The other day I got an email from a male reader who “finally read” The Soprano Sorceress… and enjoyed it and says he’s looking forward to the others. What was interesting about the e-mail was that this reader — a careerist serving in the military — admitted he’d put off reading the book because the protagonist was female. After receiving that email and then getting the early sales reports on Arms-Commander, I got to thinking matters over. I’ve written a number of books with female protagonists, and frankly, while they’ve sold well, they haven’t sold as well as other comparable books of mine with male protagonists, even though, in general, they’ve gotten far better reviews.
Now… obviously, female protagonists don’t kill book sales in general, or Patty Briggs or Marjorie Liu or any number of other authors wouldn’t be on The New York Times bestseller lists. So, if my books with female protagonists, which get better reviews, don’t sell as well as those with male protagonists, why is that so? I’d certainly hope that it’s not that better written books don’t sell as well.
What I’ve tentatively concluded is that readers form expectations of writers, and when an author writes something that appears to go against those expectations in a negative way, sales suffer. I’d been writing professionally for 25 years when the first book I wrote from a female viewpoint — and, yes, it was The Soprano Sorceress — was published, and I had eighteen books in print by then, all of which featured strong male characters and many of which were military/action oriented. Although I have always written strong female characters, they were usually viewed from the male perspective.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I upset the expectations I’d inadvertently established over more than twenty years. In a way, perhaps I should have been grateful that the fall-off in sales was merely “noticeable,” rather than catastrophic. Part of the loss in readers was probably alleviated because I’d been publishing fantasy for some six years before I took on writing a fantasy with a female protagonist, so that the shift was likely not so wrenching as it might have been to some readers.
And yet, at the same time, why didn’t I pick up more readers from among those who like strong female protagonists? For exactly the same reason! Those readers had likely scanned earlier books of mine and decided they were not to their tastes, and having done so, were not likely to return to peruse later works of mine unless someone called one to their attention.
This sort of expectation-generation, unfortunately, is not helped by current publisher marketing strategies, where all too many authors are encouraged to use one pen name for one type of book, and another for a different type, and where an author’s name is a stringently and narrowly defined “brand.” That strategy is akin to applying fast-food marketing techniques to books, and while it might sell more books in the short run, it definitely has the downside of limiting publication of books and/or authors that don’t “brand” easily.
This”branding” also has the side-effect of effectively reducing reader exposure to a wider range of fiction. For example, I write, under my own name, straight SF, fantasy, alternate world SF, what might be called science fantasy, and I write from both male and female points-of-view, and I use different tenses in different books. Offhand, I don’t know of another author who does all that — not under the same name, although I do know some writers with multiple pen names for differing styles.
In the end, though, I have to ask, just what are readers losing by the creation of such rigid expectations of author names? What discoveries will they never make… what intellectual and mental challenges will they never encounter… what unexpected pleasures will they miss?