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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Gender Equality: The Lies We Tell Ourselves

This is "Anything You Can Do," sung by Ruthie Henshall and John Barrowman.  They do a hilarious version that's well worth watching and related to today's topic.

Does the gender of an author play a major role in a book’s success?

Linda Nagata engaged this question yesterday on her blog What’s in a Name?  As a hard science fiction author, Nagata finds herself swimming in a sea dominated by male authors and male readers.  Though her books received excellent reviews and support, she struggled to make sales. Was this because she’s a woman?

Nagata may never know for certain since no one can turn back time and sell her books under a male name, but looking at the numbers might shed some light might be shed on the question.

For this exercise, I went through the current New York Times Bestseller list and the top sellers on Amazon and calculated the number and percentage of authors with obvious male, female, and gender neutral names.  If an author’s name appeared on the list multiple times, I counted them for each of them.  Also, even if I knew the author’s gender, I tried to look at them as if I’d never seen their name before.

Of the 35 books on The New York Times Fiction Bestseller list, 16 (45.7 %) were by male authors, 16 (45.7 %) were female, 2 (5.7 %) had gender neutral names, and 1 (2.9 %) was written by multiple authors.  Interestingly, most of the top books were by female authors and the book by multiples bore a male and female name.  So by this count, for fiction in general, it does not matter if an author is male or female.

On Amazon’s science fiction list, from the top 100 sellers, 81 % were male, 5 % female, 2 % gender neutral, and 12 % by multiple authors.

On Amazon’s fantasy top 100 sellers list, 55 % were male, 33 % female, and 12 % gender neutral.

On Amazon’s romance top 100 sellers, 6 % were male, 91 % female, and 3 % gender neutral.

Clearly, male authors experience much greater success than female in science fiction.  Fantasy has a more equal spread but still a clear preference for male writers.  However, romance shows an unabashed preference from female authors.

So what does this say about us as authors and consumers?

Yes, there’s some truth to the fact that women tend to enjoy stories about romance more than men, so the numbers in that genre make sense.  Why shouldn’t we expect the demographics of the authors to be similar to the readers?  After all, authors start as readers.

But what about science fiction and fantasy?  The fact that women buy more books than men has been a long accepted fact.  Yet many assume that these books are better suited for a male audience.  Does this assumption encourage the authorial demographic?  Is it simply that most of the biggest selling sf/f books right now belong to series written by male authors, thus tipping the scales?  Or is it that certain types of sf/f shift more toward male or female authorship.  For example, hard science fiction appears to favor male authors and urban fantasy has a larger than average number of female authors.

Or is it us, the consumers?  Granted, we live in a world that demands we not draw a distinction between men and women, that gender should not influence our choices or lives.  But in truth, how often do we as human beings make assumptions based on gender?  Do we presuppose a romance novel with a male author will lack tenderness or femininity?  When we pick up a hard science fiction book by a female writer, do we automatically expect that it won’t be as well written, researched, or executed as a male author’s?

The truth of the matter is that gender does affect our lives.  We can say it doesn’t all we want, but watch yourself the next time you’re shopping or making observations and assumptions about those around you.  How much do you judge based on gender whether it’s male or female, for we are prejudice against both these days?

Has our culture taught us less to honestly consider men and women as equals and more to lie to ourselves about our own biases?  Do you buy more male or female authors and why?  What assumptions do you have about books written by male authors?  Female authors?  Do those assumptions change with genre?


  1. I tend to buy books based on recommendations of friends and book reviews. I would say other readers I know, both male and female, do the same. I think you are throwing out a general premise on some faulty numbers on an issue that is not black and white. For example, the most successful fantasy writer in history is female. I think in terms of dollars Harry Potter who everyone knows is written by a woman tends to refute prejudice.
    Maybe if there are number trends of successful writers of different genres versus the percent of failed authors between genders you may have a point. But maybe for the same reason there are more men in science and engineering and more science fiction and fantasy male authors is that there ARE differences in the sexes and our proclivities lead to the disparity. The genders are not equal but to blame society seems short a short sided easy answer to a complex question.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts.

    You are right in that this is a complex question, and to get anything like a complete answer is beyond the scope of this blog. A whole book could be written on the subject.

    I think society has a part to play and that we often, for the sake of attempting to reach equality, ignore the differences in the genders.

    Also, remember, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter counts as YA fiction. Though, it's enjoyed by many adults, myself included, it does not technically fit in the genres I used as examples.