Female Readers vs Male Readers

lizmonster

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When I landed my first novel contract, I asked about using a male pen name. My publisher said no, that I'd already published short stories under my own name. Alas, I followed their advice. Even though I'd written an epic fantasy, the marketing department decided to brand the books as romance, and reviewers kept filing the reviews under YA. My editor and agent kept telling me not to worry, but I did, especially when I got emails from readers saying that they bought my books in spite of the marketing & covers, and how they wished they'd found the books earlier. Sigh.

So. Fast forward a few years. Different agent and different publisher. I'd written an SF/political thriller/mystery, and I wanted to use a male pen name. Publisher agreed with using a pen name, but they wanted me to use a female one. tbf, they did a marvelous job with the cover and the marketing, but I can't help but wonder if potential readers looked at "Claire O'Dell" and thought "women aren't PROs. They aren't logical and action-driven like men" and gave the book a pass.

Sorry. Just venting.

It's infuriating, isn't it? And I think it's worse in SF than it is in fantasy, although I'm not sure why (apart from volume). Maybe it's because writers like Jemisin (who uses initials, but who's public enough everyone knows she's not a man) have done so well in fantasy that it's normalized women's presence there. SF just seems to be a tough nut to crack.

And yeah, I think it's all down to the marketing. Even before we get to readers - who may or may not be biased - we're dealing with marketing departments who are too often looking for "tricks" to make books blow up rather than just...selling them as what they are.

The original proposed marketing copy for my stuff was absolutely shocking, focusing on me being a female SF writer and saying almost nothing about the book. When we vetoed that nonsense, they leaned heavily into the romantic subplot, which of course allowed them to point out my sex without actually pointing out my sex. None of what they pushed had anything to do with what the book was actually about. And the sites they got to review it pre-release primarily reviewed romance, so the buzz on the book wasn't great. Just a hot mess all around.

I know you say you're happy with the marketing you got, but the more I watch trade books (and the more I market my own self-published work) the more I believe if a book underperforms it's all about the marketing. Some of it's how much money they spend, but some of it is also how they target the book - and, yes, how they position the author's name.
 

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Where can I get one of those?
Just takes a bone saw and a sturdy constitution, I think.

I want to say (leaving room for being blind to unconscious prejudices, etc.) that the name on the cover doesn't sway me. If I like a particular story after I'm finished reading it, I might look the author up (though that's more about hopefully finding their other works, rather than them as people). Beforehand, though, it's mainly plot, character details, and reviews that I'm interested in.

That could well be because I far prefer reading about queer characters these days, regardless of genre, and so that's much more of a filter than author gender.
 

lizmonster

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I want to say (leaving room for being blind to unconscious prejudices, etc.) that the name on the cover doesn't sway me.

I tend to notice the cover itself first. That's another marketing issue, and I have Thoughts on that as well. :)

If I like a cover, though, I will look at the author's name, if only to see if it's someone I know.

When I was in high school, I read almost exclusively women, because male SFF authors too often punched me in the face. I admit I'm still wary of picking up a book written by a man, but I'll read them on recommendations from others I trust.
 
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alexp336

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I tend to notice the cover itself first. That's another marketing issue, and I have Thoughts on that as well. :)

If I like a cover, though, I will look at the author's name, if only to see if it's someone I know.
Cover art can definitely grab me, though having gone through that whole "working with the publisher's artist" process years ago I'm now far too aware of how tangential it can be to the actual story/characters to be swayed too much 😂

My terrible memory for names also applies to authors, even if I like their work. One good reason for buying Kindle books has been the little "You purchased this title on X" message at the top, because there have been multiple occasions where I've almost rebought something that sounds good but I already own 🤦‍♂️
 

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I completely agree with you, particularly concerning male thriller writers. They absolutely know their way around guns, bombs, and plot, but I find them lacking when it comes to writing character, which I think women tend to be better at.
You came into a writers forum and said men absolutely know how to write guns, bombs, and plot (implying women don't), but men suck at writing characters compared to women. I'm recapping so you can get an idea how poorly it comes across and perhaps rethink your approach going forward.
 

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I'd add that some genres/story types are more suited to being character-heavy, with clear and vivid character arcs -- those in which the story only works if the character goes through substantial, believable changes to become the person they are at the end. In others, it's the plot/thrill/etc that the reader is focused on, so the character needs to be believable but not to take center stage in the starring role. Plus, some authors excel at writing characters who leap off the page, while other authors' strengths lie in astonishing plots or amazing settings, and they may gravitate towards writing in genres whose story types and reader expectations match the authors' strengths.

And of course individual readers have preferences, with some wanting to fall in love with the character, some wanting to solve the mystery for themselves, some wanting to live in the strange new world the author has created. In turn, readers can only read the books that cross their event horizons, and that to a large degree is dependent on what/who publishers choose to publish and advertise and market to those readers. And of course reader and publisher choices and preferences change over time -- in any given genre, what and who are being published now are different to 20, 40, 60 years ago. I expect, though don't know for sure because I'm not bilingual, who and what are being preferentially published by Western publishers in the English language may well be different to that published in India, or China, or sub-Saharan Africa.

So I don't think anyone really can justify generalised statements that a particular gender is/is not good at some aspect of the craft, unless that person has read every book written in the last X decades.
 

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I tend to notice the cover itself first. That's another marketing issue, and I have Thoughts on that as well. :)
Heh. I do as well.

Covers don't need to be entirely accurate to serve their purpose, but they should actually reflect the kind of story inside. They shouldn't scream romance just because the author is a woman. They shouldn't whitewash the characters (some early Octavia Butler covers spring to mind). That's why I love my Not!Sherlock covers so much.
 

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My terrible memory for names also applies to authors, even if I like their work. One good reason for buying Kindle books has been the little "You purchased this title on X" message at the top, because there have been multiple occasions where I've almost rebought something that sounds good but I already own 🤦‍♂️
Yay, I have company! I thought I was the only person who'd done that 🤣 That shows how little attention I pay to the author name, or even book title, apparently!

Though judging by what people have said in this thread, it does seem like lots of readers are swayed by author gender and the 'type of book' messaging on the cover. Even though it's often misleading and driven by business concerns rather than the author. It's a shame that readers are missing out on great stories because of all these conscious and unconsious biases. And just as annoyingly, because of biases that the publishing industry assumes they may have, which they might not even have at all😞
 

lizmonster

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Though judging by what people have said in this thread, it does seem like lots of readers are swayed by author gender and the 'type of book' messaging on the cover.

I've heard a few statistics tossed around, and some very telling anecdotes from people here on AW.

But honestly, for me, the big problem was the marketing department. Nearly every decision made was designed to make the book unappealing to male readers. I can hardly blame readers for making the assumptions they did, whatever my name was.
 
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I'd add that some genres/story types are more suited to being character-heavy, with clear and vivid character arcs -- those in which the story only works if the character goes through substantial, believable changes to become the person they are at the end. In others, it's the plot/thrill/etc that the reader is focused on, so the character needs to be believable but not to take center stage in the starring role. Plus, some authors excel at writing characters who leap off the page, while other authors' strengths lie in astonishing plots or amazing settings, and they may gravitate towards writing in genres whose story types and reader expectations match the authors' strengths.

And of course individual readers have preferences, with some wanting to fall in love with the character, some wanting to solve the mystery for themselves, some wanting to live in the strange new world the author has created. In turn, readers can only read the books that cross their event horizons, and that to a large degree is dependent on what/who publishers choose to publish and advertise and market to those readers. And of course reader and publisher choices and preferences change over time -- in any given genre, what and who are being published now are different to 20, 40, 60 years ago. I expect, though don't know for sure because I'm not bilingual, who and what are being preferentially published by Western publishers in the English language may well be different to that published in India, or China, or sub-Saharan Africa.

So I don't think anyone really can justify generalised statements that a particular gender is/is not good at some aspect of the craft, unless that person has read every book written in the last X decades.
Thank you. I apologize.
 

Laer Carroll

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Most male mystery fans, like me, have read enough great books by female writers not to be put off by a new book by a woman.
 
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Most male mystery fans, like me, have read enough great books by female writers not to be put off by a new book by a woman.
Laer, can you cite/ provide any evidence that most mystery readers who are male read novels written by m v f without bias? Because I kinda sorta think you may be atypical in your approach, but I would purely love to be proved wrong.
 
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Laer Carroll

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I've read an average of a novel a day for 71 years. I also read widely, all the genres except horror, and both contemporary and (not so much) literary and experimental fiction. So I have a large baseline. Here're my conclusions.

Content used to be more gender-specific. Nowadays our society has slowly become less insistent on men being Real Strong Men and women being Real Gentle Women (with ultra-conservatives desperately fighting to turn back the clock). In the last two decades especially the content has become more diverse, the readership become more tolerant.

Part of the reason why, I suspect, is advancements in technology. An example is in military fields. It has become more widely recognized that a modern-day fighter jet can be as effectively fought by a five-foot 90-pound pilot as a massively muscled six-footer. (In fact small is better in an aircraft that routinely pulls high g-forces.)

A propos female fighter pilots. There are few militaries even in the Middle-Eastern countries with jet fighters that don't have some female pilots. Buying & keep flying a collection of machines costing up to a million dollars EACH means you don't want to ignore HALF the available source of pilots. And once you've trained them keeping them and keeping them sharp is EXPENSIVE.

When it comes to style (as opposed to content) I've rarely noticed that women and men write differently. Some of the cleanest most streamlined writing is by one of my exemplars Lois McMaster Bujold. And emotional writing is by another: Nicholas Sparks.
 

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I think women are really starting to break through that sci-fi wall. Anne Leckie comes to mind with her amazing debut and her recent book Translation State. And if you google female sci fi writers (which I have been doing ad nauseum looking for comps for my query) there are a lot of really well received books out there these days written by women.
And I thought this made it look even more promising: https://ew.com/books/27-female-authors-sci-fi-fantasy/
My feeling is that with more and more women growing up playing video games, D&D and RPG games like Warhammer and Magic the Gathering alongside their male friends, they are just as immersed in the culture. So more women are writing what they love and know and my hope is publishers (being younger and hipper as well) are recognizing that they are just as good at it.
At least I hope so, as a writer of sci-fi fantasy. (although not young and hip)
 
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One other nice side effect of having women bust through the SF glass ceiling a little more often is how it allows us to re-appreciate all the times it happened before and look at that work in new light. LeGuin, of course, but also Joanna Russ, Alice Sheldon (aka "James Tiptree, Jr."), Octavia Butler, Izumi Suzuki, the list goes on. All deserve fresh eyes. Suzuki in particular wrote during the 1970s and wasn't even published in English during her lifetime; she's only just now been translated, and it feels like such a loss to not have had her work available to a broader readership before.

Also, women who only wrote SF from time to time but were still very much writing SF: Jan Morris, Doris Lessing, Anna Kavan, Karin Boye. And the one-shots: Gertrude Friedberg (which just means her batting average for masterworks is 1.000).
 
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lizmonster

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I think women are really starting to break through that sci-fi wall.



Women have been writing SF since the inception of the genre. Every five years or so, the media notices, and it’s a Big New Thing that girls are somehow - mysteriously, of course - interested in it.

Anne Leckie comes to mind with her amazing debut and her recent book Translation State.

Leckie’s debut is 10 years old now. It won all the awards. It was out and successful when the Big 5 marketing my book insisted on producing starry-eyed marketing copy about how I was a girl writing SF and also there are relationships in it how innovative it must be Romance.

My feeling is that with more and more women growing up playing video games, D&D and RPG games like Warhammer and Magic the Gathering alongside their male friends, they are just as immersed in the culture.

We’ve always been immersed in the culture. I went to my first con in 1975, and I was hardly a trailblazer.

And SF books by women have always existed. Many of them are lost now, because 60 years later the SF bestseller list is still dominated by Andy Weir and 5 different editions of Dune.

So more women are writing what they love and know and my hope is publishers (being younger and hipper as well) are recognizing that they are just as good at it.
At least I hope so, as a writer of sci-fi fantasy. (although not young and hip)

Fantasy is going to be easier to break into, but I’ll warn you: I saw a fairly prominent spec fic fan writer refer to Romantasy as “fantasy for women.” The constant attempts to shove us into a niche have not eased. Publishing spec fic as an identifiable woman means constantly explaining you’re not writing YA, and you haven’t penned a romance novel.*

I probably said it upthread, but every 5 years or so some industry writer discovers that women exist, and a lot of splashy listicles appear, and the media says “Huh” and goes back to Herbert.

We’re always ”breaking in,” always on the cusp of being mainstream. Just like everywhere else.

Check out the number of writers on that EW list with gender-neutral names or initials. (Also check how many were recent/forthcoming releases vs. older, award-winning books. Listicles like that are often thinly-veiled marketing for not-yet-published stuff, with a few well-known books added for cachet.) That’s probably your best bet if you want an actual career.

Sorry to be such a cynic. On this point, I’ve earned it.

*If you have, that’s fine and lovely, of course. But those are the two lanes people expect female SFF writers to be staying in.
 

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Women have been writing SF since the inception of the genre. Every five years or so, the media notices, and it’s a Big New Thing that girls are somehow - mysteriously, of course - interested in it.



Leckie’s debut is 10 years old now. It won all the awards. It was out and successful when the Big 5 marketing my book insisted on producing starry-eyed marketing copy about how I was a girl writing SF and also there are relationships in it how innovative it must be Romance.



We’ve always been immersed in the culture. I went to my first con in 1975, and I was hardly a trailblazer.

And SF books by women have always existed. Many of them are lost now, because 60 years later the SF bestseller list is still dominated by Andy Weir and 5 different editions of Dune.



Fantasy is going to be easier to break into, but I’ll warn you: I saw a fairly prominent spec fic fan writer refer to Romantasy as “fantasy for women.” The constant attempts to shove us into a niche have not eased. Publishing spec fic as an identifiable woman means constantly explaining you’re not writing YA, and you haven’t penned a romance novel.*

I probably said it upthread, but every 5 years or so some industry writer discovers that women exist, and a lot of splashy listicles appear, and the media says “Huh” and goes back to Herbert.

We’re always ”breaking in,” always on the cusp of being mainstream. Just like everywhere else.

Check out the number of writers on that EW list with gender-neutral names or initials. (Also check how many were recent/forthcoming releases vs. older, award-winning books. Listicles like that are often thinly-veiled marketing for not-yet-published stuff, with a few well-known books added for cachet.) That’s probably your best bet if you want an actual career.

Sorry to be such a cynic. On this point, I’ve earned it.

*If you have, that’s fine and lovely, of course. But those are the two lanes people expect female SFF writers to be staying in.
One of my favorite science fiction books is To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis written in 98. Also a huge winner. And she probably didn't play any video games. I wasn't trying to imply there were more women sci-fi writers, I was considering that pop culture has encompassed a lot more cross gender interests where in the past many hobbies were considered either masculine or feminine (not to say that there weren't many people breaking the mold). I just look at my 23 and 25 year old kids and they don't blink an eye at women boxers or men ballet dancers. They would never consider it strange for a girl to love playing Crossout or a guy to enjoy cross stitch. I was kind of hoping that since agents and publishers are also far younger, they would be less inclined to judge talent and interest by gender and would throw all those silly generalizations out the window.
But alas, maybe not.
 
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lizmonster

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One of my favorite science fiction books is To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis written in 98. Also a huge winner. And she probably didn't play any video games. I wasn't trying to imply there were more women sci-fi writers, I was considering that pop culture has encompassed a lot more cross gender interests where in the past many hobbies were considered either masculine or feminine (not to say that there weren't many people breaking the mold). I just look at my 23 and 25 year old kids and they don't blink an eye at women boxers or men ballet dancers. They would never consider it strange for a girl to love playing Crossout or a guy to enjoy cross stitch. I was kind of hoping that since agents and publishers are also far younger, they would be less inclined to judge talent and interest by gender and would throw all those silly generalizations out the window.
But alas, maybe not.

I didn't mean to rain cynicism down on your ambitions. It's certainly likely my perceptions are colored by my own experiences. But it does seem to be a repeating cycle.

Young people do indeed give me hope, but they always did. When I was a young person, we talked a lot about how much more egalitarian the world would be once the Old Guard died off. Turns out a lot of my generation decided the Old Guard had it right. That seems to be a repeating cycle, too.

What I found - and what I've heard from others - is that publishing has a tendency to play it both ways, like a lot of established industries. They absolutely want the New and Different to sell to people. But they also want reliable sales, so they end up tagging a lot of not-so-new stuff as New and Different. And regardless of what they'll buy from agents, there seems to be a deep reluctance to trust that readers are going to gravitate toward something they haven't been buying all along. This makes change glacial. Which doesn't, as you remind me, mean it doesn't happen - just that it's slow, and we have to keep banging on that door so they keep opening it.

I wish I could say self-publishing helps, but self-published spec fic is dominated by romance. Which, again: not a bad thing. But if you're selling a self-published spec fic book that's not a romance, you're going to find yourself lumped in with them anyway, because they tend to sell really, really well. You can find your readers, but it takes some persistence.
 

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What I found - and what I've heard from others - is that publishing has a tendency to play it both ways, like a lot of established industries. They absolutely want the New and Different to sell to people. But they also want reliable sales, so they end up tagging a lot of not-so-new stuff as New and Different. And regardless of what they'll buy from agents, there seems to be a deep reluctance to trust that readers are going to gravitate toward something they haven't been buying all along. This makes change glacial. Which doesn't, as you remind me, mean it doesn't happen - just that it's slow, and we have to keep banging on that door so they keep opening it.
People like the idea of the new and the different far more than the actually new, actually different thing. The new and different thing is difficult to market, so the path of lesser resistance presents itself. It's a familiar feeling.
 

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People like the idea of the new and the different far more than the actually new, actually different thing. The new and different thing is difficult to market, so the path of lesser resistance presents itself. It's a familiar feeling.
And the reality, of course, is that there isn't much out there that's genuinely new and different. What readers like is a remix that pushes all their reader satisfaction buttons. Sometimes that's truly innovative. More often it's a new take on an old idea that's just done really well.

(Please understand I don't mean anything disparaging by this. I write tropes. I read tropes. I re-read my favorite tropes when I'm having a bad day. Give me tropes. Tropes In Space. :))

But like I said upthread, I think readers are less the problem here than publishers. They want to take chances and not take chances at the same time, and sometimes when they take chances they back off before the book gets to bookstores. Then it doesn't sell, and old biases are reinforced.

I suppose it's a fairly ordinary story in the capitalist system, sigh.
 

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But like I said upthread, I think readers are less the problem here than publishers. They want to take chances and not take chances at the same time, and sometimes when they take chances they back off before the book gets to bookstores. Then it doesn't sell, and old biases are reinforced.
Completely this. Publishing's a low-margin business. Someone else I know compared what's happening there now, especially in the YA/NA space, to the fast-fashion industry. The books, the stories, the authors, are simply not as important as the marketing, the branding, the sales. This by itself is not new, but it's taking an urgent new form no thanks to the feedback loops created by social media.
 

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Completely this. Publishing's a low-margin business.

For writers. Murdoch seems to be doing all right.

Someone else I know compared what's happening there now, especially in the YA/NA space, to the fast-fashion industry. The books, the stories, the authors, are simply not as important as the marketing, the branding, the sales. This by itself is not new, but it's taking an urgent new form no thanks to the feedback loops created by social media.

YA is rather like Romance, in that it has its own set of rules, and woe betide anyone who tries to apply those rules anywhere else.
 

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For writers. Murdoch seems to be doing all right.
For most of the ants who work in publishing too. It's still an industry that starts with unpaid interns and pays their entry level workers a salary that makes it difficult for most to survive in a big city. I've worked in publishing and have a post-grad in publishing (for the Australian market) and can tell you publishers' margins on many books are slim, or often negative. That's not to say money isn't pooling at the top, but the wealth is certainly not being spread around.
 

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For most of the ants who work in publishing too. It's still an industry that starts with unpaid interns and pays their entry level workers a salary that makes it difficult for most to survive in a big city. I've worked in publishing and have a post-grad in publishing (for the Australian market) and can tell you publishers' margins on many books are slim, or often negative. That's not to say money isn't pooling at the top, but the wealth is certainly not being spread around.
You're right, of course. Nobody gets rich in publishing except at the very top.
 
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