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Opinion: Parity in Publishing is Not Just A Pipe-Dream

Photo of Florence Wilkinson

Florence Wilkinson of FicShelf

In an interesting counterpoint to Mohana Rajakamur’s post a fortnight ago about equal opportunities in publishing, “She Needs a Website of Her Own”, Florence Wilkinson, who led FicShelf’s research featured in The Guardian recently, shares her encouraging views on the special opportunities that lie within self-publishing for women writers everywhere.

At FicShelf, we’re all about helping authors make a living from their talent, irrespective of who they are or where they’ve come from. Our interest lies in what you can do, rather than who you know. But we’re also keenly aware that for centuries female authors have been held back, simply because of their gender.

The Legacy of Sexism in Publishing

Part of this is, of course, down to historical sexism. Women have been excluded from the literary canon because, until relatively recently, it was considered transgressive for “respectable” women to publish. The critic Ian Watt famously alleged in his seminal work, The Rise of the Novel, that “The majority of eighteenth-century novels were actually written by women”. Although this claim is up for debate, we know for sure that female-authored titles were prevalent in this period, but the majority were either consigned to the literary scrap heap, or written anonymously.

Last week we published a piece of research, which revealed that gender issues still persist within traditional publishing: 61% of Amazon’s current bestsellers were penned by men. Men are also more likely to receive recognition for their work, the research highlights, with 80% of the titles compiled for The Telegraph’s “100 Novels Everyone Should Read” and 85% of The Guardian’s “100 Greatest Novels of all Time” being written by men. The problem prevails even amongst current titles – male writers account for 70% of The Telegraph’s “Best Books of 2014”.

The Growing Prominence of Female Authors in Self-publishing

Yet on the flip side, we discovered that within the self-publishing sector, female authors are flourishing. We analysed over 200 of the most popular titles across self-publishing platforms – including WattPad, Smashwords and Blurb – and discovered that 67% of these titles were written by women.

A large number of the authors were also under the age of 30. Without further research it’s hard to say for sure why this is, but one theory is to do with fandom. To be a successful self-published author, you need to be able to build an audience of fans. And to do this, you have to have a good understanding of the digital space. The younger generation are digital natives, which could go towards explaining their comparative success within the sector: this part of the self-publishing process comes naturally to them.

Self-publishing is a Meritocracy

Self-publishing is in many ways a more meritocratic platform. As the novelist Margaret Atwood has observed:

“You can post your own writing. No one need know your age or background. And your readers can be anywhere.”

But this doesn’t explain why women are self-publishing more, and more successfully than their male counterparts.

What we do know is that self-publishing is a nascent industry. It has often proved to be the case that new forums and platforms attract groups that have been traditionally marginalised elsewhere, as have female authors within traditional publishing. Perhaps over time we’ll see more of a plateau, with male and female self-published writers achieving similar levels of success.

FicShelf-logo-black-transparentIn the meantime, at FicShelf we will continue to support anyone who has the talent to succeed within our platform. Although we’re not there yet, our research proves that parity in publishing is no longer a pipe dream. And parity in self-publishing? Only time will tell, but we’re certainly heading in the right direction.

OVER TO YOU

Calling women writers who have been both published by traditional publishing houses and self-published – did you feel your gender affected your success differently on each platform?

Whether you’re male or female, we’d love to hear your response to Florence’s post – please join the conversation via the comments box!

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Why #selfpublishing offers more opportunities to women writers than the Big 5 by @FicShelf for #AuthorALLi Click To Tweet

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10 Responses to Opinion: Parity in Publishing is Not Just A Pipe-Dream

  1. Mansoor ladha March 23, 2015 at 3:05 am #

    Interesting discussion. I just want to add my two cents worth that authors of colour i.e. non-white have been discriminated by literary agents and book publishers despite the fact that here in Canada, some non-white authors have won top literary prizes. There seems to be some doubts in the minds of the literary community about submissions made by non-white aspiring authors. Publishers and literary agents go for common stories that would interest the majority, ignoring that there is a sizeable non-white community with an appetite for literature.
    Instead of guiding the aspiring author or suggesting changes for improving the manuscript, it’s very easy to send standard rejection notices. Time foe a change.

  2. Laurence O'Bryan March 17, 2015 at 8:05 pm #

    What amazes me is that prejudices can be so blatantly expressed.

    One woman’s trash is another man Dickens, or have you discovered some objective literary grading tool, Matthew?

    I am surprised too, Matthew, that you have so much faith in the free market. Perhaps you are unaware, in your eyrie, that we are not living in a free market. For evidence see:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/rhydian-lewis/free-market-economy_b_5444966.html

    http://www.martincwiner.com/we-dont-live-in-a-free-market-economy/

    http://www.mediahell.org/freemarket.htm

    And with the intellectual basis of your argument rubbished, what will you base it in now, more insults, perhaps?

    • Matthew Lane March 18, 2015 at 2:43 am #

      “One woman’s trash is another man Dickens, or have you discovered some objective literary grading tool, Matthew?”

      It doesn’t matter if you thought it was good or not, that’s not how populace fiction works. The gender of the author has no bearing on if it will be come a part of the populace zeitgeist or not & trashy genre fiction as a rule doesn’t.

      “I am surprised too, Matthew, that you have so much faith in the free market. Perhaps you are unaware, in your eyrie, that we are not living in a free market.”

      Of course we are, the free market of ideas. That’s whats so great about about publishing, especially self publishing: There are no controls on it, or who can by it, it really is a 100% free market.

  3. Florence March 17, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

    Hi Matthew,

    Thanks for your detailed comment. In answer to your final point about the research, the reason FicShelf is cited as the source is because we authored the research for International Women’s Day. I am not sponsored by FicShelf – I work for them. I wanted to conduct this research because I was interested in the gender imbalance within the publishing industry, and wanted to see whether things were different within self-publishing.

    We will be publishing the report in full soon, but our methodology was to analyse data on current bestsellers/most popular titles across four platforms – Blurb, Wattpad, Smashwords and CreateSpace. We compiled a list of these titles, and looked at the gender of the authors. We felt that it was important to conduct a study which looked at the most successful self-published titles and the writers behind these. Unfortunately, as you may well be aware, there isn’t vast amounts of data on this, but we tried to take as representative a sample as possible.

    We also compared this to data on the top 100 “traditionally” published titles on Amazon. And we spoke to some authors at ALLi to get their thoughts too.

    In reference to the rest of your points, I’m going to give you my personal stance, along with the evidence that has shaped this.

    You say that “There are more men interested in writing than women & so there are more men being successful in the field & so more men getting the accolades, and making up the majority of the source material.” There is a whole raft of evidence to the contrary. http://www.vidaweb.org will provide you with an excellent starting point.

    Moreover, surely our research shows that women ARE interested in writing – just look at how many of them are self-publishing. J K Rowling was famously told not to write under her full name, not just because people believed that little boys wouldn’t want to read a book written by a Joanne, but also because agents are known to discriminate by gender, be it consciously or subconsciously.

    But even that aside, surely comments from men such as yourselves that women aren’t interested in writing are self-perpetuating? If little girls grow up believing that women are less interested in writing, and seeing male-dominated bestseller lists and literary awards ceremonies, then what do they have to aspire to?

    To your earlier points about women and the literary canon I will, if I may, address these in one go.

    I say: ““Women have been excluded from the literary canon because, until relatively recently, it was considered transgressive for ‘respectable’ women to publish.”

    You say: “This is purest hokum: Women have been publishers of novels since the French occupation of Spain where noble women (that’s to say women of the noble class) penned trashy romance novels which they then published & were sold to other noble women. It was a trend that the Spanish picked up from the French nobility.

    They didn’t become part of the literary canon because they weren’t literature, they were genre fiction & pretty trashy genre fiction at that.”

    I find your implication that women haven’t historically gained the same recognition for their writing as men because their writing was “trashy genre fiction” pretty offensive. But that aside, let’s look at a case study.

    In 1767, the century which saw the rise of the novel as a literary form, a 15 year old girl called Frances (Fanny) Burney sat watching as the pages of her painstakingly written manuscripts went up in flames. Her stepmother didn’t think it appropriate for women to write.

    Thankfully Fanny Burney went on to ignore her step mother, but she was unusual. I was referencing the academic Professor Vivien Jones of the University of Leeds in my piece, who writes that for women to publish in the eighteenth-century was “by definition a transgressive and potentially liberating act”. Jones is one of the most prominent critics in this area, but in all honesty there is so much historical evidence on this front that it’s hard to know where to start.

    However, the following passage from an essay by Professor Barbara Schmidt-Haberkamp of the University of Bonn provides a nice summary:

    “To publish ones writing was to make oneself public, to expose oneself to the world; it was a violation of the feminine ideal of modesty. At its most extreme, publication was considered a loss of chastity, a kind of sexual self-display. In male satires of the time, the woman writer would be equated with the Amazon, the whore, the witch, the coquette, the virago, and, later, the bluestocking”.

    Of course this feeds into my argument about female-authored titles being consigned to the literary scrap heap – with views such as these in abundance, what hope did women stand of receiving recognition for their work and making it into our literary canon? It’s a wonder as many women succeeded as they did, often through making great sacrifices in both their public and private lives.

    There’s a very good book called Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine which demonstrates the impacts on our children of growing up in a highly gendered society. I hope that both little boys and little girls can look up and see that both men and women make brilliant writers, editors, illustrators and designers, as well as doctors, shop assistants, primary school teachers, politicians, builders etc. etc. But it is my belief that if we deny the existence of gender imbalances within our society, it will be to the huge detriment of our young people, whose life chances will be severely limited as a result.

    I do hope this answers your questions.

    Best,

    Florence

    • Matthew Lane March 18, 2015 at 2:36 am #

      “We felt that it was important to conduct a study which looked at the most successful self-published titles and the writers behind these. Unfortunately, as you may well be aware, there isn’t vast amounts of data on this, but we tried to take as representative a sample as possible.”

      I question the methodlogy of any study of this kind that utilizes data points from Wattpad. Wattpad not being an e-book site, instead being a fan fiction site that doesn’t involve publishing a book at all.

      “There is a whole raft of evidence to the contrary. http://www.vidaweb.org will provide you with an excellent starting point.”

      No it won’t. I’ve seen it in the past & nothing on there demonstrates in the least that my statement “there are more men interested in writing than women & so there are more men being successful in the field & so more men getting the accolades, and making up the majority of the source material” is in any way incorrect.

      If you’ve got a real rebuttal or citation to that statement I’ll happily look it over, by vidaweb is not going to be that citation based rebuttal.

      “Moreover, surely our research shows that women ARE interested in writing – just look at how many of them are self-publishing.”

      The idea that some women want to or do write isn’t in question, but that doesn’t change the fact that statistically more men than women ARE writers, which means that if an equal percentage of women & men have top selling books & get an equal amount of awards, men are still going to be statistically more successful & will always be more successful at it: It’s simply a numbers game.

      if you have 100 female authors & 1000 male authors & both receive critical acclaim & awards at a rate of 1%, that’s going to be 1 female & 10 male authors. An it will continue to remain that way until more women become authors, because you cannot scold, cajole, threaten, shame or manipulate the free-market.

      “But even that aside, surely comments from men such as yourselves that women aren’t interested in writing are self-perpetuating?”

      It would be had I said that, but I didn’t, I stated that women are LESS interested then men are. Seriously, point to any place in my statement that you think states that women aren’t interested in writing.

      “If little girls grow up believing that women are less interested in writing, and seeing male-dominated bestseller lists and literary awards ceremonies, then what do they have to aspire to?”

      But they don’t see that, what they see is a market made up of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to female authorship. Because LESS is not NONE, nor even “VERY FEW,” its actually “A LOT.” See you’ve fallen in to the age old trap of the “con of big numbers/con of small statistics” where you conflate small statistics to be the same as small numbers.

      Young girls won’t see that, what they’ll see is well written books by female authors.

      “but also because agents are known to discriminate by gender, be it consciously or subconsciously.”

      LOL no. Editors are issued manuscripts WITHOUT authors names for just that reason, on top of which roughly 80% of the publishing industry is female, not male. An that’s standard for the entire industry & has been since the early 90’s (something that started to come in in the 80’s).

      “I find your implication that women haven’t historically gained the same recognition for their writing as men because their writing was “trashy genre fiction” pretty offensive.”

      You can find it whatever you like, the fact is that genre fiction wasn’t respected up until the second half of the last century. Even when genre fiction was becoming popular in the 1890 to the 1930’s it wasn’t respected. It took the works of some of our science fiction greats to bridge the gap between genre fiction & literature & even then no one remembers “The man from FATE.”

      Seriously, test the concept for yourself: Name me a single piece of genre fiction from the French occupation of Spain, male or female author, doesn’t matter which?

      The fact is that mostly what women of the era wrote was the same kind of romance novels that continue to be published today under the harlequin imprint. An for just the same reason you can’t off the top of your head name one of those novels either….. They too will end up in the literary trash pile for the same reason.

      Such is the way of populist fiction.

      “In 1767, the century which saw the rise of the novel as a literary form, a 15 year old girl called Frances (Fanny) Burney sat watching as the pages of her painstakingly written manuscripts went up in flames. Her stepmother didn’t think it appropriate for women to write.”

      So what? I’m not sure if you are aware of this but this isn’t unique or even uncommon practice & happened to authors both male and female, including such literary giants as Lord Byron whose memoirs were destroyed by his literary executors led by John Murray on 17 May 1824.

      Or sticking with the French direction the son of the Marquis de Sade who had all of de Sade’s unpublished manuscripts burned after de Sade’s death in 1814; which included the immense multi-volume work Les Journées de Florbelle.

      This is not an uncommon practice made by individuals for specific reasons held by that individual. It’s not a sign of a larger widespread social trend.

      “I hope that both little boys and little girls can look up and see that both men and women make brilliant writers”

      you already live in that society & it didn’t change the fact that more men are interested in & are willing to become writers than women are.

      “But it is my belief that if we deny the existence of gender imbalances within our society, it will be to the huge detriment of our young people, whose life chances will be severely limited as a result.”

      It won’t: Because it’s entirely okay for one group to be more interested in something than another group, that’s the freedom of choice in action. The detriment only shows up when you attempt to FORCE the world into this narrow view of outcome based quotas. That’s not freedom, its not chances in life, its an attempt at totalitarianism.

      • Lise McClendon March 20, 2015 at 3:07 pm #

        Since you are so interested in data, Mr. Lane, can you provide your source for your statement:

        “There are more men interested in writing than women & so there are more men being successful in the field & so more men getting the accolades, and making up the majority of the source material.”

        The fact that more men are published does not mean that more men are interested in publishing.

        • Matthew Lane March 23, 2015 at 4:11 am #

          I sure can: Start by looking up an article called “SEXISM IN GENRE PUBLISHING: A PUBLISHER’S PERSPECTIVE”, it’s by overly feminist publisher TOR UK. It shows that the amount of manuscripts received by TOR UK, a publisher who has spent the last 10 years trying to specifically recruit female authors, they received only 28% of their manuscripts from female authors.

          Notice I didn’t say books published, I said manuscripts received.

          Now more male penned manuscripts means that in a world where the only qualifier is merit (which would be equality of opportunity) more men are going to be successful if we presuppose a success rate of 1% for both men & women.

          Same goes for accolades & awards: It’s simply a numbers game. More men are writing manuscripts, so more men are being published on the basis of merit (there being a bigger pool to choose from), so more work by men is being awarded.

  4. Matthew Lane March 17, 2015 at 6:19 am #

    “Women have been excluded from the literary canon because, until relatively recently, it was considered transgressive for ‘respectable’ women to publish.”

    This is purest hokum: Women have been publishers of novels since the French occupation of Spain where noble women (that’s to say women of the noble class) penned trashy romance novels which they then published & were sold to other noble women. It was a trend that the Spanish picked up from the French nobility.

    They didn’t become part of the literary canon because they weren’t literature, they were genre fiction & pretty trashy genre fiction at that.

    “The critic Ian Watt famously alleged in his seminal work, The Rise of the Novel, that ‘The majority of eighteenth-century novels were actually written by women’. Although this claim is up for debate”

    It’s not up for debate at all, its simply just wrong: There is no basis for this claim outside of the fact that he made the claim. The claim has as much validity as saying most world war 2 pilots where women, who were also rocket scientist ninjas.

    “we know for sure that female-authored titles were prevalent in this period, but the majority were either consigned to the literary scrap heap, or written anonymously.”

    As were the majority of male authored novels, as they continue to be to this day. Seriously, name me the top 10 penny dreadful novels & their authors of the top of your head. You won’t be able to do it since they’ve all been consigned to the literary scrap heap. That’s how populist fiction works.

    “Last week we published a piece of research, which revealed that gender issues still persist within traditional publishing: 61% of Amazon’s current bestsellers were penned by men. Men are also more likely to receive recognition for their work, the research highlights, with 80% of the titles compiled for The Telegraph’s “100 Novels Everyone Should Read” and 85% of The Guardian’s “100 Greatest Novels of all Time” being written by men. The problem prevails even amongst current titles – male writers account for 70% of The Telegraph’s “Best Books of 2014”.”

    Except that’s not a gender issue, that’s simply the free market in action. There are more men interested in writing than women & so there are more men being successful in the field & so more men getting the accolades, and making up the majority of the source material.

    That’s not a gender issue, it’s not a conspiracy, no one is keeping women down & there is nothing for women to do about it, other than to become writers themselves. No amount of trying to scold the free market, or trying to manipulate the free market is ever going to change this because the free market doesn’t work like that. In the free market all that matters is the bottom line & if there is a demand for particular material there will be a supplier for that material.

    “Yet on the flip side, we discovered that within the self-publishing sector, female authors are flourishing. We analysed over 200 of the most popular titles across self-publishing platforms – including WattPad, Smashwords and Blurb – and discovered that 67% of these titles were written by women.”

    An how exactly did you discover that? because this looks very much like the vaporware comment made by the guardian in which it was claimed that the most popular books in slef publishing were made up by that percentage of women & that claim turned out to be entirely made up & attributed to ficshelf, when no study was ever cited.

    Ironically you seem to also be sponsored by ficshelf, which makes this look less like news & more like native advertising.

    So how exactly did you discover that 67% of all material in self publishing across multiple platforms is published by women?

    So when you are ready, please cite your source for this claim.

  5. Dan Holloway March 16, 2015 at 1:49 pm #

    my initial reaction is that much of the reason for this is to do with the fact that self-publishing, with its social media and direct-to-readers routes to success bypasses the biggest bastion of gender division of all – the mainstream literary media. This is fabulous, and it means that what people discover is more reflective of what is being written than in traditional publishing. It does mean that the results are subject to change as things evolve. I’d like to think that the change would take the form of the mainstream cultural media finally smartening its act up when it comes to the way it covers what’s being written, but there is a danger that as and if self-published works find their way to market increasingly through the old media they will be subject to the same strictures. Which means I think we should celebrate but not be complacent (and keep supporting the work that VIDA does).

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Publishing’s “Lean In”. | alisfranklin.com - June 2, 2015

    […] The other thing that’s elided over by the Guardian is that its “article” is actually a puffed-up press release from a selfpub startup called FicShelf. If this is sending off alarm bells in your head; congratulations, you’ve played this game before. For those who haven’t, remember just how many tech startups are built on the unpaid social labour of women (ref. Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Tinder). FicShelf’s founding team roster is actually not as white and male as it could be–its CEO is a woman of colour–but the fact is still that this is a company whose business model is built around convincing women that self-publishing is some kind of inherently radical act. […]

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