Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Old Girl's Club

Q: I've been noticing that at least in the "writers forum" world, male writers are seriously outnumbered by women who write. I'm also seeing a relative scarcity of male agents. Now, I realize that there is no "old girl's club" per se, but has anyone studied the unbalance in new debut fiction published between men and women authors? Can a female agent be expected to warm up to the work of a male writer as easily as the work of another woman? Is this a silly question? I know there are sucessful male writers who write what would be considered "women's fiction", but I'm beginning to wonder how gender plays in the market, both reader/consumers and publishers.

Though this question was originally asked on my Absolute Write Ask-the-Agent thread, that thread is actually closed. I thought I'd answer it here since I've gotten similarly worded questions a number of times recently, both on forums and in person at conferences.

Thing is, 80% or more** of the people buying literature are women. This goes for all kinds of mainstream fiction, male protagonist & female protagonist, debut as well as backlist. In the realm of mysteries and narrative nonfiction, possibly the numbers are slightly more even, but I am willing to bet that even there the majority of readers are still women. [ETA: And as is pointed out in the comments, horror, SF/F & hardboiled crime probably skews more male] .***

In children's publishing (The Bunny Division) certainly most editors, agents and buyers are women. Not all, but most.****

Writerly gender is probably split pretty evenly in Literary Fiction land. My expertise is children's books, though, and I'd still say that in children's, lady writers are the majority. I would also suggest based on purely anecdotal evidence that male writers and illustrators are better paid, and disproportionally more lauded and more award-winning... but I could certainly be wrong. I haven't crunched real numbers on that one.*****

But I am sorry that I could not resist teasing you a bit, and I didn't even really give you an answer. The plain truth is, there IS an Old Girl's Club.******

* Tact-level varies, but the question is always posed by a man - which doesn't mean anything, per se, just noting the "unbalance".

** This statistic provided by the Out Of Thin Air But Probably Right Dept.

*** Still, a few brave male authors are able to somehow muddle through, and "Man type" books still get published. How, I am not sure -- I guess a few women gatekeepers are able to cast off their femininity and warm up to them. 

**** Probably because most men don't want to hang around reading children's books all day. They have real stuff to do, don't they? Putting out fires with their big barrel chests, etc. 

***** And the two very biggest names in children's books are women, so that would skew the statistics a bit. 

****** But of course, I can't tell you any more about it, and you aren't invited. Sorry! :-) 


  1. I've always noticed that librarians are always thrilled with "boy books," since they always need them. Book stores, however, sometimes seem a bit afraid of them. I can't really blame them; boys of YA age tend to gravitate more towards adult genre stuff. And, yeah, at many of the conferences, events, etc, I go to, James Kennedy and I seem to be about the only guys present.

  2. This question amuses me, but your answer amuses me even more. Well-said.

  3. *Applauds* Beautifully answered.


  4. There's an interesting phenomenon, though -- I know far more women encouraged to adopt androgynous or even masculine pseudonyms, than men encouraged to do the opposite. While I suspect that varies wildly depending on the genre, and certainly it's only anecdotal experience, it's intriguing and weird.

  5. Are there any statistics in that OGC manual about YA books written (by either men or women) with boy POV? Like Flash Burnout, The Secret Year and Perfect Chemistry? (I'm not including Beautiful Creatures or even Harry Potter because I think fantasy/paranormal is a different animal.) I'm guessing they're still mainly read by girls, but how do they do in the marketplace? Does contemporary boy POV cause girls to hesitate or do they not care either way?

  6. It varies with genre. Look at science fiction, horror, thriller, and certain sub-genres of fantasy and crime fiction (e.g. high fantasy, hard-boiled crime, spy novels, etc.). These genres are all dominated by male authors. In the case of science fiction and certain types of crime/military fiction, the readership is also primarily male. The others less so, but they include a healthy male readership.

  7. Mac: Sure of course. That happens in the MG/YA world all the time. Because boys supposedly "won't read books by a woman". So rather than show them by example how really great a book by a woman about a boy can be (Hello, HARRY POTTER? THE OUTSIDERS? FLASH BURNOUT?), or just teach them from the get-go that it is dumb to judge books that way, it is easier I guess to change the authors name to be gender-neutral.

    For much the same reason, books with boy protags, books about war and other disgusto things are so often assigned reading in school - because "girls will read Boy Books, but boys won't read Girl Books." (Still having Red Badge of Courage and Arms & The Man flashbacks!)


    Cyn: They are totally read by girls. Some boys, sure, but not mostly. Did you see the boy/girl ratio at the event last night? And how John Green's books changed covers so that they look girly in paperback, despite the fact that they have boy mc's and are ostensibly boy books? And this is for one of the most successful "boy authors" out there! Without female book sales, those books would be dead.

    Leah: Absolutely. I edited the post to reflect that. Obviously, I am mostly talking from the kids book pov, which is even more mostly-girl than the rest of literature! :-)

  8. And yet, somehow in spite of this terrible gender imbalance, there were still no women in PW's top 10 best books of 2009. Go figure!

  9. Ursula K. LeGuin's first sale, ever, was to Playboy Magazine. Her editor told her, quite bluntly, to publish as "U. K. LeGuin."

    C. J. Cherryh's first editor, Donald Wolheim, told her, bluntly, no one would believe in "hard" SF written by Caroline, and Cherry looked ridiculous.

    Georges Elliot, Georges Sand, James Tiptree Jr. . . . and then there are the male romance authors who write with a female pen name.

    Not to mention the straight men writing "lesbian" romances . . .

  10. My husband doesn't read female writers. At least, he didn't think he did...until I pointed out that a lot of the "male" writers her was reading were females with pseudonyms.

  11. See that name next to my picture? That's an androgenized (<--- made my own wordage, ha!) form of "Josina", which is a nickname. Said androgynous name is the result of being told early on that my given name is too feminine (and sounds like an old school model/actress).

    I'll qualify that by saying the suggestion was made by someone familiar with shopping screenplays. (You wanna talk "boys club"? Try pitching an action film with an obviously female name.)

    I didn't mind - I really like the way it sounds, but the fact is, those who knew better than me knew that there was no reason to add another layer of difficulty to a difficult path.

    I'd also like to point out that, while male writers might earn more on average, when the "big" YA/MG series hit, they're mostly written by female writers.

    Quality trumps quantity every day.

  12. I'll admit, I worry about how my name works against me. I always have, even before I wrote a middle grade "boy" book. What ten-year-old wants to read something written by some lady with the same name as the gum-smacking tramp who lived upstairs from Laverne and Shirley? Is it bad that I'm considering querying under a different name? I hate that this is even an issue.

  13. The girls' club notion is complete irony to me. My day job is Copywriter for a digital marketing firm. Even though it's digital marketing ("a new era!" you say) the "boys' club" model still applies. All five others in the department are dudes. (Hmmm, maybe I've befriended Adam Selzer and James Kennedy out of a quest for familiar territory!)

    Though I admit a little relief that women make up so much of the YA world, the imbalance seems *way* off. We need more dudes – not just their names.

  14. Oh, man! (or woman!) I guess I'm going to have to re-evaluate my masculinity since I read mostly fiction. Most of the non-fiction that I read is in the form of magazine articles.

  15. Thank you. I thought so.

    It's great that you moved this into your own blog site, and it really opens up a few important points. Most of my readers are women. It has been difficult for me to get many men to write reviews of my first book, but with the second, I actually made an effort to write with a voice I thought men could also find accessible and immediate.

    On the other hand, I write what I write, proofreading and evil red editor's pens aside. I certainly don't mind the fact that most of my readers are women. But what about men who write? There seem to be far fewer of us on forums and in writers groups. In the dimly remembered past, the gender of a writer was as important as the content of their work, but now, one would expect that it wouldn't matter at all, yet...

  16. I just don't think the OP deserves to get snarked on; I think he asked a fair question in a non-offensive way. And as a playwright-turned-novelist shopping my first YA book, I know that in doing my research and queries the vast majority of agencies that I've queried have women handling their YA submissions. My book is an adventure/comedy with a heavy comic-book aesthetic and I've been starting to look for male agents to query because, hey, I go to the comic shop and I know who 90% of the audience for this style of storytelling is. That's not me trying to demean women, that's me trying to get an agent and being as observant as I can be about where that particular market lies.


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