‘Pretend to be a man’

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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

17 comments

  • "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."

    Of all the books published in Australia in 2011, what percentage were written by women, either under their own name or a male pseudonym?

    It seems like an obvious question to me, and one that would be fundamental in an analysis of gender bias in publishing, but for some reason it's not mentioned in story, and I couldn't find the information in any of the linked articles, either.

    Commenter
    DM
    Date and time
    January 16, 2013, 9:01AM
    • @DM

      Here's an article covering that question: http://www.salon.com/2011/02/09/women_literary_publishing/
      Key quote: "magazines are reviewing female authors in something close to the proportion of books by women published each year. The question now becomes why more books by women are not getting published.”

      Commenter
      Lucid Fugue
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 12:24PM
    • Thanks for that, Lucid, that was an interesting article, although the consensus seems to be 'we don't know why men read fewer women authors'.

      "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."

      Two words: Charlaine Harris.

      Actually, you can add : Suzanne Collins.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 5:27PM
  • I've noticed this trend and in a way I can understand why women pretend to be men. What I don't understand is why anyone would think that the name on the book means anything given that so many people change their names to say what they want to say. If only people could retrospectively change the name on the books they've written back to their actual names so that people would understand that women write good books as well.

    Commenter
    TJ
    Date and time
    January 16, 2013, 9:32AM
    • Part of the reason is financial - if a book doesn't sell well, the automated systems bookstores use will know this and order fewer of that author's books next time. Less books, less sales, so it starts a spiral.

      What happens is that after a couple of bad-selling books, an author will be told by their publisher to publish under a different name, thereby circumventing the ordering process.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 5:20PM
  • You just made me realise a prejudice I didn't know I had!

    I mostly read non-fiction books about finance, science and the like. For some reason, the thought of a book with a female author seems off-putting, somehow. I think my first assumption would be that it would be a bit whiney and self-righteous.

    I will be sure to flick through one next time I see one.

    Commenter
    Steve
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    January 16, 2013, 12:08PM
    • Seems surprising that you could be so unaware of your own prejudice when you'd make the assumption that a book "would be a bit whiney and self-righteous" only by virtue of the fact that it was written by a member of a group that constitutes more than half of the population, Steve.

      Commenter
      Sarah
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 1:16PM
    • Quite right, Sarah - Probably because I can't actually recall picking up a book in a store that's actually written by a woman, so never really thought about it. Guess that says something in itself.

      Commenter
      Steve
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 3:48PM
    • Me too Steve; and I'm a woman. I don't tolerate overly introspective, questioning, self doubting characters well, so that does cut out some of the female trash reads out there; but I've enjoyed many a female author (so to speak!) and will consciously now seek out others. Furthermore, I cannot recall having read the work of an Australian female author for many, many years so I shall make the effort to identify and read their books.

      Commenter
      SS
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      January 17, 2013, 12:54AM
  • I only read women authors.

    Commenter
    Sandra
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    January 16, 2013, 2:23PM

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