Is the book industry sexist or just starved for great women authors?

There's a huge gender divide in speculative fiction publishing — especially when it comes to science fiction and space opera, which are incredibly male dominated. And yesterday, Tor UK's Julie Crisp wrote a revealing post that started a fascinating discussion.

Top image: Cover art of Justina Robson's Natural History.

Crisp's article basically boils down to "we can't publish what we don't receive" — she and her staff went through the roughly 500 submissions they've received through their "open submissions" policy since the end of July, and this is what they found:

Is the book industry sexist or just starved for great women authors?

It would be interesting to see how this compares to the stats for agented submissions — but in comments, Crisp suggested the percentages would look similar for those. In any case, it's a stark set of numbers. Writes Crisp:

You can see that when it comes to science fiction only 22% of the submissions we received were from female writers. That’s a relatively small number when you look at how many women are writing in the other areas, especially YA. I’ve often wondered if there are fewer women writing in areas such as science fiction because they have turned their attentions to other sub-genres but even still, the number of men submitting to us in total outweighs the women by more than 2:1.

Probably in response, Gollancz's Gillian Redfearn tweeted some equally chilling statistics:

The comments on Crisp's post are incredibly worth reading. Sophie McDougall writes:

Some of the most sexist things ever said to me in a professional context have been said by women. “When you’re asked about your influences, can you stop mentioning women writers and namedrop these men instead? I don’t care if you haven’t read them, can you name them as influences anyway?” “If there’s a woman on the cover, the book won’t sell.” “Can you turn your 50/50 male/female cast to 75% male?” “We don’t want this book, because girls don’t like books about space, and boys don’t like books about girls.” What’s between the speaker’s legs really doesn’t change the content here. And yes, many of the women saying these things were honestly trying to help me! If I mentioned sexism, they would say, in effect, that they agreed with me, but that trying to succeed in spite of sexism could only be done by stealth and by making a lot of concessions to it. It may be that they were RIGHT and that by talking about women writers and writing female characters, I’ve harmed my career. I certainly often worry that by talking about sexism, I will damage my reputation and saleability.

Responds Crisp:

From my perspective, this post was never about trying to look at the deeper sociological issues or finger pointing. It was simply a call out to female writers to submit. ... I’ve seen a few comments on Twitter where female authors were suggesting they’d usually submit to smaller independent houses, or rather self-publish. That was the reasoning behind the post – I want them to feel there other options should they be interested.

And perhaps most interestingly, there's this comment from Sean the Bookonaut:

I don’t care what gender a writer is either and I would have said that I had a pretty even spread when it came to reading (say 60 /40 in favor of male authors). Until I actually analysed what I read over a 12 month period. Turns out the ratio was more 85/15 in favour of male authors. So I now impose a loose ratio on my reading, trying to get it to parity. I review for a couple of the Big Six as well as small press so its not a stricture I would suggest for the casual reader.

The most interesting thing for me has been the absolute absence of the suggested drop in quality. I have discovered some great reads, some great authors.

On a day when an editor at the U.S. version of Tor, James Frenkel, has left the company over issues involving alleged sexual harrassment, this discussion by Tor UK is also well worth paying attention, because it deals with a huge, systemic problem — the huge, awful bottleneck standing between science fiction and gender parity.