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.