You’ve probably already seen this on Twitter, but Angry Robot announced today that they have been bought out by an American entrepreneur (and science fiction fan) who is setting up a new publishing company. It all sounds very promising. Obviously I’m delighted that the likes of Kameron Hurley and Madeline Ashby will now get their contracts fulfilled, but also I have known Marc Gascoigne for longer than anyone in the business except Kim Newman, and I am very, very happy that he and his staff still have jobs.
I have said many times that the only way to put an end to the under-appreciation of female writers is to start in school. If children are brought up to believe that only male writers are important, and in particular that boys do not need to read books by women, they will take those attitudes into adulthood where they are much harder to shake off.
My friends at For Books Sake have been taking a look at gender representation in English Literature examinations in the UK. They found to their horror that the syllabus is becoming more male dominated (and more white) rather than less. As the politicians are fond of saying, something must be done.
Last night’s BristolCon Fringe meeting was very interesting in two ways. Firstly, Ken Shinn had us agog with a tale about a demonic version of Benny Hill who has a drunken otter for a familiar. In addition our other guest, Andy Goodman, had some very interesting things to say in the Q&A.
Andy writes fiction primarily aimed at teenage boys. I asked him about that market, and was delighted to hear him say that there is now pressure from publishers for authors to move away from the “books for boys / books for girls” marketing philosophy, and instead to produce books that can be enjoyed by young people regardless of their gender.
It is not entirely clear why, and it may well be in part due to the pressure that parents have been putting on them. However, Andy’s anecdotal evidence suggests that practical experience has played a part. I’ve been saying for years that if you pinkify a book then boys are not going to read it. It appears that the message has got through to publishers that by packaging books by women as “for girls” they are cutting off half of their potential audience. Here’s hoping that this message spreads throughout the publishing industry.
The audio from the readings should be online early in August.
Yesterday Juliet McKenna put up a long post looking at the issue of how SF&F books are promoted by Waterstones. She has had some friends doing a survey of stores around the country. It looks like there is some pretty good evidence that the feature tables for SF&F are biased in favor of male authors. This is one of the issues we discussed at the Women & Publishing panel at Finncon, where I noted that the last time I was in the Bristol store the counts were 5/35 for fantasy, and 0/35 for SF. If you assumed that the store staff thought Robin Hobb was a man, the fantasy count would change to 3/35.
Juliet makes some excellent points about how Waterstones are hurting their own sales by this behavior. There are plenty of women who read SF&F. Indeed, as another data point, the majority of members of The Emporium Strikes Back, the SF&F book club at Mr. B’s, are women. But why is the effect Juliet notes happening, and what can be done?
Obviously lack of knowledge by buyers and store staff is a contributing issue. Heck, the SF&F table at my local store has disappeared completely since we’ve had a change in management. But even when there is knowledge it doesn’t always filter through. Last year, when Juliet first started making a fuss about this issue, my local manager wrote to head office asking why she was given so few women SF&F books to stock. The buyer wrote back enthusing about something called Ancillary Justice that they expected to be a big seller. And yet, when it came out, my local store wasn’t sent any copies, and the book still isn’t getting pushed much in any store I have seen despite the heap of award wins.
Then of course there is the whole issue of publishers, the editorial staff of whom appear to be mostly female. Yet they too appear to mostly push SF&F by male writers at the expense of women. At Finncon Elizabeth Bear noted that she found UK publishers much more hostile to women SF writers than in the USA.
With all this in mind, I found this article on Mashable very interesting. It reports on an academic study of middle managers in large US corporations, and looked at how those managers’ performance was rated on the basis of their hiring choices. As a back-up, the study was replicated as an experiment using college students role-playing the senior management, and this produced similar results.
What the study found is that, although the corporations has policies advocating diversity, and although white male managers were praised for making diverse hires, female managers and PoC managers were given negative performance evaluations if they recruited people like them.
This appears to be telling us two things. Firstly prejudice is probably much more ingrained and subconscious than we like to think. And secondly women and PoC who are in a position to improve diversity within in their organizations are likely to damage their careers if they do so. No wonder this stuff is so hard to shift.
Well, that was a busy day. I knew I was going to be on air for at least an hour, but when I arrived at the Ujima studios Paulette informed me that her planned guest had cancelled, but we had two new people, and could I talk to them please. Well, this is live radio, folks, you just roll with the punches. And I think it went very well.
I started off the show with a shout out to my friend Bea Hitchman whose lovely book, Petit Mort, has been picked up for serialization on Radio 4. It will be broadcast in 10 episodes, the first of which will air on Monday 28th October. What’s more they have got Honor Blackman to play the role of the older incarnation of Bea’s heroine. Honor Blackman. Bea is having a fangasm about this, and I can’t say I blame her. I would too.
My first guest on the show was Matthew Austin from an organization called In The City Series, a Lottery-funded project which is doing some very interesting things in Bristol. In particular in November they will be running a Human Library. What’s that? Well, they get a whole load of people to be books, put them in a venue, and then other people can come along, check a person out for 15 minutes, and talk to them. The idea is to generate awareness of the vast array of different cultures and lifestyles in the city by allowing people to interact with other sorts of folk that they may not have encountered before. I may volunteer, but I’m way too busy and I’m going to offer it around the Bristol trans community first.
Talking of varied backgrounds, my second guest was Baljinder Bhopal who lives in Bristol, is fairly obviously of Indian ancestry, but was born in Glasgow and has a wonderful Scottish accent. This sort of thing gives me hope for multiculturalism. She’s a great poet (here’s the book she read from), and she’s also an immigration lawyer who helps local people through the Avon & Bristol Law Centre.
Later on in the show we had a bit of a rant about the Racist Van, and the new outrage of Racist Texts. The UK Border Agency is very clearly not fit for purpose. If we had even a vaguely competent government then heads would roll. As it is, I suspect our leaders are quite happy with what the UKBA is doing.
With me throughout the show was my main guest for the day, Kadija Sesay. She had traveled up from London for the day, so we shamefully made full use of her. If you are Googling her you should also look up Kadija George, which is her legal name. Sesay is her mother’s maiden name, which she has adopted for use as a writer. Kadija describes herself as a Literary Activist, and as soon as I started researching her online I knew I had found a kindred spirit. She is the founder of Sable, a literary magazine for writers of color, and a co-director of Inscribe, an imprint of Peepal Tree Press. One of the projects she’s currently involved in is organizing a literary festival in The Gambia. I think she works harder than I do.
There’s more about Kadija in the second half of the show, but in the meantime you can listen to the first hour here.
For London folks (this means YOU, Stephanie), on October 24th Kadija will be taking part is a discussion at the C.L.R. James Library in Dalston Square, London, on the state of Black British Publishing. Like most other artistic endeavors these days, things are not good for people trying to publish writers of color. Kadija and I spent a bit of time talking about ways of financing diversity in publishing, and I introduced her to the Clarkesworld model of fiction magazines.
The second hour begins with the Lighter Look at Life segment, which I ended up having to present. We chatted a bit about entertainment, about how hard comedy is, about how British comedy is so often based on cruelty towards people who are seen as “other” in some way, and about how comedians from within immigrant communities can tell jokes about those communities without it becoming racist. Along the way I said a bad word, we all praised Eddie Izzard, and I recommended Nikesh Shukla who is a very funny writer and whose first book takes a wry look at Indian communities in West London.
After that I had 15 minutes off while Paulette did a stint on the microphone. I’m afraid I missed the feature she did entirely because I was doing preparation for the final half hour in which we had Mike Manson from the Bristol Festival of Literature in to preview some of the sessions. Being Ujima, we focused initially on those events featuring writers of color, but we also found time to bring in many other items including the use of the wonderful Redcliffe Caves and, of course, the science fiction event, The Kraken Rises. So I got to plug that, and BristolCon. I name checked so many people I can’t remember them all.
There is also an SF-themed event on Saturday evening in which Nikesh talks to Toby Litt about post-apocalyptic literature. I’ve got other stuff on during the day (see last week’s show for details) but I’m booked in to see Nikesh and Toby and am looking forward to it. If you are in town for The Kraken Rises then you should come along.
Mention of science fiction reminds me that Kadija is working on a speculative fiction issue of Sable, which she will co-edit with Nnedi Okorafor. I am very much looking forward to seeing that. We also talked a lot about Afrofururism, and in November I’ll be doing a whole hour on that. That is going to be fun. They’ve promised me I can play music.
Oh, and I was delighted to discover that one of Sable‘s most popular issues to date was the LGBTQ one (shout out here to Adam Lowe), Kadija says they are going to do another one. So if you are a writer of color, and identify somewhere in the QUILTBAG, you should check them out.
I think that’s most of what we covered, but I spent so much time chatting enthusiastically to Kadija, some of it off-air, that I am bound to have forgotten something. You can listen to the second hour of the show here.
Whoops, yeah, I forgot Kadija’s book. This one. And the discussion of the sorry state of the Nubian nation. And Pan-Africanism. It was a busy two hours.
A few weeks ago some of my lady writer friends were having a grumble on social media about how, when Waterstones does a promotion for SF&F, the books they pick are almost exclusively by men. Now it so happens that the manager of my local Waterstones is a good friend, and a big SF&F reader, so I went in and had a chat. She asked me to provide a list of good SF&F by women that I recommend she stock, and also promised to pass the question up the command chain.
Somewhat to my surprise, we got a reply from the SF&F buyer at Waterstones HQ. Mainly it was the usual corporate platitudes about how they only consider “how good it is and whether I think it will sell”, carefully leaving aside the possibility that “it is by a woman” and “I think it will sell” might have very little overlap. However, the note did add that some really great SF by women was coming in October, including Ancilary Justice by Ann Leckie which, at least in my corner of the Internet, is by far the most talked about SF book of the year.
Well, that book has now been out for a week or so, and I have been into the shop twice since then. Can I find it on the shelves? No, I cannot. Of course it may be selling like hot cakes, but I rather suspect that Waterstones corporate figured it would not sell well enough to send copies to a small store in a country town. For comparison I checked the Bristol branch today. They had two copies. They had a big display table, which did contain some books by women (I was pleased to see Freda Warrington and Mary Gentle there), but Ancillary Justice was not included. Clearly the idea that it might be a big seller is not getting through to the stores.
For further comparison, I poked my nose into Foyles. They had no copies at all. I know the manager so I asked him about it. He’d never heard of the book. I showed him some of the chat about it on Twitter and he ordered a couple of copies. Sadly you can’t expect every bookstore manager to be an SF&F expert, but whoever does fulfill that role at Foyles obviously doesn’t think that Ancillary Justice will sell.
So here’s what I think happens. The editors at the big publishers are probably nervous about buying SF&F by women (unless they can pass it off as YA or “Dark Fantasy”) because they know how hard they’ll have to fight for such books within the company. If the books do get bought, the publicity department will be reluctant to allocate funds to them, because they think that SF&F by women doesn’t sell. When the sales staff visit the bookstore buyers, they don’t waste time pushing the SF&F books by women, because they think that they won’t sell. The note we got back from Waterstones said that in September only 6 of the 81 new SF&F titles offered to them were by women, which was fairly typical.
If the publishers do push SF&F books by women, the store buyers will be reluctant to take them, because they have sales figures that prove that SF&F by women doesn’t sell, and if they do take them then they are reluctant to send those books to any except the biggest stores. Consequently it is really hard to find SF&F by women on the shelves, and because of that such books don’t sell. Well gee, I wonder what that might be?
As far as I can see, there’s only one way out of that mess. That is that we, as consumers, need to go into branches of Waterstones and order SF&F books by women. Because there’s no way that they’ll be offered to us, no matter how much we big them up online. Unless we actively change those sales figures, the same cycle of negative feedback will perpetuate itself.
You might start by ordering a copy of Ancillary Justice. I’ve not read I yet, but it is on the pile and in the meantime smart folks like N.K. Jemisin, Genevieve Valentine and John Scalzi have been enthusing over it.
There are many different ways in which writers from outside the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture can get their books to the attention of those readers. Different people can make use of different routes. Some, like Nalo Hopkinson, come from English-speaking countries with non-white cultures. Some, like Aliette de Bodard, are raised bilingual. Some, like Karin Tidbeck, learn English well enough to translate their own work while others, like Johanna Sinisalo, are well respected enough to have English-language publishers pay for translation. However, not everyone fits one of these boxes. What do you do if you are from a non-English-speaking country, are not famous enough or rich enough to get translated, but can’t write English well enough to produce a marketable book in that language? That was the dilemma facing Polish author, Justyna Plichta-Jendzio. She managed to find a different solution. I asked her to tell me her story.
I should note that Justyna’s solution may not work for everyone in her position, and good editors may be as thin on the ground as good translators. However, I’m delighted that Justyna found something that worked for her, and I hope that more people in her position will find ways to get their books to the English-reading public in future.
Justyna’s books are published by Devine Destinies, an imprint of the Canadian publisher, eXtasy Books.
CMM: What is being published in English worth to you? Is it a question of numbers? Wikipedia says that there are only 40 million native Polish speakers in the world, while the number of native English speakers is much higher.
JPJ: There are two reasons for which I have chosen the English-speaking market. First, as you have already mentioned, the number of people speaking English. If we sum up only the number of citizens of the USA (320 million in 2012), Canada (35 million), Great Britain (63 million) and Australia (23 million) the number of English-speaking people grows up to nearly 420 million. There are also countries, such as India, in which English is very important and serves as second native language. In Scandinavia most of the young people speak English as well as they do their native languages. English is also the language of business, so most people who want to make international careers know it at least on a medium level. All of this enlarges the English-speaking market exponentially.
Another reason is that in countries like England, Sweden, Norway and many others, there are higher numbers of fantasy fans than in Poland. This probably comes from the fact that, due to historical events, more customs and legends from pre-Christian times survived in those regions than in Poland, and people are more fascinated with them.
CMM: How easy is it for a Polish writer to get translated?
JPJ: Being published by a Polish publisher and then being promoted by this publisher abroad is the easiest way; under the condition that you are published by a big publisher, promoted in your home country, then translated by a professional literary translator, contracted by a foreign publisher and again promoted abroad. But not many writers have such luck. I didn’t.
CMM: What gave you the idea of looking for an English-language publisher who could help you with your English?
JPJ: It was my main goal to get to the English-speaking market, so I thought I would skip the Polish part and start immediately with offering my book Dark Children of Naor directly to American, Canadian and English publishers as if I were an English writer.
CMM: How did you find Devine Destinies, and how long did it take?
JPJ: I searched for a publisher for a year. In the meantime I gained a little information about English publishing markets and the ways I could publish my book. Most of the members of different forums recommended against paid publishing or independent publishing. They advised looking for a publisher at any cost, so I did. The problem was that I translated the book myself with the help of Polish translator. I polished the book the best I could, but it was still a language disaster.
Most of my submissions were rejected due to the horrible language of my translation. However, I had more luck than sense, and after one year of search Devine Destinies accepted my book. They usually published books after 3-6 months, but I waited a year and a half before my book was edited. During the editing process, the editors found my language so inappropriate and full of errors that it tremendously extended how long it took to edit.
It would have lasted even longer, but I decided to help them and find an American editor who could help me and finish editing the last 25% of the book. I had to find a person who already had experience working with foreign writers, understood the specific type of literature that fantasy is, follow my tips and — what was very important to me — would give me a reasonable price for their editing service. I sent dozens of letters to different editors, but their prices were far beyond my possibilities. Finally, I found Daniel Koeker from Manuscript Magic, and that was it. I have cooperated with Daniel so far and do not intend to look for another editor.
Of course, his help sped up my first book’s publishing, and I sent my publisher my second book, Evil Children of Naor, immediately after his edits.
CMM: How much of a collaborative effort is the final book?
JPJ: I think even after edits the book remains mine. Of course, it is thanks to Daniel. I asked him to change only as little as he could, while still adapting the language to the standards of the American market. He was not to change any paragraphs or dialogues, only to care for the correctness of the language. Of course he also had to pay attention to the quality of the language; because the book is high/dark fantasy, Daniel had to erase or change words, expressions and idioms which are too modern and adapt them to the times the book is set in.
After Daniel does his corrections, he sends the book back for my approval so I have a chance to accept or reject the changes or ask him to revise again. At the beginning we had to send my text to and from 3-4 times; now Daniel understands my way of thinking very well and my story is polished after Daniel’s second edit.
I know he does great job because my publisher’s editor, who makes control reads, complimented me for my English language!
CMM: Are you making money from the book?
JPJ: Not yet, but I know Devine Destinies sells some of my books; I receive quarterly statements. Unfortunately sales are too low to give me any profits.
Before my book was published, I was warned not to expect any miracles; not only was I foreign and an unknown author, but also one of hundreds who are published every month. So it was up to me to do the promotion campaign. The publisher invests in edits; if there is necessary — and in cover design. I decided to find an artist myself and provide them my own cover. The publisher also covers the other things necessary to publish the book. But the promotion is on my head. This is how I found you.
Articles about gender imbalance in publishing are ten-a-penny these days. Everyone has an opinion, and I’ve been starting to ignore them unless they have something new and interesting to say. Last night I found one such article: this one.
The article begins by recapping the usual story about the VIDA survey, but it very quickly gets onto asking why men dominate publication stats, and what can be done about it. The usual excuse trotted out for an imbalance is, “we can’t publish what we don’t get,” accompanied by stats showing that men dominate submissions. But why don’t publishers get submissions from women? Rob Spillman, founder and editor of the literary magazine Tin House, decided to dig deeper.
The first thing to note is that Tin House does solicit some contributions. It isn’t clear what the balance of those solicitations is, but Spillman notes that, when he does solicit material, men are twice as likely to send him something.
Beyond that, he also looked at how male and female writers responded to rejection of unsolicited submissions. As of when he was interviewed, 100% of the men that Spillman had sent a rejection letter to had tried again at least once. Only 20% of the rejected women had done so.
What is the explanation for this? Well I’m sure that some people will assume that this proves that women are lazy, stupid and incompetent. If they can’t manage to submit to magazines, how can they expect to get published in them?
Spillman and his team, however, decided to try to encourage more women to contribute. And while they were still happy to accept material from male writers, they stopped actively soliciting them. After all, they didn’t need to. The men would submit anyway. The result was a much more even gender split (42 men and 56 women in 2012).
But wait, surely this is positive discrimination! It is Politically Correct, and hugely unfair to men! Material from lazy incompetents is being encouraged! Surely quality will suffer! (I’m resisting going into all caps here, but only just.)
Here too, Spillman was prepared. His magazine is well thought of in the literary community and regularly wins awards. The 2012 experiment with women writers caused very little difference in the number of nominations for Best American Short Stories, O. Henry awards, and the Pushcart Prize that the magazine received.
So is there another reason why women are so reluctant to submit? Spillman’s explanation is that they are just shy. “You’ve got to draw them into the conversation,” he said. And that is probably true. In most cultures girls are trained from an early age to keep quiet and let men talk. But I’d like to suggest some additional theories.
Willingness to put yourself forward is all a matter of confidence. You have to be confident in your own ability, and you have to be confident that you will be treated fairly.
As far as self-confidence goes, aggression directed towards women who are publicly visible, and the lack of reviews for women writers, clearly aren’t going to help. Women writers expect that, if they are published, they will be held to a far higher standard than their male counterparts, and that will naturally make them reluctant to submit unless they think their work is of exceptional quality.
Expectation of fairness may also be an issue. The more experience you have of discrimination, the more likely you are to expect it in future, and the more likely it is that you will ascribe any setback to discrimination rather than to fair judgement of your work. If you are already used to people telling you that you are no good because you are a woman, or because you are black, or because you are queer, then when you get rejected from a venue you may well assume that discrimination was the reason, and that will lead you to not bothering to submit there again.
I can, of course, see reasons why a major publishing house might be unable to implement the sort of strategies used by Spillman at Tin House. There will be penny-pinching middle managers who are liable to get in the way if additional effort and expense is involved. In these days of miniscule PR budgets, you might prefer to sign someone who is self-confident and pushy over someone who is a better writer but unlikely to promote herself well. You might even run into trouble with your corporate ethics people if you seem to be engaging in “positive discrimination”. Nevertheless, I do think that actively seeking out good quality submissions is likely to result in better quality product.
Whether it will result in a more profitable product is, of course, another matter. If some readers are reluctant to buy books by authors who are female, people of color, queer and so on, you can see why a large, profit-driven organization might be reluctant to sign such authors, no matter how keen editors are on their books.
Oh my, what a mess.
Over the years I have praised a large number of books published by Night Shade. Their editorial taste was excellent. They published really great books that no one else would touch. Sadly their business sense does not seem to have been anywhere near as good. Nor do they seem to have been very good at accepting help and advice.
Because I don’t have an actual stake in the situation, I’ve not been paying a lot of attention to the various posts that have been appearing. However, I have been very worried about the various fine writers who are caught up in it. I recommend this post by Kameron Hurley, which explains some of the complexities (and also seems to express some of the same frustration that Kevin and I feel when people with little idea what they are talking about complain loudly about awards or conventions).
I was also interested by this post which explains why the authors are shafted no matter what. Somehow I doubt that any legislators can be persuaded to do anything, but it might help if people understood that sometimes contracts, even good ones, aren’t worth very much.
As a small press publisher myself, I just want to put my head in my hands and sob.
Over at Neth Space there’s a bit more information on the question of who gets reviewed. Neth gets sent books to review, and for the last 6 months those broke down as 70% books by men, 30% by women. For paper books, which you might suspect the publishers value more, the numbers are 75% male, 25% female. It is a useful reminder that the issue of visibility permeates every part of the industry. Kudos, therefore, to Ricky L. Brown at Amazing Stories for making a determined effort to find SF by women to read.
On Saturday I popped over to Bristol to catch part of the inaugural Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. I was dipping my toe into this, partly because Literature Festivals have a habit of not wanting any of those icky science fiction people around lowering the tone of the occasion, and partly because events that tout their feminist credentials often don’t want the likes of me around. However, I wasn’t going to miss out on an opportunity to meet Stella Duffy, and thankfully none of my fears about the event were realized. The Festival looked to be a very successful. The panel I attended was packed out and very interesting, and the event had an inclusive atmosphere. Andrew Kelly of the Festival of Ideas, who helps promote the event, was smiling happily when I met him, which confirms that all was going well. My apologies to all the people I knew who happened to be in the Watershed bar afterwards, but I did have an important rugby match to go and watch.
The panel in question was Women’s Writing Today, featuring Bidisha in conversation with Stella Duffy, Beatrice Hitchman, Selma Dabbagh and Helen Dunmore. It was expertly moderated. Admittedly the panelists were all very polite — there wasn’t anyone constantly talking over the others in an effort to promote his book. However, having moderated many convention panels myself, I was able to admire the effortless way in which Bidisha controlled the conversation and gave everyone a chance to speak.
Discussion ranged fairly widely, but I’d like to focus mainly on the issue that Bidisha opened and closed the panel with: the VIDA Report and the continuing difficulty that women have being taken seriously in the writing business, despite the fact that we pretty much run it behind the scenes.
Helen Dunmore commented on the way in which women tend to be self-effacing, whereas men will often trumpet their success with far less reason to do so. She’s right, but it is not entirely our fault. It is a defense mechanism. Because if women do stand up and promote themselves, they immediately get jumped on for being uppity, for over-selling themselves, and of course for not being pretty enough. The way to avoid that is to play down whatever success you have had, and make out that you think you didn’t really deserve it.
Helen also commented that she felt the UK was particularly bad at kicking down anyone who had the cheek to appear to have some ambition. Given my experience of Australia, California and Finland, I suspect she’s probably right. But that’s about far more than sexism, and anyway sexism is pretty universal. Many of the magazines surveyed in the VIDA report come from North America, and one is French.
Selma Dabbagh had an interesting angle on the issue. Her day job (which she still does) is that of a human rights lawyer. She said that she found the legal profession less sexist than publishing, because in law there were clearer metrics for success. In law you get measured by what cases you win, and by which clients want your services. In theory writers are measured by success in sales and awards, but we all know that both of those things are critically dependent on how much effort your publisher puts behind your book. In our field we know that publishers put more resources behind male authors, and bookstores are more likely to stock and promote books by male authors (except in certain categories deemed more feminine) because they believe that those books are more likely to sell. I’m sure lady lawyers will now be rushing to say that its not that easy for them, but I’d like you to hold onto the idea of how subjective success in writing can be.
One of the more interesting takes I have seen on the VIDA data is this one in the New Republic, written by one of their senior editors, Ruth Franklin. New Republic is one of the magazines reported on by VIDA, so they have a stake in the debate. What Franklin did was take a selection of publishing houses and count how many books by men and by women they published. While some came close to parity, many, including what she described as “elite literary houses” published books in pretty much the same gender ratio as the reviews reported by VIDA, or worse.
The VIDA numbers, if you remember, were only for literary review magazines. They exhibit a range of female content from low to very low. VIDA doesn’t give an overall figure, but Bidisha said the accepted ceiling for women was around 22%. The figures that LadyBusiness reported for SF&F reviews were much better: at 42% female. Of course if you break down by gender you find that men are only reviewing 25% female authors, and the VIDA figures show that the literary review magazines have a low proportion of female reviewers. But the fact remains that if you want reviews of women SF&F authors then they are not too hard to find in the usual outlets for such things. You won’t find them in literary magazines, but you won’t find reviews of male SF&F writers there either.
I’ve joked before about “literary” fiction being a genre for stories about middle-aged male academics who have mid-life crises, but the real problem with “literary” as a category is the idea that “literary” means “good”. That would be fine if people really meant it, but we know all too well that certain types of fiction tend to get excluded because they are deemed “not good” by definition. And if one of the ways in which you define “good” fiction is “fiction by men, about men”, well, I’m sure you can see the positive feedback loop at work here.
So I think that perhaps one of the reasons the VIDA numbers are so bad is that they focus to closely on an area of fiction that is already tending to exclude women. If we want the numbers to get better, one very simple thing we can do is to try to judge each book on the quality of its writing, not screen whole categories of books out because they are “genre” or “not realistic” or “women’s writing”.
Of course the situation of men not wanting to read books by women is still bad. But the overall situation is not as bad as the VIDA numbers make out, provided that we stop being shy and diffident, but instead demand that our books not be excluded because they are not “literary”.
I should make one more comment about the event before I finish. There was a book room, and I headed off there after the panel because I wanted a signed copy of Bea’s book, Petite Mort. (She’s a friend, and I want to get her on Ujima sometime soon.) Stella, sadly, had to rush back to London. However, having secured a lift to the station, she dashed into the book room and quickly signed every book of hers that she could see there. She took them out of the hands of people in the queue and personalized them. And she recognized me from my Twitter avatar, so she didn’t even need to ask for a name. That’s a superb example of an author working her fan base. I was impressed.
So, congratulations to Sian Norris and her team. It was an excellent event, and one I would love to see repeated next year. Any chance of a panel on feminist SF, Sian? We’ve got Sarah Le Fanu on our doorstep, and I can probably lure Farah Mendlesohn along if you give her enough warning.
I have a lot of catch-up to do after two days away, but I’d like to start with a couple of thoughts for authors.
The first was prompted by meeting up with my friend Jon Turney in London. Jon, as you may remember, recently wrote a book called The Rough Guide to the Future, which was a finalist for the 2011 Winton Prize, given by the Royal Society. As Jon explains on his blog, the paper edition has just gone out of print, but he’s not sure what is happening with ebook rights.
Jon’s book is a special case, as it is much more than just the text. However, having been following the big fuss that John Scalzi & friends have been making over author contracts recently, it occurs to me that having a contract that allows your paper book to go out of print, but leaves the publisher holding the ebook rights, is not a healthy position to be in. Jon has a good agent, who I suspect will be able to fix this. The rest of you, please take care.
By the way, I have been intending to blog about ebook contracts, given that I have an ebook publishing company. I just haven’t had time. I will note that Mr. Scalzi was one of the people I asked for advice when drawing up the WTP standard contract.
The other thing was promoted by one of the review requests I get. Simplifying massively, it seems that there are two sorts of publicists that big publishing houses employ. The first type recognizes that there are smart people who say interesting things about books online, and have an audience, and treat those people with respect. The second type sees a world full of “book bloggers” who are dumb, childish people who need to be kept in line with a combination of transparent flattery, offers of free cool stuff, and veiled threats as to what might happen if they don’t deliver the review for which they are being paid in flattery and stuff. If your publicist is of the latter type, your book probably won’t get reviewed by me. Or indeed by anyone else with an ounce of self-respect.
There have been quite a few strange stories about Amazon in the past week or so, and corresponding confusion and outrage online. Having had to deal with Amazon as a publisher, this sort of thing doesn’t surprise me much any more. I can’t claim to have any insight as to what they are actually doing, but I think I can make an educated guess.
My own troubles are a result of Wizard’s Tower being exactly the wrong type of company to be selling on Amazon. Most of the books that I sell are ebook reprints of books that were sold on paper by someone else. As a result, Amazon are always suspicious about my right to sell the books. This is really quite worrying. I’ve had rude emails from Amazon essentially accusing me of theft, and threatening to close down my account. Oddly they didn’t seem to want to talk to Ben or Juliet, or indeed look at any evidence that might prove my innocence. Nevertheless, I managed to satisfy them. I’ll explain how later.
In their defense, there are indeed still people who think that they can get away with stealing other people’s work, packaging it up as their own, and selling it. There’s this case, for example. Amazon seems to be acting on that now, so the link may go away. The story is that Ilona Andrews published an ebook of The Questing Beast for free on her website. Someone else downloaded that book and began selling it on Amazon for $5.99. As Andrews (a pen name for a husband & wife team) is a very well known writer, it sold well before the theft was noticed. See here for the author’s outraged response.
So Amazon do have a problem. As you may recall, they also have a problem with authors reviewing their own books using sock puppet accounts. That’s presumably why Steve Weddle had his reviews of a friend’s book taken down. Amazon obviously want to police fake reviews, but take a look at the text of the email received by Weddle:
We have removed your reviews as they are in violation of our guidelines. We will not be able to go into further detail about our research.
I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on this matter.
Now check out this story abut a Kindle customer from Norway whose entire book collection was wiped because of an alleged malfeasance. The Amazon email read:
While we are unable to provide detailed information on how we link related accounts, please know that we have reviewed your account on the basis of the information provided and regret to inform you that it will not be reopened.
In both cases Amazon staff have told a confused customer that they have done something wrong, but they won’t be told what they did, nor will they be given any chance to defend themselves. They will simply be punished.
Does this remind you of anything? Because it sounds to me very like my interactions with US Customs & Border Control. And that gets us to the point of the title of this post.
Amazon are very good at making their websites easy and convenient to use. That’s one of the main reasons why the company is so successful. However, their customer service often sucks. That’s because it is a job that is done by people rather than software. People are expensive, and occasionally incompetent. They company probably doesn’t have many of them, doesn’t train them very well, and expects them to make mistakes. So rather than being transparent and responsive, Amazon have taken the path followed by incompetent government bureaucracies down the centuries and are hiding behind regulations. Decisions are made, and no one gets to question them unless, like Linn from Norway, you can get the mighty Boing!Boing! to take up your cause.
In my case the solution to the problem was simply a case of thinking like a lawyer rather than thinking like a business. Amazon don’t actually care whether the books I publish are stolen or not. They certainly don’t want to waste time reviewing evidence. All they actually wanted was for me to send an email containing specific words that, should the issue ever come to court, would allow them to claim that they did everything that they could to ensure that they are behaving ethically. I do the same sort of thing. Before I published Colinthology, I insisted on getting contracts from all of the writers assuring me that they owned the rights to the stories that they submitted.
The difference is, of course, that if problems do arise I can afford the time to work with those involved to sort out the issue. Amazon can’t. The company is just too big, and too successful, to deal fairly with those legitimate errors that turn up in the probable flood of attempts to scam its systems. We, as individual customers, authors and small presses, are too small for them to care about. Eventually, one hopes, they will annoy sufficient numbers of customers that their position as market leader will be vulnerable, but until then I think we just have to treat them as a blind and foolish monster than is likely to blunder around crushing the innocent by mistake.
If anyone was in any doubt that the e-book pricing anti-trust lawsuit was a case of capture of the legal system by Amazon, here’s the proof. Normally when there’s a class action lawsuit, the courts collect the money and parcel it out to the victims. Not in this case. The publishers who have agreed not to contest the case (Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon and Schuster) are paying out, but that money goes to Amazon, and the only way that the supposed victims of the crime can use their money is by buying something from Amazon. Sure its convenient, but it doesn’t look good at all.
Clearly I have been listening to Gary and Jonathan too much because I am about to ramble. Hopefully a coherent post will result.
My starting point is Justine Larbalestier being smart about publishing, which in turn led me to Diana Peterfreund torpedoing some really bad advice to young writers. Can I just echo what Diana said? Look folks, I run a small press. That doesn’t mean that I want to publish sub-standard books. Wizard’s Tower Press exists primarily to help existing writers get their backlists into ebook form. It will also run projects like the Colinthology that a bigger publisher wouldn’t touch, and I’d love to publish translated fiction if I can afford to do so. I’m not in the business of publishing books that can’t get published anywhere else because they are not good enough, and I suspect that most other small press owners would say the same.
So, young writers, please do have some ambition. The point is not to get published, the point is to learn to write really well. Getting rejected is part of that process.
And talking of ambition, this month’s The Writer and the Critic features books by Kate Forsyth and Lavie Tidhar. Kirstyn and Mondy liked them both, which pleases me in different ways. I reviewed Kate’s first novel for Emerald City. It was terrible. So I’m absolutely delighted to hear that, 15 years later, she’s got to be really good. I shall get hold of a copy of Bitter Greens, because I owe that to Kate for having savaged her early work.
See, young writers, even getting published by a major publisher doesn’t mean that you are good. You can still have a lot to learn.
And then there is Osama, which as Kirstyn says is wonderfully ambitious. And I totally agree with her, I would much rather read a wildly ambitious book that isn’t 100% perfect than a merely competent one. Which takes us back to the beginning of the podcast where Mondy says he’s sick of short fiction and Kirstyn says she’s having trouble getting the enthusiasm to read novels. It happens. When you read a lot (which they do, and I do as well), you can get really jaded.
Osama ought to be a cure for anyone who is jaded. I didn’t say too much about it in my review because it is way too easy to be spoilery (and the podcast is massively spoilery — you have been warned). However, one of these days I want to write a critical essay about how clever the book is. I’m bearing in mind Damien Walter’s sage advice here, but academic tongue firmly in cheek I’d like to note that I think Kirstyn and Mondy missed something very important about the book. And that has specific bearing on Kirstyn’s concerns about the book being noir.
Finally I note that next month’s episode of The Writer and the Critic will focus on ebooks recommended by listeners. Two of them were recommended by me (and possibly by others). They are Anticopernicus by Adam Roberts, and Paintwork by Tim Maughan. They are both in the bookstore, and both are short and cheap. So if you want to play the game of reading along with Kirstyn and Mondy (and shouting at the podcast when they get things wrong), you know what to do.
I ducked out of Pride early because I wanted to attend part of the ShortStoryVille event at the Arnolfini. This was a one-day convention leading up to the presentation of the Bristol Prize this evening. The panel I attended was on digital short stories. The speakers were Patricia McNair (Columbia College Chicago), Ra Page (Comma Press), Bea Moyes (Ether Books) and Dan Franklin (Random House).
I always find it very sad listening to literary people talk about short stories because they go on and on about how no one publishes short fiction these days, no one reads it, critics have no respect for it. To anyone brought up on science fiction that’s a bizarre thing to say. Short fiction has always been with us, always been valued, and is booming like never before. But all that activity is largely invisible to the literary world.
Probably the saddest thing of all was learning from Bea that Hilary Mantel has an archive of hundreds of short stories that she has written and is unable to sell. Yes, that’s Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel. Thankfully, thanks to the advent of digital publishing, mainstream publishers are getting back into short fiction. There’s a market again, and this has to be a good thing.
Part of the attraction of short fiction for big publishers appears to be the price you can charge for it. According to Dan Franklin, customers on Amazon like the 99p price point (or 99c if you are in the US). They’ll buy a “book” for that price without thinking about it, and they don’t much care whether that book is 200,000 words, or only 20,000. Also short stories can be consumed in a single commuter journey, which has value for some.
The most interesting use of short fiction I heard about, again from Franklin, was the idea of “bridging stories”. You know how George Martin’s fans are all bent out of shape because he takes so long to write each book? Well the theory is that if an author can put out a short story every few months then the fans will be much less annoyed at having to wait for the next novel. The idea has been mainly used in the mystery and thriller markets for now, but it has obvious applications in epic fantasy.
The highlight of the panel was, of course, having someone from Comma Press along. They have already done some really great books such as When It Changed, Litmus and Lemistry. Ra Page talked about a new project they are working on that will take the form of a small social network. Some of the participants will be real people, some will be fictional characters created by writers, and some will be chat bots. I grabbed a quick chat with Ra in the bar afterwards and he mentioned some exciting translation projects that they are working on, but there’s nothing announced on their website so I guess I can’t talk about those yet. They do have a brief mention of a bio-punk anthology though. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they do next.
Today’s Guardian blog has a piece by a high level Eurocrat. Neelie Kroes is responsible for Europe’s “Digital Agenda”. I understand from the Daily Malice that that’s an initiative to force all British families to watch gay porn over the Internet, but as far as everyone else is concerned it is basically about how Europe views the digital economy, and that includes ebooks.
So what does Ms. Kroes have to say? Well, she’s had a meeting with CEOs from the publishing industry, and they have come up with a declaration. It is called “Books Without Borders”, and the main objective is to make it easier to sell books throughout Europe. One of their main targets is the absurd situation regarding VAT whereby Amazon can get away with charging a very low rate (3.5% from memory) because it is “based” in Luxembourg, but UK-based publishers are forced to charge 20% on the same books. Of course they generally can’t get away with charging more to customers than Amazon does, so they have to take the extra government money out of what they pay themselves and their authors.
There’s more to the declaration, however. The key statement of principle in it is as follows:
Signatories of this declaration endorse the principle that there should be no barriers for consumers to acquire ebooks across territorial borders, platforms and devices.
If you are not sure that means what it sounds like it means, here’s some preamble:
Once they have paid for and downloaded their files, readers may face further obstacles arising from restrictions imposed by Digital Rights Management systems. These are intended to limit copying, but have the effect of preventing files from being moved freely between devices. Easing such restrictions will be important for the widespread acceptance of eBook.
So yeah, that’s an EU committee, and a whole bunch of European publishing industry CEOs, coming out against DRM.
The summer edition of Mslexia crashed through my door this morning and I’ve been reading it over lunch. There are several things worth noting.
First up there’s an excellent article on horror fiction by Sarah Pinborough. It includes a very positive review of Feed (and therefore a mention of the Hugos).
Also Bidisha interviews Sarah Hall, whose The Carhullan Army won a Tiptree. Bidisha is careful to use the term “speculative fiction” and to compare Hall only to respectable writers such as Margaret Atwood and PD James, rather than, say, Ursula Le Guin or Joanna Russ. Hall, however, is having none of this. She says, “I was really embraced by the science fiction community and invited to loads of conventions. It was great.” Thank you, Sarah!
Finally there is a long feature article by Suzi Feay about the lack of new lesbian writers in the UK. Feay is judge for the Polari Prize, which is a debut writer award for LGBT-themed work. She says that they are having trouble finding any lesbians (or at least anyone who will admit to being a lesbian) whose works they can judge. In comparison there’s no shortage of books by and about gay men. Even trans writers are more common than lesbians (though of course some of those may be lesbians).
There’s a short version of Feay’s article on the Guardian website. The longer version in Mslexia has interviews and goes into more detail about possible structural issues in UK publishing that may make it difficult for lesbians to get published. It was all very reminiscent of recent discussions about how hard it is for women SF writers to get published in the UK. It is starting to sound like if there is any way in which women writers deviate from gender expectations then the UK publishing industry won’t take a risk on them. There are, of course, good reasons for that, and for why there are no small presses taking up the slack, but I won’t bore you with economics right now.
What I will do is make a quick survey of the SF&F community. Writing in the US we have Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Nicola Griffith, Kelley Eskridge, Caitlín Kiernan and Ellen Klages, to name but a few. There are plenty of gay male writers in the field too. In the UK we have Geoff Ryman, Patrick Ness and Hal Duncan. I’m struggling to think of a lesbian SF&F writer. (And my apologies if I have forgotten someone obvious).
Of course this year we’ll see a debut novel from Roz Kaveney, Rhapsody of Blood. I suspect that Polari will class her as a trans writer rather than a lesbian, though of course she is both. I’ve read some of the book and it is awesome. If all goes well I’ll get an ARC tomorrow. Here’s hoping that both the Polari and Green Carnation prizes take notice.
One of the things that tends to get people riled up on the Internet these days is book covers. There always seems to be some new source of outrage, often with good cause. But crap or inappropriate covers are nothing new. John Coulthart has put up an excellent post looking at the history of covers from M. John Harrison’s Viriconium books. Some of them are really nice pieces of art, but are totally inappropriate for the content. John promises a follow-up post suggesting avenues for exploration with regard to Viriconium cover art. I’m looking forward to it.
Juliet McKenna’s third and final post about the process of turning her backlist into ebooks has now been posted. This one talks about how much an author can expect to make from this process, especially in an environment where so many people appear to think that ebooks should all be free. Once again it is an excellent read.
The full series of posts is therefore: