The Writing “Gender Gap”

On October 22nd, Liz Bourke’s article on “Reading, Writing, Radicalisation” appeared on  In the article, she notes:

“…the US market has seen near parity [in books published by male and female authors] over the last three years but the volume of noise on the internet is still, in general, louder when it comes to male authors. Now, I will freely grant that many male authors write rather good books, but the engagement/ enthusiasm surrounding them, surrounding their series, and their new releases, seems rather disproportionate by comparison. (It is certainly disproportionate in terms of what is reviewed in genre publications and what makes it onto New And Notable bookshop displays.)

She also notes that in the British F&SF market male authors published exceed female authors by fifteen to thirty percent annually.

One theme pervades both the article and the comments on the article, and that is that with the possible exception of a literal handful of female authors, such as J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, male authors get more sales and more press than do female authors.  I’m not about to argue with that fact, because, from what I’ve seen, and the facts and figures I’ve observed, it appears to be the case. On a personal basis, I went back over the titles on my Kindle and the paper books I’ve purchased and read over the past three years, and 45% were written by women and 55% by men.  Interestingly enough, the four books I had no interest in finishing were all written by men [and no, I won’t name them].

I would argue, however, that the difference in sales and press does not lie, per se, anywhere close to exclusively in the gender of the writer, but in the approach taken by the writer, and that, on a statistical basis, those books receiving press (especially within the F&SF genre) and massive sales tend to emphasize certain obvious and often violent aspects of human behavior and culture and minimize less blatant details of culture and behavior.  In turn, from what I’ve read, in general, and only in general, since individual authors vary widely, more female authors, even some writing under male or androgynous pen names, tend to show a greater range of subtle details than do male authors and focus more on character and character development than do male authors.

Personally, I have also observed that any book that I write with a female protagonist sells far less well than those with male protagonists, even those in my best-selling fantasy series. Yet while only ten percent of my published novels have female protagonists, those books account for over a quarter of the books of mine that have received starred reviews.  So I have some doubts that it’s because the books featuring women as protagonists aren’t as good as the others.

What all this suggests to me is that certain kinds of books draw more sales and press than do other kinds [obviously], and that the difference isn’t so much because of the gender implied by the author’s name [although I will note that there are still references in places on the internet that insist that I am female, which clearly I’m not], but because of the way in which the book is written, and that, in general, the approach taken by women writers tends to be more thoughtful and detailed… and, frankly, thoughtful and detailed doesn’t sell as well… as I have previously noted in regard to what I write, which is why I think it’s somewhat misleading to suggest that the issue is primarily based on the perceived gender of the author.  I wouldn’t deny that some gender prejudice exists, because I’ve seen it in every field, including writing, but the bottom line in publishing is in fact sales, and for now, the blatant, direct, and not-very-subtle tends to dominate the publishing best-sellers, regardless of author gender.  


19 thoughts on “The Writing “Gender Gap””

  1. John Prigent says:

    I simply don’t care about an author’s gender. I read your books, Harry Potter books, Terry Pratchett’s books, in fact anyone’s books that strike me as well-written and with thoughtfully-developed characters. That includes characters who are deliberately set up as imperfect. An element of ‘action-adventure’ and/or humour appeals to me, but I’m totally disinterested in love stories. I was brought up on Rider Haggard, Percy F Westerman, and others of that ilk whose books filled my school’s library.

    1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

      Not caring is, basically, part of what causes this problem. It’s often said by bloggers and other readers (particularly of SF/F fiction) that they actually consciously have to make an effort to read books as many books by female authors (or with female protagonists) as by(/with) male.

      It’s certainly true that some women do well. Some of the most talked about books in the past couple of months, in terms of sci-fi, have been by women. And star women in the lead roles. Rachel Bach (pen-name for Rachel Aaron) has a trilogy coming out which has seen a LOT of discussion, Ann Leckie’s debut Ancillary Justice is really doing well in terms of praise (and has been compared to Iain M. Banks), and there’s also Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi, which saw additional praise for its queer, black, female protagonist. But these tend to be few and far between, or are like buses in you have none for ages and then two or more come at once.

      Most people will have shelves dominated by men, even if they buy recent books. Partially this is because of just how many men get published or are continuously touted as must-reads, but it’s also partially due to the marketing. As women are often seen to not sell as well as men, publishers put less behind them in most cases (esp. the sequels), which is a real shame.

      So whilst you may say “you don’t care” about an author’s gender, which is fair enough and I kind-of see what you mean by that, it’s actually a vaguely ironic situation in that for this to resolve itself, we do actually need to care.

  2. Tim says:

    I have to (rarely) disagree with Kathryn on this one. I decided to check on my own library and found (encouraging I suppose) that around 30% of authors were women (from the name anyway). Most were academic books however. On fiction, the male authors dominated. However when you look at the number of books (rather than authors) the numbers narrowed by 10%.

    I really do not care about author gender and I am with John Prigent on this one. In the UK, there is an increasing trend to force everything to conform to the demographic percentages, and so better candidates will be rejected as their ‘quota’ has been filled. Oxbridge entrance is being measured in this way by the media, for example – in spite of the fact that Public Schools give their pupils far better training to enter these places.

    I want to buy and read books I enjoy. I certainly do not want to measure my library by the degree to which it is Politically Correct. Heaven forbid.

    1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

      It’s not really about “political correctness” (ooh, I do so hate that phrase), though. It’s about addressing an actual lack of representation of women. Diversity is the spice of life – we all have books of various genres, do we not? I’m almost exclusively a SF/F reader, but today I bought three Cormac McCarthy books, for example. Why does consciously making a decision to read more female authors (or more black, muslim, gay, etc. authors) seem to be where people draw the line?

      It’s not really about quotas, it’s about levelling the playing field. Muslim authors cannot get published if people don’t buy Muslim authors. Women can’t get published if people don’t buy their books. Heck, actually, these groups tend to get very little respect in such circles. Many of the authors I know (who are women) can give you anecdotes about how they’ve been patronised or assumed to write fantastical romance because they say they write fantasy books.

      You don’t need to attach numbers or anything to this. All that people need to do, really, is just be a little more aware of what they buy, and push themselves to diversify a little. Instead of another Abercrombie book, why not pick up Elizabeth Moon’s Paksworld series? Instead of a John Ringo, why not pick up Ann Leckie’s debut?

      It works out well for all of us. A more diverse publisher catalogue creates more opportunities for those who might not get published via traditional means because publishers may not want to risk it. And… well, a question I’d like to pose is if women are as good, etc., why do so many people proportionally read more male authors, and if gender truly didn’t matter, why are people so resistant to the idea of reading more women authors?

      Food for thought, there.

      1. Tim says:

        A good reply Kathyrn. But you appear to be saying that we should deliberately widen our reading choices based on (perceived) author gender (and possibly other diversity factors) which is actually form of ‘quota-ing’.
        That should be completely irrelevant.

        My first SF book was by Kate Wilhelm (The Killing Thing) as that was published in the 60s. Did I care it was a woman author? No.

        If there is indeed bias in what is published, then one solution could be for new authors to be given androgynous names.

        1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

          But a lot of authors *do* use androgynous names. K.J. Parker is the PRIME example in terms of SF/F works, because – actually – basically no-one knows who that person is.

          And I do agree that sometimes choosing things based on one (arguably irrelevant) attribute can be considered ‘quota-ing’, I don’t think that’s true here. It’s not going to hurt anyone, or cause any issues, if you broaden your reading habits. Often female (or black, gay, etc.) authors have to fight for legitimacy in communities, but also in terms of sales figures. Why? Well, clearly what they are does seem to matter to some people, so I think it’s important we try to fix that – and that means we have to consciously make an effort to read books that aren’t by straight white guys, who by far seem to dominate shelves.

          1. “Dominate the shelves” is an appropriate term, because the big-name authors tend to have a lot more physical presence in bricks and mortar stores. It would be interesting to see if there’s a difference in buying patterns among readers who do not frequent physical bookstores.

  3. Corwin says:

    I dislike shallow books. I also don’t enjoy poorly written books. It’s not surprising then, in agreement with LEM that 2 out of every 3 books I read are by female authors and my second favourite author (after LEM) is Mercedes Lackey.

  4. Mathew says:

    When i buy books i don’t even look at the authors name.

  5. Lawrence says:

    I’ve never really been concerned about the gender of the author. But I will offer some observations on my own habits.

    Most of the books I own are from male authors. That can easily be attributed to my taste in F&SF though. My favories with the exception of LEM are all deceased (and only one other was still writing when I was old enough to appreciate their work). At the time they were writing there were even fewer female authors, proportionately, than today.

    Recalling series I’ve read or owned by female authors I can think of only three that motivated me to seek more of their work. Two of those authors works I still enjoy but only as light reading without any real content besides escapism. The other is Andre Norton from whom I’ve never read anything that didn’t intrigue me.

    Books with female protagonists? I’m sorry but for whatever reason I’ve never been able to connect with them. The closest would be in Lady-Protector but it took me well into the Lord-Protectors Daughter before I was able to empathize enough with the protagonist to really invest myself in the story. I have a clearly established preference for nearly all LEM’s work so I can only attribute this to my own inability to put myself in the characters shoes. Certainly not a lack of quality on the part of the material presented to me.

    So, I’ll ask a potentially stupid question now but seeing as I don’t have the answer…

    Is there any suspected correlation between the gender of readers and the gender of authors? (Yes I admit I assume that majority of F&SF readers are male for absolutely no reason outside my own prejudice).

    Can we look at the fact that male authors are more likely to write about male protagonists which are more likely to resonate with male readers who are more likely to be reading this type of work in the first place?

    Again, no sniping please I acknowledge freely that I’m operating off my own, quite possibly erroneous, impressions.

  6. I’d say that there has to be a certain correlation, at least for a significant percentage of readers. The statistics show that fantasy has a higher percentage of female readers, and from what I’ve seen, there’s definitely a higher percentage of women writing fantasy than SF.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      While I very much enjoy a story where characters learn, grow, wrestle with issues, deal with logistics, etc…for me, the ultimate in escapism is not a fantasy where improbable relationships solve personal problems; is a story with the Biggest Toy in it. So far, I’m thinking that would be E.E. “Doc” Smith’s “Skylark of Valeron” – a 1000km diameter hollow artificial planetoid powered by limitless cosmic energy, with a 1 cubic mile thought-controlled computer that could “think” on all possible frequencies and implement those “thoughts” in physical form according to its creator’s wishes, map the entire universe in a matter of hours, and a drive that could travel universal distances in days or at most weeks – subsequently retrofitted with a device to transfer smaller objects instantly over considerable (but not universal – sufficient precision of control being impossible) distances through a 4th spacial dimension. This, mostly conceived in the 1930’s (with the final book in the series in the 60’s).

      In short, a toy that could do just about everything I could possibly wish for other than create someone to argue with me. 🙂

  7. Wine Guy says:

    Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: most of just only read books we like. I COULD read MZ Bradley, Stephanie Meyer, E. L. James, or Eric Flints 1632 series… but I choose not to because after sampling one or two, I don’t care for them. Just like I don’t re-read Piers Anthony except for one or two of the Incarnations of Immortality books because I’ve changed since I first read them.

    I read for pleasure and escapism. If those stories have serious themes, so much the better, but I like Robert Frezza’s VMR Theory as much as I like Fire in a Faraway Place and Glen Cook’s Garret as much as the Black Company.

    I DO try new books and authors – to the tune of 1-2/month. Trying new authors is like trying new wines: I like what I like and the rest of it is decent enough but not what I want. Occasionally, one knocks my socks off (like Petit Verdot and Gay Hendrick’s First Rule of Ten). How do I pick new ones? Easy: word of mouth, random selections from new paperbacks with interesting covers/back covers, things I read in other media (internet, magazines, papers, etc.).

    Women, men, Muslims, Norwegians, little orange fish, and amazing horses better write in Thriller, Fantasy, Science Fiction, and History genres, otherwise I’m probably never going to buy and read their book, though if someone whose taste I trust shoves their book into my hand, I’ll read at least the first 2-3 chapters.

    1. tim says:

      @wine guy. As an illustration of how I read, I followed up on ‘Petit Verdot’. New to me and – as I also like my wine, I discover it is a red Bordeaux, whereas (unless I have food), I much prefer the Semillon from the same area.

      So I have learned of a new wine BUT I prefer my dry taste.

      Is that not what this is all a about?

      1. Wine Guy says:

        Semillon is an excellent varietal… I have about a 1/2 case or so.

        AND is so much better than OR…. in wine and in books!

  8. John Prigent says:

    That’s a good statement of what I was driving at! If 10,000 women write books of type ‘X’ but only 10 men, or vice versa, your ability to care about their gender is restricted – so why bother to care about it? Care about the quality of the writing and characterisation instead.

  9. Alan says:

    I too have perused my book shelves. I am no great librarian, but about three or four years ago I started using Goodreads, in conjunction with a program for tracking my books. My library was too large to conveniently keep in mind all the books I owned. So I bought one of those handy bar code scanners, and every time I buy a new book, now, I scan it in.

    This gave me a very simple way to look at my shelves. Currently I have over two thousand books. A fair number, with about three quarters in paperback or mass market. Of my library, 95% devoted to leisure reading, sixty percent of it is by female authors.

    Of my SF segment, the vast majority is male, however. Fantasy is mostly female. Fiction tends to be mostly male.

    One of the first book series I can remember reading on my own was the Hardy Boy’s series. I’ve got the original books on my children’s shelves now. Mine from when I was a child. But my daughter’s shelves, amusingly enough, have Carolyn Keene. Now I know both authors are pen names used by many writers, I found it interesting that my daughter far enjoyed Nancy Drew to the Hardy Boys.

    Shortly after the Hardy Boys, I moved on to the Belgaraid series, by David Eddings. I truly love his works, though they are simple stories without great and deep thought needed. At the same time I began on Mercedes Lackey, and a few of her contemporaries. Almost exclusively women.

    Over the years I added more male authors, especially in the SF area. Like many people here, I don’t pay too terrible much attention to the author’s name. I love to go to a book store and peruse the shelves. Reading the backs of the books, or the first chapter (or five!) while standing in the aisle. Finding new authors. I frequently buy anthologies with one author I know and like. Usually the headliner for the anthology. After I read the short stories I go look up the authors I liked.

    I can honestly say, in this area at least, gender holds no meaning for me. More than that, given the frequency of pen names being used, how would I ever know if it was a male or female author?

    My interest in reading change on my moods. Some days I want something frilly and light, for relaxed, lazy reading. Other times, I want a serious, detailed book with a great and in depth story. So my shelves have Mary Janice Davidson, Mercedes Lackey, Anne Rice, David Weber, the wonderful Mr. Modesitt :), Heinlein, Conan Doyle and Jennifer Roberson. Just to name a few.

    Patricia Briggs and Katie MacAlister are great for an easy read with nice characters, but their books don’t have the sheer depth that David Weber and LEM put into their works. Yet I own everything that all four have put into print. It has nothing to do with their gender.

    Some authors, sadly, I have put aside at different times. Their writing style changed, or what they put out was not at all in my interest. Some got long winded and repetitive. Robert Jordan comes to mind, as does Terry Goodkind. Lovely story, and great world creators. But I never sat down with one of their books and couldn’t get up till I had finished the story.

    So after all my rambling, I believe that gender has less than anything to do with what people buy. Rather it is the press/advertisement, the connection in people’s minds with materials they already know and like (like my picking authors to pursue, based on anthologies I’ve read), or the writing style itself which influences most readers to buy a book.

  10. Jamie says:

    Looking at my Goodreads profile, it does seem that I read a lot more male (at least from the pen names) authors than female authors. I hadn’t ever really bothered to check before now. Mainly because I didn’t care about the gender or names of the authors.
    I don’t pick my books based on author name or gender. I choose them because the cover looked interesting, or because the Amazon or Goodreads recommendation engine harvested other books I liked to recommend them. When I read I am not reading to make the world a better place, or to right injustices. I’m reading to enjoy myself. So when I find an author I really like, I will but more of his/her books.
    I want to enjoy myself and escape the world around me through reading. Since fantasy and scifi are meant to entertain, I don’t see anything wrong with my attitude.

  11. Darcherd says:

    I’ve enjoyed this thread immensely. Of the seven major authors of Fantasy/SF that I follow closely, i.e. buy just about everything they write, usually in hardcover, 3 are male (LEM, Tad Williams, and Patrick Rothfuss) and 4 are female (Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm, Carol Berg, Kate Elliott, and C.J. Cherryh). I have not heard of several of the authors mentioned by other posters, but I’m definitely going to check them out.

    But I do have an observation about LEM’s comment that his novels with female protagonists don’t sell as well. As noted above, I’m a HUGE Modesitt fan and have purchased, read and enjoyed nearly everything he’s written. But I have noticed that those which feature female protagonists just seem to lack some of the spark and verve that his male-lead works do. I’m not saying that books like the “Soprano Sorceress” series or the “Lady Protector” Corean Chronicles pair aren’t good – they just didn’t seem AS good as the bulk of LEM’s corpus. I’m not enough of a literary critic to put my finger on what was different about them, but from my admittedly personal perspective, it just didn’t seem like he had as much fun writing them.

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