A friend came up to me the other day, talking about her new job at Barnes & Noble. She liked it but got upset when a customer refused to buy any novel written by a female. She got so frustrated that her boss let her go cool off in the back.
It’s 2019 and women still struggle for representation in the writing community. Male writers dominate the bookshelves. Even if women get to publish, some publishers will make them change their name to something more “masculine.” Some women will write under an androgynous pseudonym anyways, knowing they’re more likely to be taken seriously. Who wants to publish under their own name if that means no one will read their book?
Refusing to buy a book written by a female writer seems like an outdated problem. But it still happens.
The changing of names has gone back to the 1800s. In the 1846, “Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë, revered as some of the greatest novelists of all time, originally published their work under the pseudonyms Acton, Ellis, and Currer Bell.” Those sisters knew they didn’t stand a chance of literary recognition if anyone knew they were women. Over 160 years later, J.K. Rowling published The Cuckoo’s Calling under a male name, Robert Galbraith. For the Harry Potter books, her publishers advised her “to use [her] initials instead of her first name as they anticipated that the intended audience of young boys may not want to read a book written by a woman.”
One writer, Catherine Nichols, did an experiment on how much of a difference gender makes. She sent out the same query letter to a multitude of literary agents. On some queries, she used her real name. On others, she used the name George. The results should scare us:
“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 1 in 25.”
Male writers consistently top the charts for the best writers as well. In 2018, James Patterson “ranked first in the list’s two-decade history” for the 10th time. Anyone with a consistent spot on the list of top-earning writers is much more likely to be male.
I decided to create a chart of the top-earning writers for the last five years. About six men make the list steadily — meaning they made it at least three years in a row — either high or low. But only four women made it either high, medium, or low. Most of the time, low. Two of those four women write under names that could be ‘male’ and got some of the highest spots.
Seeing such little representation on the shelves hurts all young writers who don’t identify as male, including non-binary and trans writers. This lack of representation can discourage them.
But there’s no reason to give up hope. Female writers hit the charts more often than ever before. On average for the past five years, females hit the top charts about 38% percent of the time.
But we still need more representation.