Discussion, Women's

The Writer Behind The Name: How Much Does Gender Bias Exist In Publishing? Guest Post by David and Morgan from WriterWriter

To all my ladies – happy International Women’s Day! And what a post I have for you on this day. Today, I welcome David and Morgan, the founders of WriterWriter, to talk about prejudice and inequality in fiction, primarily in the scifi and fantasy genres and how it affects the industry and the end result – the fiction that eventually reaches the reader. What can be done about it? And why does it happen? Let’s see what David and Morgan have to say. (I must add, I received no compensation for this post. I believe in the cause and want to support it.) Welcome David and Morgan from WriterWriter.

The Writer Behind The Name

We all know, readers and writers alike, that pen names (also called pseudonyms) are a great tool for writers who wish for the veil of anonymity it grants or wish to write in more than one genre.

But, as it happens, it’s also a tool used by a certain group of writers who need it to be taken seriously as a writer. I have no doubt that right now you’re imagining this only applies to those who have a silly or boring name, but I’m going to leave those aside at the moment. Because the one thing that probably hasn’t crossed your mind is the fact of female writers having to resort to such a method in order to be treated fairly and equally to men.

It’s an embarrassment to even entertain the idea that in today’s society women are still judged as inferior in any form.

And yet here we are.

A scene from Star Trek, where one of the men facepalms

To give a grand example, look at J.K. Rowling. We all know her and we all know her books (even if you haven’t read them, you’ve likely heard of them), but I’m not going to focus on that. Rather, I’m going to focus on her name. Her real name. Which is Joanne. However when the time came that Rowling’s books were accepted for publication, Bloomsbury – the publishers of the Harry Potter books – asked her to use her initials so that the book would be better received by the target audience due to the fact that it would be harder for readers to make notions about her gender. After this came Rowling’s cross over to the crime thriller market under the male pen name, Robert Galbraith.

Instead of using their real names or a female pen name, many female authors use initials, unisex or male pen names in order to appeal to a broader target audience. The expectation of not being accepted is what leads to this decision. The expectation is based on the still evident bias towards male authors by certain readers, publishers and reviewers. Bestsellers lists also reflect a small percentage of female authors compared to male authors.

Instead of using their real names or a female pen name, many female authors use initials, unisex or male pen names. Why does this happen and how does it affect the publishing industry? Click To Tweet

This occurs much more often in notoriously male-dominated genres such as science fiction and fantasy where female writers have an even harder time being accepted and taken seriously.

There is an overall consistent feeling that women can write these genres as well as men, as bloody as men, as tough as men… whatever negative, stereotypical adjective one can put here. Gender stereotypes still permeate society through industry, government and culture. The one genre, of course, where women don’t have to resort to this, is – very predictably – romance, which conforms to this stereotypical ideal.

A GIF of a scene from a black and white movie, where a woman says to a man, ‘There’s nothing like a lovesong… to give you a good laugh.’

And the bigger issue is that with most people, this bias is subconscious – and not just in men, but in women themselves too. It’s ingrained in them, but they don’t realize it. Chances are if you see two fantasy novels, one bearing a male name and another a feminine name, that you’ll instinctively be driven to pick the male’s novel first.

How Do We Know This?

We’ve done this test in a playful sort of manner with 10 bookworms (5 of them male, 5 of them women). Only one female bookworm picked the female writer. The other 9 picked the male. We did the same test with a female name and a unisex name. This time all picked the unisex name first.

Morgan Wright, the female co-founder of WriterWriter, herself took a unisex pen name because of this fear. She thought that this would help her avoid prejudice, and in a large part it has. Most people, they see her name and address her as “Mr.”. As Morgan says, “I can’t say the amount of times I’ve come across this on Twitter where my profile picture is completely ignored in lieu of my unisex pen name which causes people to address me as a man.”

As a writer you might pin your dreams on having your book reviewed in top book review websites/papers, yet even these feature male writers more often than female writers with an average of 7 out of 10 reviews being for male authors. And this is just the average. Some prestige review establishments have an even lower number of female authors.

Most top review websites/papers feature male writers more often than female writers with an average of 7 out of 10 reviews being for male authors. Maybe it's time for change? Click To Tweet

Some Numbers?

If we look at one of the bigger publishers [name redacted] of sci-fi and fantasy, we see that they have published a table of submissions, detailing male and female submissions that show a shocking two thirds of all submissions were by male authors. Only 33% of Fantasy submissions and 22% of sci-fi submissions, were by female authors. Urban fantasy/paranormal romance on the other hand saw female authors outnumber their male counterparts with 57% and YA having 68% female submissions.

A GIF of a woman, with a severely disappointed smile

Maybe it’s the many decades of ill treatment of female authors that has led to them mistrust publishers, as well as a fear that they will not be taken as seriously as their male counterparts. These statistics of low female submission prove that, but is this because women writers have now started believing in the stereotypes given to them through the lack of female writers in the industry and genre? Or is it that they have given up trying to solve the issue of gender inequality through large operations and instead are turning to self-publishing as their only alternative?

Female writers have long had to endure being pigeon holed as romance or paranormal romance writers and this has lead to the creation of a glass ceiling that we now see in few female authors submitting works of sci-fi and fantasy.

When an industry has stereotypes for so long, it becomes the norm and when it becomes the norm, we conform.

But conformity stifles creativity and genius.

Even agents seem to be against women. Some studies suggest that women are up to 3 times less likely to garner interest from an agent. And men are more likely to receive positive feedback even with a rejection from an agent. And to take it even further, women who aren’t writers but work in publishing houses find themselves paid lower than their male counterparts despite women outnumbering men in this industry by two to one.

So The Question Is – What Can We Do To Stop It?

It will take persistence, that’s for sure. If history I anything to go by, it will not happen at the click of the button. We do have the power of social media, however, to spread the word and bring about change. And change must start inevitably with the reader. The reader has the power to change the direction of the publishing industry. If more people are not only buying books by women writers, but also talking about the injustice of the issue, there’s a bigger chance of the publishers and agents listening.

The more we talk about the gender inequality in SFF, the bigger the chance the publishers and agents will start listening. So start talking. Click To Tweet

Gender inequality still plagues not just the publishing industry but all industries and segments of society. This has been proven every year with statistical data on the gender pay gap. In the UK and the USA, a woman still gets paid 18% less than men. This is an average across all sectors and industries, with some industries and jobs having a much larger difference.

Despite all this, we should still count ourselves lucky to be living in our western world where women have the rights that they do. Even if the rights are not truly equal yet. The rest of the world, especially emerging economies are full of girls and women who are refused the right to education, something we now take for granted. We do not wish to only continue the fight for equal rights in our own culture but also to spread this message of equality to all nations and offer hope for a brighter future for all people in all countries.

Because the truth is, it shouldn’t be that it will still take us 62 years to close the gender pay gap.

The only way we can start any sort of change is by speaking out about it. The world is listening. What are you going to say?

Sources: Sexism in Genre Publishing: A Publisher’s Perspective, Women lose $513 billion a year in wages due to gender pay gap and math is worse for some, Gender justice and women’s rights, The 2017 VIDA Count, Bias , she wrote: The Gender Balance of The New York Times Best Seller list, Writing under a male name makes you eight times more likely to get published, one female author finds, Gender pay gap in the UK: 2018.

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Ivyclad Ideas
2 years ago

Depressing, but very insightful post. It must have taken you forever to research! Can I ask what information you gave the bookworms you did the test on? Like, did you give them a title and a summary, or just a title, or what? (I am curious.)

2 years ago

Well Evelina all that you’ve said here is true but I realized that I was biased too when it comes to my favorite genre: romance. In romance I will usually pick female pen names over male pen names! While for crime, science fiction etc I don’t have any preference and would trust a female and a male author the same way!

2 years ago

Brilliant post Evelina! Very interesting! I think I was a little biased before, I kinda preferred male authors in the crime and thriller genre but these last few years I’ve found so many awesome female authors and I’ve come to realise being male or female has little to do with writing good books

Brigid L Downey
2 years ago

I love this! This is so important. The book series I’m reading right now is by J. R. Ward and it’s a paranormal romance. Her real name is Jessica Bird Ward. I know she has some more fluffy romances under that name, but she was worried people wouldn’t take her male driven vampire romance series seriously if they saw her full name on them. Food for thought.

2 years ago

I also would like to add how it’s a shame that males would be less reluctant to read books written by females largely because of a bias that female writers = romance.

JK Rowling, Agatha Christie etc. have proved that female writers can write great books outside of the romance genre.

Aj @ Read All The Things!

Interesting post! I learned about this in grad school. I think it’s weird that people judge books based on the author’s name. Women can write more than just romance! (And men can write excellent romances.)

2 years ago

Amazing post. I read mostly adult secondary-world fantasy and I saw an interesting post (can’t find it right now) that showed that the problem is not as much that there’s no female authors, but that they either don’t get recommended (especially somewhat older authors) or get slotted into YA despite being adult (except in urban fantasy, where women dominate – a friend has some pretty interesting dara on that).And people don’t see this as an issue – it’s infuriating how many people insist that gender doesn’t matter to them and that they “only read good books”…and then it turns out… Read more »

2 years ago

I went to engineering school and worked in IT, so I have seen the bias first hand. Still makes me sad and frustrated. I remember seeing a panel at YallFest back in 2015. It was female SFF writers talking about how their books are labeled as “girl books”, because they were written by women. All I could do is shake my head. Great post!

Stephanie Jane (Literary Flits)

When discussing books I’ve loved with other people, I am often surprised by how many will only read books written by males – or that they assume to have been written by males anyway! The belief that women only write ‘women’s fiction’ and romance is still sadly very widespread. I think as readers and bloggers we have a great opportunity to challenge this by consciously choosing to read and discuss work by women authors, especially in underrepresented genres.

2 years ago

A really great discussion document – it’s why I write my science fiction as S.J. Higbee, instead of Sarah Higbee because I know I’ll be taken more seriously if I don’t have a female forename on the cover *sigh*. And when we get to Waterstones, the Science Fiction section is outrageously tilted towards male writers. Minor male authors who were writing over a decade ago have their allll books on the shelves, where the likes of Emma Newman and N.K. Jemisin have a token single volume…

Kaleena @ Reader Voracious

This is a FANTASTIC post, thank you Evelina for hosting such an important, informative, and positive (in the sense we have some action items) post to shed light on the bias in publishing.

CG @ Paper Fury
2 years ago

This is very interesting to read…and I definitely have heard this from adult SFF writers! Like I heard VE Schwab say she’s had men come up and literally congratulate her for her book, saying, “Oh it’s so good and I didn’t expect that from a woman writer.” Like…that’s so gobsmacking. I wonder what the statistic would be for YA though? Because I know most YA writers are women! Same with agents and editors for YA. But then I also wonder if that reflects gender bias too? Like a lot of adult SFF women writers get their books pigeonholed as YA… Read more »

2 years ago

Excellent post! When it comes to nonfiction, I’ll happily read both genders equally, but in regards to fiction, I skew heavily towards reading women (I think a lot of the male-authored books I’ve read in the past tend more towards either violence that I don’t care for or the “She breasted boobily down the hall” type of prose, and I’ve since learned to be cautious). I’ll read male authors of fiction- adult fiction- on recommendation or if I’m really interested in the story, though, and I’ll read authors of any gender when it comes to YA or middle grade. It’s… Read more »

2 years ago

This is a really interesting post, Evalina. I was already aware of gender bias in the work-force, what woman isn’t, right?! But it’s still shocking to find out how industry ingrained it is. I think that you’re right, we’ve got to protest using our voices and purse-strings and show that it’s content not the gender of the author that makes a good book.

I’m going to re-blog this onto my site to help do my bit if you don’t mind.
Flora x

Male Author or Female Author – Does It Matter? – Flora's Musings…
2 years ago

[…] Instead of using their real names or a female pen name, many female authors use initials, unisex or …Click To Tweet […]

2 years ago

This post is quite eye-opening and I just realized how easily we associate women writers with YA and rom-com. And I even have friends who would avoid reading a book by a female author. I hope all these changes soon.

Charvi Koul
2 years ago

I love this post a lot. It’s the truth and just so informative! I thought that this was a much smaller deal than it actually is.