Books For Everyone . . . With a Twist
Bedazzled Ink Publishing is dedicated to literary fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books that celebrate the unique and under-represented voices of women and books about women that appeal to all readers. Sounds simple enough. But the phrase “appeal to all readers” is a major challenge to a towering wall of male bias in the publishing industry. Bedazzled Ink is not politely inhabiting the place the publishing industry has designated for women authors. We don’t publish romances, chick-lit, women’s fiction, or books written specifically for the female reader. No. We’re publishing books by women (and a few men) with female protagonists written for everyone.
So, good for you, you say. Yay us, for thinking that “everyone” would be interested in general fiction and nonfiction books mostly written by women and all with female protagonists because our books tackle interesting themes and subjects with strong, unique voices and styles. Those women who want books featuring females whose lives have more substance and interest than what the industry has designated as acceptable female genres are thrilled to find our books.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of “everyone” rarely picks up (or clicks on) one of our books to see if it sounds interesting because the author is female or it has a female protagonist. There’s a reason why publishers encourage women with books that are written for “everyone” to use initials or a male nom de plume. The publishers know they have to trick male readers into reading books by women to sell enough copies to make publishing these books worthwhile. Trick? Surely that’s too strong a word. Just ask New York Times bestselling author V.E. Schwab what she thinks about that. A man once told her, “I’m so glad I didn’t know you were a woman. I never would have picked up your book.” Really? Why on earth would that make a difference? But for some reason, male readers have major issues with the sex of the person who writes the words in the books they read.
More disheartening and, frankly, anger-inducing for a publisher like Bedazzled Ink are the reports from women authors of children’s books written for everyone, who find themselves making presentations to school assemblies comprised of only girls, because the boys are excused from attending. Author Shannon Hale let her publicist know she wanted both girls and boys at her presentations. Not long after that, she faced a school assembly of only girls. The school knew of her request but chose to ignore it. She asked what other authors had visited. The school had a male author, and both girls and boys had been invited to attend his presentation. What kind of message is this sending to the boys — and girls — in this school? Now let’s see a show of hands for “not a good one.”
Ms. Hale laments, “I heard a hundred times with Hunger Games: ‘Boys, even though this is about a girl, you’ll like it!’ Even though, I never heard a single time, ‘Girls, even though Harry Potter is about a boy, you’ll love it!’”
Bedazzled Ink’s children’s imprint, Dragonfeather Books, has books about a girl finding a baby mermaid, a girl ghost hunter, a girl warrior in training, a girl trying to stop an assassination, a girl playing lacrosse, a girl playing basketball . . . all written for everyone. But the “a girl” part seems to be enough to excuse boys from reading these books, even though they’d most likely enjoy them. If the protagonists were boys, both girls and boys would be expected to read about them. Expected without a thought that the lifelong gender-biased reading habits begins at this moment, when someone else starts making the decision on what they can or cannot read.
Author Caroline Paul, who has also experienced the girl-only assembly syndrome, was told at one school that a boy fan of her book had been given permission to attend. But he didn’t, because he was too embarrassed. Really? What kind of world do we live in that a boy can’t openly enjoy a book and attend a once in a lifetime chance to hear the author speak because he’s too embarrassed about being teased by his friends?
We’ve read all the depressing studies about male bias found in the major reviewers (two-thirds are men), publishers (30% women authors), awards (don’t get us started), agents (“the book needs more men”). Meg Wolitzer stated in the New York Times, “As a woman writer, you get points if you include the ‘male’ world in your work, and you lose points if you omit it.” Again, really? How many points do male writers get for including the “female” world in their work? The whole idea that percentages of gender worlds being some kind of deal breaker as to whether a book even gets published, much less reviewed, stocked in bookstores, picked up off a shelf by readers is a manufactured absurdity.
Books are about the diffuse experiences characters have in their own worlds. Their journeys are both unique and universal. Both relatable to the reader and new and different perspectives on life. To have a full understanding of our place in the world, we need to extend our knowledge beyond our own experiences. At the moment, a good percentage of “everyone” is missing out on the opportunity to explore many exciting new horizons because of this wrong-minded gender bias.
The most recent head-banging moment for Bedazzled Ink came in the form of a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News about the book From Under the Russian Snow by Michelle Carter. The author of the article went out of the way to write, “In its promotional materials, the book appears to be targeted specifically at women: ‘Who could pass up a story told by a woman of 50 who embraced a great adventure without her family in an exotic setting, only to absorb one of life’s harshest blows? It’s every female reader’s secret desire and gut-piercing fear.’ But that doesn’t really do the book justice. It is certainly more than suitable for male readers as well.” Seriously, that’s all it takes for a book to appear targeted for female readers? Have you ever seen this kind of disclaimer (despite appearing to be targeted for male readers, it’s suitable for female readers) about a book with a male protagonist that is every male reader’s secret desire and gut-piercing fear? I’m sure the author of the article had good intentions, but the whole idea that this book needs some kind of “suitable for male readers” label is ludicrous.
From Under the Russian Snow is a nonfiction account of when the author was selected as the USIA journalist-in-residence at the Russian-American Press and Information Center in Moscow to help Russian journalists make the transition to western-style journalism in the 1990s. Sound interesting? Go out and buy a copy. Who cares if the journalist chosen for this job happens to be female. No one should care. The only thing that matters is she has one heck of a story to tell.
And what about this word “suitable”? Is that some kind of code for “it’s not filled with icky female stuff”? As absurd as this whole issue is, it’s a real threat to Bedazzled Ink’s efforts to find the audience their books deserve and sell enough copies to survive. Our books are often judged and condemned before they even have a chance to reach a potential appreciative readership.
And, frankly, we resent that. And get spitting angry about it. We don’t grandly proclaim our books and authors are better than books by male authors. But they’re at least equal, and we expect the decency to be treated equally by the different segments in the industry from reviewers to booksellers to awards. Why would we expect less? Why would we be satisfied with settling for less? And, while we’re at it, why are we treated like we’re less?
We shouldn’t have to be forced to make content concessions to male readers. We shouldn’t have to resort to tricking male readers into reading our books. We shouldn’t have to beg to have our books be taken more seriously.
Do we have to pander to male readers and whatever they think is so scary about our books by putting a disclaimer on the cover that says, “suitable for male readers”? Do we have to promise that our books are female cootie free? Even though females are expected to wade through books filled with male cooties and then be expected to appreciate the magnificent genius of these works.
Bedazzled Ink is not anti this or pro that. We’re not trying to prove anything. We’re just a company publishing books for everyone. Period. Written by human beings who have interesting stories to tell. Is it too much to ask for “everyone” who picks up a Bedazzled Ink book because it looks interesting to find the gender of the author or the protagonist irrelevant?
Or do we have to extend a challenge — a dare even — to give Bedazzled Ink books a try. To read the one that looks interesting. To expand world experiences that help increase an understanding of fifty percent of the population. And then, the next time “everyone” browses for their next read, they take a chance with more books by female authors. Who knows? They may even be the start of the next big trending hashtag.
Visit http://www.bedazzledink.com for more about Bedazzled Ink Publishing and our books.