The Ladies of Literature (the gender gap and other surprising revelations)

Raise your margaritas my lovely ladies, in honor of International Women’s Day. Today was beautiful; the last time I saw this much female love and empowerment was in the bathroom at my favorite dive bar. Admit it my female friends- we will never be as kind and supportive as we are when we meet in the restroom after a couple of drinks. If we could bottle that mentality and carry it over to our sober selves, the world would be a much happier place. Given our current political climate, today was ushered in with an unusual amount of fanfare and excitement. As a woman who proudly carries the title of feminist, I have found so much hope in the outpouring of love that I saw today. 

March is National Women’s History Month, and many bookstores are celebrating with discounts and special events. I’ve never paid much attention to the gender of the authors that I read; my tastes are all over the board, I voraciously read anything and everything. I always just assumed that I read predominantly female works, or at least a fairly equal amount for both sexes. But I decided to try a little experiment, one I hope you will consider attempting yourself: can you think of the last five or ten books that you have read? Do you have them in your mind? Good. Now, out of that list- how many of those authors were females?

Does the answer surprise you? Because it shocked the hell out of me. Out of the last five books I’ve read, every single one of them was written by a man. Out of the last ten, four were written by a woman. So I decided to delve a little bit deeper, I was curious- surely I read more female authors than that. I keep track of all of my books on Goodreads, I am a chronic list-creator; it makes me happy inside (don’t judge too harshly). So I looked through the list of every book I have read so far in 2017. And do you know what I found? Only 25% were written by women (several, in fact, were written by the same woman). How is that possible? Is there really that much of a disparity in the literary world, or have I just been following an insular pattern when selecting my books?

There is a used bookseller in Cleveland, Ohio that noticed this disparity. Harriett Logan, owner of Loganberry Books, noticed that there was a vast difference in genders of the authors she carried in her store. She estimated that out of the roughly 10,000 pieces of fiction in her shop, nearly two-thirds were written by men. To illustrate this point, she decided that art could speak louder than her words alone. Together with several employees and volunteers, they went through the fiction section and flipped around every single book written by a male author. The visual is astounding.


The point that they were trying to make was that the gender gap in publication can still be a very real issue that aspiring female authors may have to face. Are you suspicious of this claim? Truthfully, I was too, so I decided to run my own little investigation. My conclusions surprised me, to say the least.

In 2015 author Catherine Nichols decided to try her hand at an interesting experiment. She sent out identental queries to dozens of agents under both her own name as well as a male pen-name. The length of time it took to garner a response was much shorter for her male counterpart; after sending the first six queries under his name, she received her first response within minutes, to be followed by four more- three of which included requests for a manuscript (many more were to follow as she continued her experiment). On the other side of the equation, after fifty queries were sent out under her own female name, she only received two requests for a manuscript. At the conclusion of this little test she found that George (her fictional male alter-ego) was 8.5 times more likely that she was to get a manuscript request from an agent. Let that sink in for a moment. As she so elequently put it, he was “eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.”  

This isn’t as isolated an incident as I had originally thought. As it turns out, there are many authors who choose to publish under a male pen name, or in the alternative, have their work published under an ambiguous name. Take J.K Rowling, for example; her publisher was afraid that a woman’s name on the cover would hurt book sales- and thus, her initials became famous. She isn’t the only one either; Emily, Charlotte and Anne Bronte, Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot), Ann Rule, Louisa May Alcott, Nelle Harper Lee, and Nora Roberts, have all worked under male pseudonyms. 

Some studies suggest that one of the problems that women face when it comes to finding a good foothold in the literary world comes down to publicity. An Australian study conducted over a lengthy period of time (from 1985 to 2013) found that female authors were less likely to make it into book reviews and similar publications that would help boost book sales. Over this particular time period, two-thirds of the books written were by female authors, and yet two-thirds of the books featured in publishing reviews were written by men. These numbers haven’t changed much in the past 30 years and have shown be consistent with global trends. Male authors also have a higher probability of winning awards for their work as well as being included on school syllabus reading lists.

Now, these observances aren’t in any way meant to demean the work of our male counterparts; we all share the same passions, and as such, we share the same joy and excitement to see the successes of others who share in this crazy way of life. That being said, as a female author who carries the dream of being published someday, I find these statistics to be disheartening, to say the least. It is a reminder that, though we have come so far and etched a place for ourselves in this complicated society, there are still fields where we will have to openly face gender bias, whether intential or not. It is a stunning reminder that I will have to decide if my work will be best sent off into the word under a name that is not my own. It scares me, to be honest, that I may have to fight that much harder than my male counterparts to achieve the same dream that we both carry. Breaking into publishing is challenging enough without feeling like the deck may be stacked against you.

And yet, we live in a world of constant change. Modern technology has transformed everything about our daily lives, and the publishing industry was not exempt from these trends. The current shifting taking place in the publishing world; the opening up of the market through the use of self-publishing is categorically changing the game. If you couple that with the fact that women are traditionally the largest consumers of literature; you realize the power that we have to change these traditional trends. We can choose to market our work under our own name, we can choose to publish our work directly to the masses and use social media to publicize it. We can keep on submitting out work, continue to fight for those cherished dreams. Through adversity our work will flourish, it is during the struggles that we discover our true message and our voice. Ladies, let them hear your stories, don’t let them look away or shuffle you to the bottom of the pile. My name is Kaitlynn, I am a female author, and I am damn proud to be one, even if that means my road will be a little bit bumpier.