As far as publishing advice goes, it wasn’t what I was expecting from a literary agent when trying to get my first book published.
She advised that I’d be more likely to get a publishing deal, enjoy more publicity and reach a broader audience if I changed my name to a man’s.
Silly me. There I was thinking that the publishing industry valued the market of ideas and stories based on merit. I was dumbfounded when a credible and successful member of the publishing industry — and a woman — told me that my gender might be an impediment to success.
When I refused to change my name she said, ‘Well at least you’re pretty. That should help with media.’
Another woman in the publishing industry later explained that female authors need to be good looking. If they don’t adhere to the current standard of female beauty, the publisher may have to spin some line about the author being an eccentric recluse so they don’t frighten potential readers with their hideously normal appearance.
Still, it seems the advice I received from the agent was on the money. In 2011, only 19 per cent of authors reviewed in the Australian Literary Review were women. The number of women reviewed in most of the other book review publications was under half. With stats like this, the agent’s breast-binding advice starts to look alarmingly rational.
She’s also not alone in advising female writers to get themselves a strap-on.
In 2010 JK Rowling told Oprah, ‘My British publisher, when the first book came out, thought this was a book that would appeal to boys but they didn’t want the boys to know that a woman had written it’.
And last month, Anne Sowards, an editor at Penguin, told the Wall Street Journal, ‘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.’
The assumption, of course, is that while women don’t discriminate when it comes to authors, men and boys tend to only read books written by men.
Even President Obama, a man with a strong wife, two daughters and whose election victory depended on women voters, reads predominately male authors.
Salon reports that his 2011 Christmas reading list consisted of 70 per cent male authors and of the 24 books Obama mentioned publicly during the commencement of his presidency up until 2008, only one of them was written by a woman.
But before we sob into the pages of our Virginia Woolf, there is reason to hope that times are a changing and we are all able to play a role in changing it.
The Australian Women Writer’s Challenge (AWW) is on again this year to encourage people to read Australian women authors. The objective of the AWW Challenge is to shine a spotlight on the gender imbalance. Often people don’t even realise they are excluding female authors from their reading lists.
The Challenge was initiated last year by writer and creative writing tutor Elizabeth Lhuede who took to social media to invite librarians, booksellers, publishers, book bloggers, English teachers and authors to examine their reading habits, and commit to reading and reviewing more books by Australian women throughout 2012.
The result? Over 1350 reviews of books authored by Australian women, and recognition in the mainstream press.
The hope for this year is that the more female-penned books that are read and reviewed, the more they will be talked about and recommended, leading to an overall increase in readership — hopefully by both men and women.
Everyone is invited to sign up to the 2013 challenge to read or read and review four, six or ten books. There is no restriction on the genre or era of books, so long as they’re written by Australian female authors.
I admit that there is something quite depressing about needing a reading challenge to get people to read the works of our female authors. It’s a bleak reminder of just how far we haven’t come since George Eliot (aka Mary Evans) and Currer Bell (aka Charlotte Brontë) jostled for position on the bestseller lists in the mid-1800s.
But surely the lesson of the last 150 years is that this gender imbalance is not going to right itself. And this is one thing that we can do to raise the profile of female stories and female storytellers in Australia.
Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 4 books 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child. www.kaseyedwards.com