It’s that time of year. People are feeling reflective and that inevitably leads to lots of Best Book of 2012 and Most Anticipated Fantasy of 2013 blog posts and articles – and analysis of their content. Last week someone on Twitter noted the lack of women writers on the latter, and I started to wonder why this would be.
This is no criticism of those blog posts and article, of course. One person’s best/most anticipated books won’t be the same as another’s. I thought I might do my own Most Anticipated Books of 2013 list to go with the planned 10 Books I Read in 2012 post and include some books by women writers. After all, I’m a reader and fan of other fantasy writers and some of those writers are women.
So I went looking for books scheduled to come out next year – that is, I went looking for fantasy fantasy, not urban fantasy, written by women. I searched Amazon and some publisher sites and I found very few books listed as coming out in 2013.
I was intrigued. Why? Well you see, here in Australia most writers of fantasy are women, so seeing the opposite happening in the general english-speaking world is interesting. After all, whenever I go overseas I get the ‘why does Australia have so many great female fantasy writers?’ question a lot and I try to have a good answer.
I think the reason is partly to do with there being no market here in Australia for adult fantasy until the 90s, so when one appeared plenty of good books and undiscovered authors were ready and waiting to be found. That doesn’t explain the gender difference though, and the only reason I can find for that is cultural. When I was a teenager the assumption among my peers was that women read fantasy and men read science fiction, so perhaps a lot more women grew up comfortable reading and writing fantasy than men.
But while the gender split here favours the women over the men, it’s by roughly a 2:1 ratio. My search gave the impression that, at best, it’s more like 1:20 in the general market.
In the 80s and 90s there were heaps of books by non-Australian female fantasy writers to choose from. More than I could keep up with. If I go looking for recommended reading lists I see lots of familiar names. But a lot of these women seem to not have any books coming out next year. Or at all. I admit, at that point I did start to wonder if the reasons more women are published than men in Australia is simply ‘because we didn’t stop publishing them’. Still, maybe some stopped writing for personal reasons. Or they only write one every few years and there’s some kind of bad alignment of the stars for publishing fantasy by women next year.
Why aren’t there new female writers filling the gaps, I wondered? I have a pretty even ratio of male/female fans, and plenty of both gender tell me they write fantasy. And one thing you can always be sure of: a LOT of people write fantasy. When a lot of people do something odds are some will be brilliant at it, and while the ratio of good male to female writers may not be even it’s unlikely the ratio is as dramatic as 1:20. (After all, look at Australia’s fantasy writers.)
Even so, at this point I was full of doubts. Maybe I wasn’t finding these women because I wasn’t searching hard or well enough. But in the arena where authors gain the greatest exposure now – the internet – it shouldn’t be harder to find books by women than books by men. After all, if publishers aren’t on the ball with internet-based publicity, it’ll be for books by all their authors, not just the ones by men… right?
Next I considered what I know about publishing and bestsellers.
1) New authors are a gamble for a publisher. Chances are their book/series won’t earn out its advance. They take on new authors in the hope some will succeed.
2) Midlist authors are those whose books do consistently earn out their advance, but don’t make much more. In more ruthless markets, if their earnings drop or level out they may find they can’t sell their next book.
3) Bestsellers make extra money which allows publishers to take on more of 1) in the hopes some will become 3), and hopefully continue to support 2).
Not surprisingly, publishers like uber-bestsellers like Twilight and Game of Thrones that made extra money so they can grow as a business. So of the many brilliant manuscripts to reach a publisher’s desk, odds are the ones similar to what’s earning gadzillions of dollars are going to be picked up.
And then what we have is a trend. These days the author is increasingly part of the book’s package, and as a group they come to represent their genre. Their gender shouldn’t matter, but if most of the latest trend is written mainly by men or women it creates the false impression that only people of that gender write it well. And when trends go in cycles of ten or more years you get a whole generation of readers growing up assuming the bias is natural and are unaware that genres really aren’t that limited.
I could be completely wrong. I’m always happy to admit that. I have only observations made during many years association with writers and the publishing industry, and no time to hunt down the exact stats. I suspect the attempts to deal with the bias by publishing women under their initials or non-gender specific pseudonyms like ‘Lou’ and ‘Alex’ means I have missed one or two in my searches, though I did look up the names I wasn’t sure of.
But on the up side: trends pass. Readers get bored with the same old thing. Publishers know this, and that the next uber-bestseller will start a new trend, not be part of an old one. So when they can they take on new writers, both male and female, who do things a little differently to see if it’ll take on.
So if you want to read something fresh and wonderful that might be the Next Big Thing, you’ll increase the odds by reading books by both men and women. In fact, odds are the book that starts the next trend is already out there, since the time between past uber-bestsellers first publication and becoming a ‘craze’ seems to be 3-5 years.
And I can tell you with confidence that, as we Aussies know, if you’re not reading books by women you are missing out on some seriously awesome fantasy.