Is there still a gender bias in book publishing?

Maja Mazur contemplates whether the fight for female authorship is truly over or not

Maja Mazur
8th March 2021
In 2021 it is easy to assume that there is no discrimination in book publishing, and women have equal chances to become recognised authors. Male pseudonyms used by the Brontë sisters, among many other historical female writers, seem to be a relic of the past. Although a lot has changed for the better over the last decades, recent research and statistics clearly show that gender bias in book publishing is a persisting and complex problem.

Perhaps Catherine Nichols’ experiment from 2015 best illustrates discrimination against female writers. Nichols sent out her manuscript to 50 agents and got two positive responses. Then she repeated the action using a male pseudonym and this time 17 agents expressed their enthusiasm. Not only did her male counterpart turn out to be an eight and a half times better writer than her, as she bitterly commented, but he also received kinder rejections.

Various studies have shown that while women are likely to read both female and male authors, men tend to choose male writers. Therefore, it is justified from the financial point of view that publishers are less willing to give a new female author a chance - especially when it comes to genres traditionally dominated by male readers like sci-fi. When it turned out that the author of City of Dark Magic, Magnus Flyte is actually a pseudonym used by Christina Lynch and Meg Howrey, Penguin editor commented: "For a new author, we want to avoid anything that might cause a reader to put a book down and decide, 'not for me’. When we think a book will appeal to male readers, we want everything about the book to say that—the cover, the copy and, yes, the author's name."

Not only did her male counterpart turn out to be an eight and a half times better writer than her, as she bitterly commented, but he also received kinder rejections.

J. K. Rowling experienced a similar approach - the publisher asked her to use initials, implying that a female name on the cover might discourage boys from reading Harry Potter. However, it is worth noting that unconscious bias also affects male authors specialising in the genre currently dominated by women – romance. In fact, many of them (Bill Spence, Iain Blair, Peter O’Donnel, to name a few) were persuaded to use female pen names to attract more readers.

It is difficult not to get frustrated with biased publishers and readers, but this problem lies much deeper. Women tend to submit fewer books – according to Pan Macmillan’s data, only 32% of the received manuscripts was sent by female authors in a span of a few months. I doubt that women are less interested in writing books than men since they tend to read much more (surveys show that they account for 80% of fiction sales and are more often library members). The possible reason why they are less likely to send out their work might lie then in the lack of self-confidence or fear of failure.

The gender bias in book publishing is not an issue with a simple solution. We can’t put all the blame on sexist publishers who refuse to acknowledge women’s works. If we want to eliminate discrimination, we should explore our shelves and analyse what books we usually choose to read. It’s worth looking for potential assumptions that we might not even be aware of and challenge them next time we pick a book at a library or a shop.

Finally, I would like to underline that I could only find statistics regarding the publishing industry in the US and in the UK. Let’s not forget about silenced female voices in other parts of the world - especially during Women's History Month.

Featured Image: Brontë Family from Wikipedia

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