Women in SF&F: The Cycle of Negative Feedback

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.

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23 Responses to Women in SF&F: The Cycle of Negative Feedback

  1. You might start by ordering a copy of Ancillary Justice. I’ve not read I yet, but it is on the pile.

    Completely off point, but move it up the pile, Cheryl. 😉 Its so made of win.

  2. *sigh* Stupid, stupid rat creatures…

    If it helps National Public Radio, the venerable hall of breathless admiration for all things literary, gave Ancillary Justice the attention it usually reserves for book about English professors having a midlife crisis. One hopes that will nudge it onto the shelves on our side of the ocean…

  3. Bob Mayer says:

    I’ve got to shake my head at this whole misogynist thing in SFF.

    It’s not about gender to an extent. It’s about the good old boy’s network. Harlan Ellison picks a protege like Dan Simmons. Who has he picked? No one as far as I’m aware.

    What’s a howl is how SFF is the most behind the times writers organization around. I get to speak because while SFWA might not think me one of their ranks, I’ve had two #1 titles on Kindle science fiction in the US and UK and am ranked in the top 20 on Kindle in the genre for the past couple of years. Archaic, pathetic and sad is SFWA. And when their former president retweets a blog like this pretending to support the cause, I realize the organization is doomed. Because it’s not about gender, it’s about good old boys protecting their own.

    Be like RWA– go indie, sell books to your fans. Stop sucking up to Tor and Delray and the rest of them. Because their authors are in for a shock in about a year.

    • Cheryl says:

      Right, because it isn’t allowed to have a conversation about women in SF&F without some man coming along and making it All About Him. Thank you for trying to hijack my blog and use it as your personal soapbox.

      Still, it is good to know that SFWA, that notorious hangout of gamma rabbits, feminists, queers and non-Aryans is secretly a bastion of white male supremacy.

      • Tom Lloyd says:

        Where is this old boy’s network and how do I join? Or have I already? No one picked me as a protégé so have I done it wrong? Congrats on your success Bob, I’m afraid I’ve never heard of you but that’s probably a SFWA conspiracy.

        On a more serious note, it was interesting to see the Tor submission breakdown about gender. I don’t think there’s any one factor at the heart but a combination of several – you’d think that given the majority of readers are female these days, there shouldn’t be an issue of readers not being willing to pick them up but clearly there are reasons why this heavily female-influenced industry (I don’t know about booksellers in terms of gender makeup but I’m assuming it’s at least parity given publishing houses) has always had this imbalance.

        I’m trying to work out why I don’t read many books by female SFF authors and I don’t think there’s any one reason, but when I do the gender of the author doesn’t tell anything to the quality of the work so I’ve never had reason to be put off/choose specifically blokey books.

        One (very unscientific) observation I have had is that I often don’t find the blurbs of books by female authors grab me. I don’t know if that’s about me, women being less punchy in the selling of their work (assuming they get to write it themselves, but I’ve only ever had a publisher crit/tweak a blurb for my books). It’s always been an effort for me to be more direct and eye-catching when writing blurbs and I wonder if women are generally less inclined to such directness too (with the understanding that any such generalisation will omit marked examples to the contrary).

        • Liz Williams says:

          I’ve never written my own blurbs. It’s common with the big publishers for someone other than the author to do that.

          • Tom Lloyd says:

            curious, are Gollancz messing with me then I wonder?! Maybe it’s simply the style of certain blurb writers then, and I just don’t notice the volume of male writer’s blurbs that do nothing for me, seeing the wood for the trees etc.

        • Jill says:

          My own two cents, having worked at the bottom tier of the bookselling business; that is, in the bookstore. Bookstores (and retail shops in general) tend to be staffed by more women than men, but the upper echelon – the corporate buyers – tends to be male dominated.

          I often found that my opinion as a store manager who spent 45+ hours a week in the store with customers was considered “uneducated” by the men with the business degrees at the corporate level.

          On more than one occasion, I spoke to SF&F buyers who had no interest in the material they were purchasing and repeated that old chestnut about the only SF readers being overgrown boys who still lived in Mom’s basement. (In a similar vein, I once spoke to a buyer specializing in “regional topics”. She had never visited the mid-west and was under the impression that St. Louis was located “somewhere on the Great Lakes”.)

  4. SFbookseller says:

    One of the issues is that Waterstones are not ordering much of anything by any writer. Their current limit is around 180-250 copies of a book by a new author, to cover 288 shops. If the book sells at a big store, Waterstones insist they will then order more for their smaller stores, and so on – but at launch, even a well reviewed and advance promoted SF book simply will not be on shelves in half Waterstones stores. Their plan to savagely cut stock from their shops (nb all unsold books can still, as always, be returned for full credit) has meant that effectively they have spent two years deliberately not putting nasty new books in their stores. The only way a publisher gets around this is by persuading them just how much money will be spent on tube posters, bus adverts and television spots – not usually an option for SF. I was party to a rant by one of smaller London SF publishers in the spring, and he was so grateful his company was co-publishing in the USA, as the UK science fiction book industry had been “murdered” by Waterstones.

    • Only titles less than 18 months old can now be returned to publishers for full credit. Older titles went on ‘firm sale only’ some years back – apparently to try and save publishers the costs of transporting books to and fro, processing credit and refunds etc., as they were losing market share to eg Amazon and the supermarkets.

      Within a year of that change, my backlist royalties dropped from £3,000 a year to £300, and are now down to £30, since that lack of sales meant my publisher has let the books go out of print. That lack of sales also means that EPOS tells Waterstones I’m not worth buying in as a writer anymore, so they largely ignore my new titles. This has happened to any number of midlist writers besides me.

      And is why it’s nigh on impossible to find any writer’s backlist in the shops these days, regardless of genre or best-sellerdom.

  5. Splicer says:

    As a reader of SF/F, a book is a book is a book. I can’t even imagine caring about the gender of a writer. How in the world would that matter to me? I don’t read Elizabeth Moon or Tanith Lee because they are women. I read their books because I think they’re good.

    I just don’t understand the mentality of publishers that think a male reader like me gives a damn. I’m more inclined to care about the politics of a writer which is the reason I avoid reading anything by Ringo or Card.

  6. My copy of Ancillary Justice arrived yesterday.

    If I’d seen it in a local store I would have bought it, because it’s exactly the kind of book I love. But because there were no copies in the store, the only way I knew about it was social media, which meant I ordered it online from bn.com. I’ve given up asking local stores to special order items for me, because it inevitably results in a deer in headlights look, followed by the explanation “this is really hard for us, and you should just order it yourself online.”

    • Cheryl says:

      I’d like to note that my local Waterstones, the two independent bookstores in Bath (Mr B’s and Toppings) and Foyles in Bristol are all really good about ordering stuff. I know, I am very lucky.

    • Trey says:

      Lord, spare me from special orders.
      It takes longer, costs more and is arguably more inconvenient. Whereas with on-line, its quick, painless, delivered to my doorstep or computer and notably cheaper.
      There’s a reason I don’t go into chain bookstores these days – and it has everything to do with what they order and don’t order.

  7. Lisa says:

    This makes me think about how I *buy* books, as a reader. I cruise the shelves and look for authors I recognize, because once an author makes it on to my mental short list then I’ll buy almost anything they produce. However, when I’m not in the mood to spend money, or looking for something new, I go to the library.

    Then I’ll grab five to seven books off the New shelf. I don’t think I look at the author, but I think I might have to be aware of it in the future. Unconscious bias is tricky like that. On the other hand, I know that I routinely read 2-3 female authors in the crime fiction genre which seems almost as male dominated as SFF.

  8. Rosie says:

    In addition to the detrimental feedback loop you mention in the main post, there is a secondary one feeding off it. Basically, because SF novels by females don’t get the necessary sales to be thought of as equivalent to men, …

    (heck, I know this is being exact with the words… but I don’t want a whole swathe of complaints about misrepresentation blocking up your blog)

    …good women writers will shy away from choosing science fiction as their genre to write in. This in turn means there are fewer women science fiction writers than there should be. This, in turn means there are even fewer SF novels written by women to choose from. And so we go on round and round in ever decreasing circles.

    • Tom Lloyd says:

      Interesting point, and also if you have a variety of ideas as many authors do, you’re less likely to choose the SF-ish one where the prevailing view is that you’ll not sell it.

      • Rosie says:

        More worryingly is that not having some talented women writing SF novels and getting them published means that SF readers lose out on some good stuff. All very sad…

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  10. Cate Morgan says:

    I remember when the fantasy authors to read were Melanie Rawn, Kate Elliot, and Jennifer Roberson–the doyennes of fantasy. What the heck happened?!

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