Sexism in Genre Publishing: A Publisher's Perspective

Commissioning Editor at Tor UK, Julie Crisp, offers her perspective on the contested question of women and sexism in science fiction book publishing.

I'm rather hoping, while writing this post, that I'm not about to open a giant can of worms. The whole issue of sexism, and discrimination against women in genre is such a hot topic, and there are so many vocal contributors that it makes you rather nervous to even voice an opinion in case a lynch mob appears. BUT then I think, hell no, I do have a voice, I do have an opinion - and I should use it. So here it is.

In the last few years I have seen numerous articles deploring the lack of female SFF writers, in science fiction in particular. And usually, the blame always comes back to the publisher's doorstep. Every time I've seen one of these articles I get a little hot under the collar because, guess what? I work in publishing. I work in genre. And here's the kicker - I'm a woman. Yes, a female editor commissioning and actively looking for good genre - male AND female. 

I'm just one of a fair few female editors in this particular area. My colleagues (and competitors) are a set of brilliant, intelligent and hard-working women, who have loved genre since they were kids, have fought their way through the ranks, have extensive lists, love their jobs and don't compromise on the quality of fiction they publish. To name but a few there's Bella Pagan who works with me at Tor UK,  Gillian Redfearn at GollanczAnne Clarke at OrbitJo Fletcher at Jo Fletcher Books, Jane Johnson and Emma Coode at Voyager, Cath Trechman at Titan and Anne Perry over at Hodder.

That means that every genre publisher in the UK has female commissioning editors and 90% of the genre imprints here are actually run by women. So you can imagine there's a slight sense of frustration each time I see yet another article claiming that UK publishers are biased towards male writers. And I do wonder if those writing the pieces are aware who is actually commissioning these authors?

The sad fact is, we can't publish what we're not submitted. Tor UK has an open submission policy - as a matter of curiosity we went through it recently to see what the ratio of male to female writers was and what areas they were writing in. The percentages supplied are from the five hundred submissions that we've been submitted since the end of January. It makes for some interesting reading. The facts are, out of 503 submissions - only 32% have been from female writers.

Tor submissions inboxWomenMen
Urban fantasy/paranormal romance57%43%
Other (difficult to categorise)27%73%

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.

Now what happens when you compare these percentages to how many new authors we take on in a year? Tor UK is still quite a compact list - we normally only take on three or four debut authors each year, if that. Of the four authors Bella and I have taken on this year - two of them are women.

So here's the thing. As a female editor it would be great to support female authors and get more of them on the list. BUT they will be judged exactly the same way as every script that comes into our in-boxes. Not by gender, but how well they write, how engaging the story is, how well-rounded the characters are, how much we love it.

While I understand why people get so impassioned about wanting more female writers in genre, especially when it comes to science fiction, the picture just isn't as clear cut as it seems. Accusing the publishers of being sexist, or lax in their attitude towards women writers is an easy out but it's just not the case.

I read a quote recently somewhere that said: 'Feminism isn’t about all women believing the same thing, it’s about women standing up for what they believe in and having the freedom to make their own choices.' Well the books I choose, the authors (male and female) I work with - they're what I believe in, they're my choice.