A reader’s-eye view of gender in publishing decisions

There’s been quite a bit in the book blogosphere last month about statistics showing a low percentage of women being published in major literary magazines and books by women being reviewed less frequently than men. I have no reason to doubt or dispute the statistics but at the same time wonder how much of this is a conscious decision by editors.

I know nothing of how the publishing or magazine industry works and that is really the focus of the analysis and discussion. Thus, I can’t tell if the reported disparity reflects the demand of the market or if publishers are telling the reading public what the market is. Being on the receiving end, I can only look to my own reading habits. While I am convinced that, whether due to ignorance, fairness or serendipity, gender doesn’t really show up my reading radar, my own experience may reflect an underlying imbalance.

As for longer literary works in magazines, I pay little, if any, attention to the author’s sex. The only time I really look for information on the author of a book review is if I am curious about their background or expertise in the subject matter, which occasionally occurs when reading a review of a book dealing with a specialty topic or area. And when it comes to books, my filter is subject, not author. While there are some new books I seek out based on the author alone, I can’t say that’s gender based. I will look for a Mary Doria Russell or Mary Roach title just as avidly as I look for that of any other author. I doubt an author’s gender ever rises to the level of even a tertiary consideration.

But what do my own “statistics” show? Of the books I’ve read this year, one quarter were written or edited by women. Likewise, of the books I read last year, 21 percent were written or edited by women. That, however, drops to 17 percent in 2009. When it comes to books reviewed, the percentages are somewhat smaller Thirteen percent of last year’s reviews were of books by female authors and 19 percent in 2009. However, I’ve reviewed no books by women this year and only two of the 16 I currently have plans to review is written by a woman. Still, whether it is in my defense or supports the thesis that quality female authors tend to be overlooked, my favorite novel and my favorite nonfiction book last year were both written by women.

At bottom, though, perhaps my statistics are exactly what begs the question of whether they are the result of what the market wants or what the industry thinks the market wants. And even thornier issue is whether, and to what extent, gender should play a role in publishing decisions. The altruist would hope that those decisions are gender-blind and focused on the content.

There is probably no hell for authors in the next world — they suffer so much from critics and publishers in this.

Christian Nestell Bovee, Intuitions and Summaries of Thought, Volume I

2 comments to A reader’s-eye view of gender in publishing decisions

  • I think whether or not it’s a conscious decision is hardly the point. I doubt these editors/reviewers wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “Hey, I’m going to reinforce the superiority of men by only reading male authors today and denigrating genres primarily written by women!”

  • Nice post to shine a light on this issue.

    But yes: at home, at work, on the Internet, consciousness has nothing to do with it.