Is there a gender bias in publishing?

Have you noticed how many women-only writers’ groups there are? They even have their own magazine and their own fiction prize. Some of these groups, as I know from personal experience, are positively hostile to men. Presumably they feel that they have to protect themselves in the male-dominated writing and publishing industry. But is it really male-dominated? Do they really need to protect themselves? Are they right to be hostile? In this article I’m going to investigate.

I have a report from Mslexia magazine (the magazine for women who write), kindly sent in by one of our members. This lengthy article, dated Spring/Summer 2000, draws the conclusion that there’s a clear male-orientated bias in book reviews in national newspapers. It provides plenty of supporting evidence, so there’s no reason to doubt its conclusion. So we have to ask ourselves why this is, what can be done about it, and, most importantly, what effect it has on book sales.

How does it affect sales? A quick look at the book charts should tell us: eight of the top ten novels were written by women; eight of the top ten non-fiction books were written by men. Seems pretty well-balanced. Women seem to be doing perfectly well in the fiction stakes. That’s not surprising when you consider that female novel readers outnumber male readers by a factor of at least 3:2, according to recent reports.

Concentrating on fiction, what’s the biggest selling category? Romance. Mostly written by women of course. Categories that also sell extremely well include family sagas, sex-and-shopping, and chick-lit. Again, mostly written (and read) by women. This stuff has little or no appeal to men, but it still sells in vast numbers.

As Mslexia rightly points out, the majority of book reviewers in the national newspapers are male. Obviously they’re not going to be interested in any of the categories I mentioned above, so those sorts of things aren’t going to get many reviews there. However, there are plenty of other places where they do get reviewed, including scores of women’s magazines. And they sell in vast numbers too.

Why are most of the book reviewers in national newspapers male? I’ve no idea. But since they are, we’ll just have to work with it. Clearly, if you want to get your book reviewed in national newspapers then it needs to have some appeal for men. If you only write for women then it’s unlikely to be reviewed there.

Other parts of the industry aren’t so male-dominated. When you send your manuscript to a publisher, for example, the person who first reads it will more than likely be female. And probably quite junior. Women’s magazines generally have female editors, and the staff is often entirely female. Titles with cross-gender appeal seem to have an equal mix of male and female editors and staff.

Turning to the male writers, while they do produce a few novels that appeal only to men, most of their output seems to have cross-gender appeal. So, naturally, their books get more reviews in national newspapers.

They don’t get so many reviews in magazines, even when they have cross-gender appeal. And they certainly don’t get reviewed in Mslexia. In fact Mslexia won’t even review non-fiction books if they’re written by men – even if they would be of great benefit to their readers. (Again, I have personal experience of this!)

Some women’s novels have cross-gender appeal too, but there are markedly fewer of them. The majority are written for a very definite female audience.

So, in the end, it all comes down to what you write. Men and women generally write different kinds of book, and they appeal to different kinds of reader. Women mostly write books for women. Men mostly write books for men AND women. The majority of book reviewers are men, who are obviously more likely to review the books that appeal to them – the majority of which are written by men.

If you’re a woman and you adopt a male pseudonym but continue to write books that appeal mostly to women, that isn’t going to help you get more reviews. In fact it’ll probably lower your sales, since many women readers will be looking for women writers.

But you don’t have to be a man, or adopt a male pseudonym, to write books that have cross-gender appeal. If you want to have your novels reviewed in national newspapers then they need to have at least some appeal for male readers. However, as we’ve already seen, there are plenty of other places where you can get your book reviewed even if it only appeals to women. The vast sales of women’s magazines easily compensate for the lack of newspaper reviews. And, as can be seen from the book charts, a lack of newspaper reviews doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on sales.

In conclusion: there’s no intentional gender bias, as far as I can see. It all comes down to what we prefer to write and what we like to read. If you write books that only appeal to women, don’t bother sending them to national newspapers. Concentrate on getting reviews in women’s magazines and spreading the word in other ways. Men, on the other hand, would be better off trying the newspapers first, and then looking at magazines with male or cross-gender appeal.

Whatever your gender, you still need to promote your book whenever and wherever your can, and reviews are just one aspect of that.

Try to do at least one thing every single day to promote your book. It needn’t take more than ten minutes. Over the course of a year you’ll have done 365 things to promote your book, which is far more than most people ever do. If you can manage to do three things each day, that adds up to over a thousand per year. Even if only a few of them succeed, you could be well on the way to having a bestseller. What have you done to promote your book today? Nothing? Then stop reading this and do something right now!

There is of course another side to reviews, especially those that appear in newspapers, and that’s there reluctance to review anything but hardbacks. Things are slowly improving… but that’s a story for another day.


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