The Gender Bias in Books

Last week, a coworker left me speechless. I was reading my book at lunch when she asked me what I was reading (I hate when people interrupt me that way, but you’re not allowed to be huffy about it!). I was reading Abaddon’s Gate and was about to start telling her how much I enjoyed it when she asked: “Is that science fiction?” This, honest to goodness, is how that conversation progressed from there:

“Yeah, it is.”

“Oh… Does your husband science fiction?”

“Oh yeah, my husband and I both love it, and–”

“Did you like it before you met him?”

“…uh, well, yeah, I mean, it was practically a requirement for me to–”

“Oh.” (pauses, biting her lip) “Well, it’s lucky you found a husband who liked it. I guess it’s probably easier for a woman to find a man like that than the other way around, though!”

I think I gave her this face:

Apparently being a woman and liking science fiction means I’m basically unmarriable and should be incredibly lucky that I found a forgiving man to marry me.

And if that were it, that would be one thing. I could shrug off one lady as just being kinda crazy.

And then author Catherine Nichols wrote about her query experiment—she sent her exact same book and exact same query letter to agents under a male name. And the male version of her got far, FAR more favorable responses than her real name.

Read about it here.

Here is one of the more salient points:

Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.

And even the rejections she got were more favorable, with more long-form responses and positive reactions.

This article—particularly following those outdated, sexist comments from my coworker—just was a real punch in the gut. I may be getting tanked before a single word is written, all because of unconscious (or perhaps a little bit conscious) bias on the part of the agents, the very first gatekeepers in the traditional publishing journey.

Bias against female authors in sci-fi/horror is part of why I use my initials with my book, Undead Rising. But I thought that was just for the reader who may be wary of a “girly” book…I had no idea that this sort of bias had leeched all the way through the system. But I can’t say I’m truly that surprised. Publishing is one of the most opaque, challenging industries, with a convoluted process and a lot of gut feel on the part of agents and editors in determining who gets in the door. And with the recent events at the Hugo Awards, I think there is a good reason to be concerned.

I used to sign my query letters with my name, thinking it would be more personal and therefore welcoming for the agent on the other end. I thought I was improving my odds by being warm and friendly. But perhaps I need to switch to only using my initials there, too; perhaps that is what it will take for my fiction to get a fair shake (especially as the book I’m querying is either sci-fi or literary fiction…both genres which carry a reputation as a boys’ club).

I’m deeply frustrated by this revelation, and sure, it’s one woman’s experiment with a relatively small sample. But her results are huge. I hope it leads to some careful thought in literary circles.

Do you see a bias in publishing? What should we do about it?

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Filed under Feminism, Publishing, writing

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