No one can deny that the gender imbalance in traditional publishing needs to be addressed. Women buy more books than men, read more books than men and make up 80% of the workforce in traditional publishing. Nonetheless, in order to have a chance to compete for the coveted reviews in major publications or prestigious literary awards, the book virtually has to be by a man or about men or boys in subject.
A lot of people believe that self publishing is one of the means of correcting this imbalance and I am one of them. In fact, I would argue that this is already happening. A study by the self publishing platform Ficshelf reported about a year ago that on various self publishing platforms, 67% of the top ranking titles were by women. This is compared with 39% of the top 100 traditionally published titles on Amazon having been written by women.
I’m currently writing up some research on the options women writers have in the online world to help them achieve against the poor odds of traditional publishing so I’m doing a lot of reading on self publishing at the moment. Being the nit-picky, word-obsessed literary critic that I am, a remark about self publishing for women writers of literary fiction being a ‘ghetto’ stopped me in my tracks.
The context was an interview for Jane Friedman’s blog. This was the question:
According to The Guardian, literary criticism is still heavily male-dominated, and self-publishing is allowing women to break the book industry’s glass ceiling. If this is the case, shouldn’t more female literary writers take the leap and carve a new space for themselves in the indie landscape?
The respondent was Vicky Bijur. Here’s what she said:
I am not sure what you mean by ‘carve a new space in the indie landscape.’ What is the point of ‘carving a new space in the indie landscape’ if there is no money to be made there? I would not want to create a ghetto for female literary writers.
This was clearly an offhand remark with unfortunate work choice. I don’t mean to demonize someone who probably gave her time to Jane Friedman for free and I imagine was simply responding to an emailed set of questions with no interviewer present to clarify the question. However, a large part of me is saying: Wow, there are so many things about this statement that irk me that I don’t even know where to start.
The easiest starting place is the money. Literary writers do not expect to make much, if any, money from their writing. That’s not why they do it. Literary fiction writers are often people on a mission. They are often people who believe that they have something to say in a way that will surprise or intrigue their readers, or that will challenge them to think very hard about controversial issues. Some of them set out to produce innovative writing that could change the landscape of literature, maybe forever. Some gain personal satisfaction from fulfilling a need for creative expression.
Anyone who is familiar with the number of hours of sheer hard graft that go into literary writing and the number of hours of sheer hard graft that go into getting published does not take this work lightly. This is not to say that other forms of writing are easier, but in all reality other forms of writing have a better chance of earning money. Literary writers are not put off by the lack of money that can be earned by literary writing, though the reality of the situation generally means that it has to take a back seat to work that comes with a real pay check.
At the moment, it’s widely recognized that genre fiction does very well in self publishing, but that literary fiction does not. Amazon reported in 2014 that literary fiction made up only 2% of Amazon ebook unit sales and 3% of Amazon ebook dollar sales. The report observes that ’the market for literary fiction is anemic for indie authors simply because it is an anemic segment of publishing overall’. In other words, there’s not much money to be made on literary fiction in either traditional or self publishing.
Choosing self-publishing is a trade off. It is widely stated that self publishing comes with a stigma and it is equally widely stated that that stigma is decreasing. One of the pros of traditional publishing is supposed to be access to professional book marketing expertise but it is also widely stated that publishers don’t follow through on this or they only actively work on the book in the lead up to the launch. Another pro is supposed to be an advance of a few thousand pounds awarded on contract but for literary writers this is usually peanuts compared to the amount of work put in.
I just can’t see self publishing as a ghetto when the pitfalls in traditional and self publishing are basically the same. Worst case scenario in either format is that the writer produces a brilliant book and no one ever reads it because the marketing hasn’t been done well or hasn’t been done at all. Furthermore, those who self publish will be aware that they have to market the book in order to succeed. I see a very large number of self-publishers taking this task very seriously on Twitter every day.
I think this is a lot less isolating (as the ghetto metaphor suggests) than waiting around for a publisher to market the book or tell the author how to market it. Innovative self publishers have already been using the community building nature of the web to do this in new, interesting and fun ways for years.
At the moment, women writers of genre fiction, especially romance and science fiction/fantasy, are experiencing runaway success. Romance and SFF have always been better sellers than literary fiction. The difference in self publishing is not only that more women writers are experiencing success but also that these authors have control over the editorial and marketing process. They can make decisions about their final drafts without pressure from above.
Having control over the marketing process is even more important in my view. A contract with a traditional publisher only guarantees marketing for one book, maybe two. Unless this book or two do very well, the attention devoted to the author by the publisher will not likely continue or increase. However, setting up an author platform and maintaining contact with an interested audience can supply a lot of opportunities in addition to marketing books.
Furthermore, all of us academic literary critics are well aware the women’s popular fiction is often (though not always) the site of subversive critique of social norms. Wired recently ran a story about the ways in which women self publishing authors of Kano Market Literature rebel against patriarchy by denouncing child marriage and sex trafficking. Zetta Elliott, a self and traditionally published author of books for black children and teens, recently argued that self publishing was ‘an act of radical self-care’ and ‘self-love’ in the face of a publishing industry that can be ‘brutal’ and that is dominated by white women.
Louise Walters, who writes literary-commercial crossover novels and experienced considerable success with her first, traditionally published novel, has decided to self publish her second novel after having trouble placing it. This is what she says:
Time will tell if it will pay off financially, but that’s only part of the equation. I’ll be getting my second novel out there and building my career. I honestly feel I have to take responsibility for it myself and do what I have to do to get my books out there. I’m happy to be a hybrid author. I think there will be more and more of us as self-publishing slowly takes its rightful and respected place in the publishing world.
My question is, why should women authors, white or black, pander to a publishing system that undervalues their work? The possibilities I see in women authors self publishing are utopian: the construction of a niche where women’s literary writing could be highly valued; long-term supportive relationships amongst editors, writers and reviewers; the opportunity to control all the long-term reputation building involved in marketing one’s own books and own all the unexpected benefits this entails. If women writers can make this happen, I’ll take this environment over traditional publishing any day.