Whatever Happened to the Women’s Science Fiction Press?

An Open Letter to the Publishing Industry

We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ, one of the few feminist sci-fi classics that have been reprinted

A Quick, Belated Obituary

The Women’s Press, a London-based feminist publisher, printed a science fiction series during the 80s and 90s. They published so-called “literary fiction” out of their main imprint, but the sci-fi imprint was one of the more radical steps they took to diversify publishing, featuring a huge range of feminist science-fiction from writers, some of which have now faded into obscurity, while others are now recognised as literary heavy-weights. It was an inclusive and broad range of interesting writing from a publisher engaged with the power of a genre — a truly rare and wonderful thing.

They published some Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler and Joanna Russ, but also original titles and works that have never since been in print. Publishing feminist science fiction itself is not a mainstream endeavour, even now — but we’ll get back to that. And publishing is not an easy game. Right now we’re seeing a rise in interesting, independent, diverse, inclusive publishers (at long last). And even now, it takes a lot more than simply a good idea and the will to create.

Because the Women’s Press seems to have disappeared — moreover they have disappeared without a natural successor to replace their focus. Why?

Looking into it (though not that extensively, I’ll admit) brought up nothing about what happened to the Women’s Press. Sometime in the 90s they stopped printing science-fiction. Their last recorded publication of any work appears to be 2004. Wikipedia points to their website which was still active in 2011, though it has since vanished. Nielsen Book Data still lists their company and website and phone number and, again, nothing about their status. So I rang the number (like a bloody reporter or something), and discovered that The Women’s Press was absorbed into Quartet Books about ten years ago. Though the person on the phone told me this wasn’t as such to keep the books in print but just to give a home to their backlist. In summary, he told me, they didn’t exist.

So, What Next

So that sated my personal curiosity. But this isn’t the real question. The real question is not what happened to the Women’s Press and their science fiction imprint. In a way, it’s not really important. Presses come and presses go. The real question is what happened to the idea of the women’s science fiction press , a home for feminist sci-fi in the homogeneous world of contemporary English-language publishing— why hasn’t there been a successor in nearly three decades?

Because in browsing science-fiction section, the absence of women writers is glaring. That’s not to say there are none, but they are few and far between, and the genre is still dominated by men, even now. This is less obvious in contemporary sci-fi. But when it comes to classic sci-fi, it is truly barren. By my rough count, there are 128 titles currently published by Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series, the main home of classic science fiction, with only about 12 women writers represented at all.

The gender disparity in science fiction doesn’t emerge from a lack of women science fiction writers but by the lack of appreciation for their work by publishers and booksellers writ large.

The SF Masterworks series has been published over decades. The Womens’ Press sci-fi series existed for a single decade. Yet they published or republished works of about 34 individual women writers and were the first publisher of 24 titles. A large number of these books are now out of print.

A handful of those iconic, quite ugly, grey spines.

So what’s happening to them? They’re gathering dust. They’re available on Amazon secondhand. They’re available through AbeBooks (some of them going for quite a bit, as 80s sci-fi goes). Joanna Russ still has two books available and in print. Ursula Le Guin has plenty (although notably, not all of them, despite her prestige). Marge Piercy, a ridiculously prolific feminist writer, as of 2016 finally has two books in print in the UK after decades of being out of print. Of Octavia E. Butler’s extensive collection of works, only Kindred is readily available in the UK. Nalo Hopkinson, a modern black feminist sf and fantasy writer, is mostly out of print and otherwise neglected by UK brick and mortar bookstores. What about Sheri S Tepper’s big backlist? Celia Holland’s? Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s backlist?

Besides these few, the majority of the authors published the Women’s Science Fiction Press are no longer in print at all. They don’t have any one-title token representation by any major publisher or indie. Which gets down to the core of this: the gender disparity in science fiction doesn’t emerge from a lack of women science fiction writers but by the lack of appreciation for their work by publishers and booksellers writ large. And this is how lack of inclusivity, lack of diversity, and gender and ethnic disparity manifests itself across the board in literature. Yes, it’s a two way street. But publishing is the venue, for better or worse, that writing makes its way to the reading public. What publishers print, readers read.

It’s a bit belated to do an autopsy. Perhaps in the later 80s and 90s and 00s interest in science-fiction as a medium for feminist writing became neglected by the mainstream interest again. Clearly, it was never an interest of mainstream commercial entities at all. That’s not to say that feminist sci-fi writing disappeared, but maybe it became valued less by publishing for a brief time, and reprinting or investing in it seemed like a lost cause.

But now, in the contemporary age of renewed interest in feminist writing, why is there no home for feminist science fiction classics?

An Open Letter

The continued and constantly renewed interest in Margaret Atwood’s sci-fi work over the years (even if she refuses to call them as such) as well as the success of Naomi Alderman’s The Power last year; Ursula le Guin and Octavia Butler’s continued legacy and the rise of popular feminist non-fiction; the renewed interest in dystopian fiction, in particular dystopian YA fiction (which is as close to an interest in sci-fi as you can get from the big mainstream contemporary publishers); the rise of books like Nineteen Eighty-Four and other dystopian classics to the bestsellers last year; the current political climate and the last year’s worth of publishing celebrating great women of the past and great women’s writing — is this all not glaring evidence of a continued interest in science-fiction that tackles topics of gender, sex and power, or at least a gap in the market for someone, anyone, to fill.

Presses don’t spring out of nowhere, it’s true. There’s been a revival of the small feminist press in recent years. The Silver Press, for example, are doing brilliant work. Linen Press and Persephone Books are also generating renewed interest in “lost” (or neglected) works of women’s literature. But it’s not easy being indie. Not all publishers are interested in being radical.

And so I guess, getting down to it, my question is going even shallower and smaller than the rebirth of the science fiction women’s press. I’m asking why there isn’t any major, mainstream publisher doing a brief, limited reissue of women’s sci-fi in any form.

We’re not in the area of niche, peripheral interests. The Women’s Press was an independent, radical press. It didn’t represent the pursuits of publishing writ large at all, but represented simply the fact that their work was important and possible. I’d love to see a small, intersectional, feminist press tackle women’s science fiction. But my question is not why there isn’t an indie doing feminist sci fi, although I really think there should be. But given that mainstream publishing falls over itself constantly to reissue the classics, giving them a new consistent design motif, why there hasn’t been a reissue of feminist science fiction.

Reissue, revamp, resell, reread. But more often than not, we’re seeing the same titles reissued — again, and again, and again.

Think of the endless reissues of the 20th century classics like On the Road and The Great Gatsby. When you have whole shelves dedicated to recycling the same titles into the Vintage Past series, the Penguin Essentials, Penguin Modern Classics, British Library Classics, the leatherbound and clothbound classics, the Penguin English Library, the Everyman Classics, the large format Dickens reissues by Vintage and the Russian series by Vintage, as well as the Pan 50 series. I could go on, for a very long time, but I won’t. It would be dull as hell, wouldn’t it?

And trust me, I’m a sucker for these things, despite their blandness. We all are, and that’s why they sell. And the books published are often truly brilliant texts, even if they’ve already been celebrated enough.

But it’s all this: reissue, revamp, resell, reread. But more often than not, we’re seeing the same titles reissued — again, and again, and again.

So please, give me one publisher, one, who will reissue a few titles from the huge backlist of masterworks of feminist science fiction, not just from the Women’s Press but from the rich and neglected tradition of women’s science fiction. It doesn’t have to be a lot, perhaps somewhere between five and ten, with a consistent design theme so they look good together as a set. Go with a few of the more well-known and more “literary” writers to balance some of the “lost” writers and pique interest.

Were you aware Du Maurier wrote sci-fi? Me neither.

Even if you want to be as cautious as you can be, let’s spitball some ideas. Here are a couple of very safe choices from writers who have the cache of literary fiction to soften the blow of the dreaded sci-fi genre.

  • The Last Man by Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (sometimes considered the first science-fiction book ever written). It’s a post-apocalyptic novel set after a world-killing plague sometime in the 21st century.
  • The House on the Strand by Daphne Du Maurier, a novel about time travel.
  • A Margaret Atwood or an Ursula Le Guin or two, and perhaps Herland by Charotte Perkins Gilman.

Then let’s add to that list:

  • The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and one of her lesser known titles.
  • Some Nalo Hopkinson, like Brown Girl in the Ring
  • Some Cecelia Holland
  • Some more of Marge Piercy’s backlist
  • Perhaps Joan Slonczewski’s A Door Into Ocean
  • Any of Joanna Russ’s extensive backlist.

And, to be honest, I don’t know what else. Despite my pleading, I’m not an expert in science-fiction let alone feminist science-fiction.

Most of all, I’m a reader: publish the books for me to read.

I’ve mostly only read what’s available. That’s what most people will do. And for this interest, there’s not a lot going. For once, I want publishers to bring something to the table that history and publishers and bookshops have unfairly overlooked. Given the too-often badly-used idea of the “lost classic” — go out and actually find some. Choose the radical, gender-sceptical, sexually inquisitive, intersectional works. They’re there, as a place to start. It’s not a risky or financially dubious or out-of-the-blue move. But even if it was, it’d still be a breath of fresh air.

You can find a full list of the Women’s Press Science Fiction Series here. And hey, here’s the link to Quartet Books for enquiries about the rights. Just going to leave that there for anyone to look at….