Pub Rants

Dad Wisdom & Publishing

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STATUS: I really need to tackle the emails piling up in my inbox.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WOODS by George Winston

When I was in high school, my dad told me two things. Finding that special someone is all about timing and HS boys are intimidated by bright women.

Funny enough, I thought that was a lot of hooey. Sheepish apology to my lovely dad because he pretty much was right. But as a teen, you pretty much assume that a parent couldn’t possibly be right.

Hindsight really is 20/20.

So what in the world does this have to do with publishing? Well, two things actually.

The first I’m actually a little hesitant to say but I’m inspired by a recent entry from Editorial Ass on a whole different topic but tangential in nature, so I think I’ll take a risk and put this comment out there as well.

From my personal experience (and I really can only speak from that perspective), I truly believe that for literary fiction, it’s much easier to sell boy writers than gals. I know. Who can possibly make such a general statement but I have to say that I’ve encountered several worthy manuscripts that I’m rather convinced that if the writer had been male, the novel would have sold.

Just empirical proof, of course; no scientific method employed.

And second, publishing is often about timing. For example, if you are currently a writer of young adult or middle grade fiction and you have a paranormal element (read: vampire, werewolf, witch or what have you), you might be stymied by the timing of putting said project on submission right now.

The market is crowded. Editors are weary in some respects. (Agents too!) Just last week I had an editor turn down even looking at a manuscript because she felt her list was too crowded with the supernatural.

That’s a sure sign that a trend is winding down. Now that doesn’t mean nothing in that realm will sell. It just means that any project that does will have to be X times better, X times more original, than similar projects sold 2 years ago.

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35 Responses

  1. Martha Flynn said:

    I’ve always wondered about the idea of trends winding down and manuscripts having to be “better” than before.

    I can understand there being more mediocrity because of a trend flux, but I don’t understand why editors didn’t have amazing options two years.

    Given the number of people writing and submitting, aren’t there always stories available in the exceptional range so editors would never have settled for lower standards of writing?

  2. Nikki Hootman said:

    Kristin – I’ve felt for years that literary fiction is dominated by male writers. Kudos to you for being brave enough to say it.

    As a woman writing literary fiction with male protagonists, I’ve recently started querying with my (typically male) middle name rather than my first. We’ll see if I get more bites. I’m betting I do.

  3. Kristin Laughtin said:

    Wow…I had never really realized how true your statement is about male authors being more prevalent in literary fiction. I write genre fic, and I KNOW men tend to dominate there, but now that I’m thinking about it, I can name far more male literary authors than female just off the top of my head. It’s terrible, because all the women I can think of are terrific writers.

    I imagine female authors dominate the romance and paranormal markets, but are there any others where you feel it is much easier to sell a female author than a male? (Just out of curiosity–I plan to stick with my own genre, male-dominated as it is.)

  4. Scribe said:

    I’m interested to hear what you said about males dominating lit-fiction, but I wonder if it works that way across all genres and styles? I just saw the Nebula award nominations list for 2009, and in the YA section five out of six writers are female. Interesting though that in the ‘novels’ section of the same award it’s the other way around, five out of six are male!

  5. Anonymous said:

    This may not make sense but I’m wondering if a guys novel sells easier than a gals because of the perspecitive it is written in. For example a guys main character(s) would most likely be a male where as a gals main character(s) would/is most likely be a female.

    Now I haven’t read as many books as I would’ve liked to but that seems to be the case in what I have read.

    So I’m wondering if it would make a difference if a guy wrote entirely from a gals perspective and vice versa (gal writting from a guys perspective)?

    Just a thought!:)

  6. Melissa said:

    And here I am working on my very first YA Urban Fantasy. Argh!!! At least it doesn’t have any vampires or werewolves in it. Still, my timing always seems to suck. Ah well, onwards!

  7. Jen C said:

    Ah, yes. When I was writing SF/F I planned on submitting under my initials to make myself seem more like a male. Now I’m writing historical, I was wondering if that was going to be necessary.

    It was my assumption that when readers pick up a book by a female they think they will be reading about mushy romance, fairies, flowers and other traditional female subjects. A book by a male is more likely to have action, suspense, and more interesting subjects.

    Of course, if you read widely you know that things are rarely that cut and dry, but I think the prejudice is still there regardless. I have been guilty of shunning female authors myself for that very reason.

  8. Nom de Gare said:

    Thanks for a really interesting post. I think it’s great that people like you and Moonrat are starting these conversations – we shouldn’t be so timid about having them.

    Regarding gender, I find this fascinating because the argument I encounter more often (as a female editor, from male readers and writers) is that because so many editors and agents are women, there must be a slant towards female tastes (whatever those are…) in what gets published. So I’m intrigued by the suggestion that there are more male literary fiction authors published. I’ve not paid enough attention to know whether this tallies with my own reading, but I’ll make two completely anecdotal observations anyway:

    1) I wonder if female authors, even when they’re writing fiction that’s just as “literary” as male authors, are more likely to be packaged as “commercial women’s fiction” or (eek!) “chick-lit”. For instance, in Australia, “A Woman in Black”, a modern Aus classic from the early ’90s, has just been reissued with a distinctly chick-lit cover:
    Would literary fiction about/by a man have been given the same treatment? I doubt it. Is this a bad thing? On one hand, it’s trivializing: it suggests that this insightful, masterfully written social satire is more fluffy than it is. BUT – it might sell more copies than it would with a more high-brow cover. The author is being patronized, but she might make more money from it (in this case, she’s dead… but you know what I mean). Is this good or bad? A tough call…

    2) On shakier ground here, but… are female readers more willing to buy books by male authors than are male readers to buy books by female authors? I have no evidence, but I suspect so. Possibly because we’re programmed to see books by female authors as specifically “women’s books” and those by male authors as just “books”? I do think female readers will happily buy books by and about men, while some men might think twice about buying a book by a woman and/or with a female main character.

    If these two things combine, the gender divide will just get worse. If books by female writers are constantly packaged as “women’s fiction”, the idea that these books — no matter how universal their themes or how literary their aesthetic — are only of interest to women readers will get further entrenched. Which means a literary novel by a woman has half the potential audience of a literary novel by a man. Which only increases the incentive for publishers to package books by women as “chick lit”: if they can’t bank on male literary-fiction readers buying it, they’ll need to try to make up for this by appealing to a broader female audience.
    AND, all this will make it easier to pitch books by women if they’re at the more “commerical” end of the spectrum. Literary fiction by female authors that can’t easily be repackaged as “chick lit” will be harder to sell.

    OK, I’ve just made this theory up as I typed. But if it is easier to sell literary fiction by men than by women, this is my speculative theory as to why…

    Apologies for such a loooong comment! But this is a fascinating topic.


  9. Shaun Hutchinson said:

    I can buy that the literary fiction market (or some of the genre markets like scifi/fantasy) might be heavily weighted with men – it’s a shameful fact that our country is gender biased – but in this day, I find it hard to accept that a great work of LitFic wouldn’t sell simply because of gender.

    If it was really great, wouldn’t a shrewd editor work with the author to minimize the impact of gender? Say by using her initials or a gender neutral pen name?

    I can understand a publisher recognizing reader’s gender bias, but to pass on a great novel because of gender makes me wonder how far we really have come.

    A Product of Fear

  10. Litgirl01 said:

    Strange about literary fiction only being sold when written by men. I suppose you could be like the Bronte’s and use male pen names. Ugh…it’s the nineteenth century revisited.

  11. MeganRebekah said:

    Of course I just started writing my first novel – a YA paranormal. No mythical creatures or anything, but still in that general genre. Bad timing, as Melissa noted! I guess that just challenges me to rise to the occasion and knock everyone’s socks off!
    Check it out at

  12. K J Gillenwater said:

    I think there are more male lit fiction writers out there because of book review sections like the New York Times finding scads of reasons to promote and review male lit. fic. writers, but hardly any space for female writers of the same type. If a publisher thinks the only way to get the author reviews in publications that matter is to choose MALE writers, that is what they are doing. I love that Jennifer Weiner is constantly calling out the critics for ignoring or undercutting talented women writers in the lit fiction world. Particularly irritating was the fact that male memoirs get raves for things female memoirs get ripped apart.

  13. Anonymous said:

    Couldn’t the agent present the author in non-gender form?

    Example: …My new client, S. R. Smithee has a thought-provoking new memoir out that I think would be perfect for you…”

    Nobody has to know until after the contract has been signed that S.R. stands for Susan Renee, right?

  14. jimnduncan said:

    Gender bias in publishing. Now there’s a big ol’ can of worms to open up. Certainly would be ignorant to say it doesn’t exist when everyone in the world expresses biases in some form or another every day in most every thing they do, and usually without ever considering or thinking about it.

    If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that publishing houses aren’t necessarily, overtly biased, but they do realize the reading public is, and they will market their books based upon that fact. You have to know your audience in order to sell, so you better know what your buyer wants and why. It’s a reactionary mindset. It would take far more hutzpah on the publishing end to publish in such a way to actively counter social biases in our culture, which is imagine is far more likely to happen on the small press side of things, but then they are generally catering to a smaller niche market that already actively pursues reading that is counter to cultural bias. Preaching to the choir as it were.

    What a very different publishing world it would be if the major houses publishing policies centered on the concept of not being biased. Wonder how much it would freak them out if they had to acquire material with the author information blanked out? If they had no clue who the author was until they offered a contract? Their marketing departments might collectively keel over with strokes. Lol.

    Though I’ve never really paid much attention to it, I would assume you are right about male bias in literary fiction. It makes perfect sense given the general gender bias in our mainstream culture. The highest intellectual/artistic pursuits has traditionally been viewed as the realm of men, and a large number of folks still think, believe, and live with that ingrained presumption. It’s sad. It’s wrong. And it’s true.

  15. Anonymous said:

    What kinds of YA novels are editors looking for these days?

    Why does Ms. Nelson think male writers have a leg up? She posits this but doesn’t speculate…being cagey or genuinely doesn’t have an inkling why that might be, just a gut instinct of hers?

    Just curious!

  16. Dara said:

    I’m wondering the same thing as Myra.

    I had a feeling the paranormal was nearing the end of its trend because I can tell just by walking in a bookstore how saturated that market is. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are still many fans out there for paranormal even if the trend is winding down.

    Just keep writing and polishing and make it so an agent and editor adores it. A challenge but something to aim for! (I don’t write paranormal, but if I did, I’d keep writing!)

  17. Anita said:

    I’m wondering what agents can do to help counteract the male trend…??? There must be something. And if I’m an editor and the story totally rocks, I’m not going to care who wrote the sucker…but are the editors not reading the manuscript in the first place, if it’s written by a woman?

  18. ella144 said:

    RE: Nom de Gare and your second point:

    In my experience (in speaking with my husband and two sons) young and teenage boys are much less likely to read a book written by a woman than a man because they think it will be a “girl’s book.” This is why JK Rowling was published under her intials. Her publishers/agent didn’t think boys would buy a book about a young boy written by a woman.

    I’ve seen this bias among girls and women as well. In my experience, the idea that “this was written by a woman and so will great insight into the female perspective/psyche” not only exists, but is pushed onto young readers by some teachers.

    Ironic that in trying to break down the gender bias, we are actually perpetuating it by drawing attention to female authors.

  19. Anonymous said:

    Thanks for the link to the other site. Interesting discussion, and since it wasn’t brought up here, I think I’ll wade in regarding racial disparity in the publishing industry. My hope is that publishers start looking at under represented groups to market to, and from an article I saw in Publishers Weekly, the teen market seems to be opening up more to diverse protagonists heading the books and some publishers looking for more multicultural offerings.

  20. TDP1789 said:

    While I normally enjoy your blog and thoughts, I find this entry particularly annoying, especially when it comes from an agent that lists 25 clients on her website, 24 of which are female. Female agents and writers are a dime a dozen, not to mention various specific genre targeted at women. I guess what I’m saying is that it depends on your perspective. The topic relates very well to your father’s words because my first reaction is, “Whatever makes you feel good about yourself.”

  21. L.C. Gant said:

    I had some strong opinions on Moonrat’s post (in a positive way), and I’m glad you’re hosting a similar discussion here. Thanks for bringing this topic to light!

    I agree wholeheartedly that gender bias exists in publishing, on both sides of the equation. I think the concept of women’s fiction/”chick lit” is what keeps men from reading books by women in general. As I mentioned in my comments on Moonrat’s post, having a separate category for one group of people only alienates them from other groups.

    When chick lit is marketed as “fluff,” it encourages the stereotype that feminine things are silly and meaningless, while masculine things (i.e., literary fiction) are deep and meaningful.

    As a writer of science fiction–another male-dominated genre–I plan to publish under my initials for that exact reason. I believe my gender hurts me more than it helps in that arena. Until we eliminate labels like “chick lit” and “women’s fiction” that divide literature into separate camps, we’ll continue to see these same problems in the future.

  22. Anonymous said:

    I’m a female writer and I don’t agree with this opinion at all. A hundred years ago, absolutely. Fifty, yes. Even twenty it was probably beneficial to have a male pen name or one unisex enough so no one knew. J.K. Rowling’s publisher recommended that she go by her initials for sales purposes. Now when I see that I think it’s a dumb copy-cat scheme and I’m LESS inclined to read.

    Today, I have to believe that we’ve evolved enough to get over the author being male or female and putting any kind of preconceived ideas about what that might mean about the story or writing. I know grown men who are as “butch” as they come who are not ashamed to admit they love Twilight. Good grief, if they can admit that then they can handle liking literary fiction by a woman (and I know many that do.) And speaking of literary fiction by women, can we tally up the NYT bestsellers that are literary fiction by women? Lots! Saying a book doesn’t sell well because it’s written by a woman is not a good enough reason for me. Plenty of women in literary fiction have done just fine. Find another flaw.

    To end on a positive note, I do agree with your thoughts on trends.

  23. Anonymous said:

    Today, I have to believe that we’ve evolved enough to get over the author being male or female and putting any kind of preconceived ideas about what that might mean about the story or writing.

    Unfortunately, we haven’t. That’s why Sisters in Crime exists (and yes, men can join, and many do).

    I’ll never forget the story best-selling author Tess Gerritsen told of the time a man walked up to her at a signing. He said he NEVER bought books written by women. (Tess said she had the last laugh because the guy was about to buy several books that were, indeed, written by women–under pseudonyms.)

  24. Aramus Genie said:

    What if I have a paranormal story with a young adult element? That will work, right? Maybe not. I guess the commutative property does work in publishing.

  25. moonrat said:

    thanks for the link, Kristin.

    (i feel the same way about books about women… but that’s a whole different post.)

    perhaps you should start selling me books 😉

  26. Anonymous said:

    Dear Nom de Gare,
    I just love your nom de guerre — so funny. You made me smile at the beginning of my day.
    Cheers, another Anon.

  27. Madison said:

    I think it’s stupid that male author names are easier to sell than female names. I’ve known it’s been true for quite a while, but I still think it’s stupid. I guess it’s a good thing that my name can be for a man or a woman, huh?

  28. benreeder said:

    So,Kristin, if YA urban fantasy is flooding the market (because it sells, I’m sure), what are editors and agents looking for now? It’s one thing to know what to avoid…but I want to know more about is what is getting hotter.

    What is the new big thing? Timing, after all, is important. What genre’s time is coming now?

  29. Anonymous said:

    I tend to unconsciously classify author’s names as meaningless publication information unless the particular name has somehow made it onto my personal radar. :/

    I usually look at the title, plot intro/ first few pages, cover (in an attempt to categorize genre flavor), and what books it is shelved next to (a holdover from my elementary school days when I’d pick out my own books from the library and hadn’t yet figured out that books in the fiction section are shelved by author even though books in the non-fiction section are shelved by topic)

  30. Anonymous said:

    Er… Ok, books in the fiction section are sort of shelved by topic (genre) the “topics” are just larger and my view tends to only cover the immediate vicinity….

    – previous anonymous

  31. Dal Jeanis said:

    Ummm –

    How would you know?

    Personally, I never attempt to do trousers checks on the authors of books I read. Well, almost never – I just had to do one for a review of the wonderful Historical fantasy “The Patriot Witch” by CC Finlay over at Abandoned Towers. My reason? Because it’s too clumsy to say “the author” every time you refer to the author or a book. That’s a basic limitation of the English language – no neuter singular personal pronoun.

    I had no idea whether CC Finlay had danglies or not when I read the book, and it has no effect on my enjoyment of his (yep, danglies) work. It also never had any effect on me to know that Andre Norton or James Tiptree were women. Or that Emma Lathen was two women rather than one. [Or, for that matter, that Octavia Butler and Samuel R Delany were black, etc etc etc]

    On the other hand, I do know that many readers are gender-biased in each direction. I don’t notice anybody posting here about romance readers and male authors, for instance. 😉

    I don’t know whether your sense about lit authors and gender is accurate or not — the last three book names that pop to my mind were attached to female authors, but being a spec fic writer I don’t intentionally track lit fic and my pub sources tend to be agent websites. So I’ll defer to your judgment.

  32. otto said:

    The idea that the YA supernatural genre is winding down is distressing to me for two reasons: 1) it’s what I like to read (especially in YA–and I’m an adult) and 2) it’s what I like to write.