’t read SF written by a woman.

  3. I have met quite a few. It’s not that the book is written by a woman per se; it’s the question of how much “romance” and sexual interest from a main female character written by a female might be in the story. Many people, male and female, assume that women authors are more interested in romance and interpret their books as being about romance even though the romantic content is not different from the male authors. And they’re not comfortable with reading about a female heterosexual pov noticing male bodies and having the occasional lustful thought or relationship, whereas they are totally used to the men doing the same thing, because men are the default. (Maureen Johnson had a really excellent piece about this on her blog — “Sell the Girls.”) And in SF, there really are a lot of hardcore SF fans who think women just can’t write science fiction, and the recent success of SF romance in the wake of paranormal romance does cause some hysterics.

    But those people are a segment of the audience at this point, not the majority. And they often can be easily fooled by packaging — don’t put a feminized or romance cover on it or call it romance in the catalog, and many won’t have a problem when they actually read it. And if there are buzzed about bestsellers, they may try them, like with Collins. But publishers do chase after male readers, and this leads to attitudes like the one you encountered. Most of it I think comes from the booksellers who have no data but just personally declare something to be marketing truth. That’s how we’ve gotten covers for YA novels about non-white female main characters with white females on them. And we also have male authors hiding in romance, no matter how much money Nicholas Sparks makes, which I think doesn’t help either. They are folk myths.

    What we do know is that if there are a few women selling well in an area and publishers show that they are interested in more, the women authors submit like crazy. But when they can’t trust the welcome or the commitment, then a lot of them won’t try as they think it will be a waste of time. So saying we welcome submissions is a great first step, but it has to be backed up by real action and by editors actively seeking out female authors and investing in them.

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