Confessions of a sexist reader

Posted by Paul Samael on Sunday, November 9, 2014 Under: Random thoughts

They say you should never judge a book by its cover.  But when, in my last review on this site, I said that I hadn’t really expected “Pedalling Backwards” to be my kind of thing, that was exactly what I was doing.  Here’s that cover again – it doesn’t really scream “Men! Buy this book!”  does it?



And just to reinforce my prejudices, it was also categorised as “women’s fiction” on Smashwords.  But of course, when I actually read it, I enjoyed it.  Which means that my preconceptions about this book were about as wrong as they could possibly be.

So then I started to wonder how far similar preconceptions might have influenced my choice of reading material more generally.  This is hard to gauge, but a possible indicator might be the proportion of books by female authors which I have marked as “Read” on goodreads.com.  If you had asked me to guess, I would have estimated perhaps 20-30% (out of the 280 or so books I have rated on the site).  The answer turned out to be under 10% - which I found quite troubling (especially as I read a fair amount of contemporary fiction- where you would expect the longer-term historic bias in favour of male authors to be far less marked).  So why was it so embarrassingly low?  These are the reasons I came up with:
  • Gender bias in reviewing:  If you Google “gender bias in fiction”, it probably won’t be long before you come across VIDA’s “The Count”, an annual survey which suggests significant bias by reviewers of literary fiction in favour of books written by men.  But whilst there may well be at least some gender bias on the part of certain reviewers, that may not be the whole story….
  • Gender bias in publishing:  Another possible explanation for VIDA’s findings is that publishers favour books written by men - and reviewers are simply reflecting that output.  That has certainly been the case historically and it appears to hold true even today (although to a lesser extent) - see this article and this one.  But it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the blame can be heaped on publishers….
  • Men write more books:  It may be that publishers get more submissions from men than they do from women, in which case publishers’ output may simply be a reflection of what they receive from authors/agents (rather than the product of gender bias).  There is some anecdotal evidence of this (see this article).  To test it out, I had a look at the first 100 new books in the Smashwords “Literature” category twice in the past month (once in October and once in November) - my thinking being that a self-publishing platform would be incapable of discrimination (and the “Literature” category should be fairly gender-neutral i.e. it is not like "women's fiction" where you would expect female authors to be in the majority).  About 30-40% of the new titles were by women.  Now, I admit that my sample size was pretty small – but it does give some support to the suggestion that men either write more books than women or (which may be the real explanation) have more self-confidence when it comes to putting their work forward for publication.
  • Women buy more books:  Ironically, given the last bullet point, women account for almost 60% of spending on books.  Now, you may be wondering what this has to do with gender bias, but the point is that publishers have not been slow to notice this fact – which has led them to target certain books at women rather than men, precisely because they know that women are more likely to buy.   To my mind, the cover of “Pedalling Backwards” reflects this trend – and it may well be a smart move commercially, but it does tend to leave us chaps with the unfortunate impression that certain books are “not for us.”
  • There are too many books:  As noted in this earlier post, there are an awful lot of books in the world – and if you spent too long considering carefully which ones were worth reading, you’d never actually have the time to sit down and read anything.  So there is a tendency to fall back on the kind of instant pre-judgements that I highlighted at the beginning of this post – where a certain amount of gender bias may well come into play. 
Now it probably sounds from all this as if I am trying to find excuses for the fact that the proportion of female authors in my goodreads selection is so embarrassingly low – and to some extent I am.  But I accept that my own preconceptions about certain books have probably played a significant part – and that there is definitely room for some positive discrimination in my choice of conventionally published reading material.  

When it comes to free fiction though, the picture is a bit different.  Of the free books I have reviewed on this site so far, female authors are much better represented (the proportion is broadly in line with the percentage of books by women in the Smashwords literature category - see above).  Hurrah!

I think the difference is that I actively seek out free fiction in order to review it on this site - so I am predisposed towards trying a bit harder (e.g. taking the time to read a sample) and being a bit more open-minded.  There's also the fact that if you're looking for quality free fiction, the choice is quite a lot more limited - so I'm less inclined to feel overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of what's out there.  

When I’m choosing a paid-for book, on the other hand, I’m less inclined to put the same amount of time in and therefore more prone to make instant judgements about what I'll like.  I'm also generally more risk-averse because I don’t want to shell out for something that proves to be disappointment.  

But these are slightly feeble excuses because, of course, there are such things as public libraries where books can be borrowed for free – and the price of many ebooks is now so low that I really shouldn’t complain if something turns out to be a disappointment (and you can’t expect to reap any rewards from being more adventurous if you’re not prepared for the occasional disappointment....).


In : Random thoughts 


Tags: "gender bias in publishing" 
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Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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