Em's place

Writing, anxiety-wrangling, tea.

A level playing field

By Emma on February 20, 2014

Last year I had three novels published in quick succession. The Split Worlds series found fans. This made me happy. I did all I could to promote them without turning into some sort of horrific promo-beast. I did the usual; interviews, competitions, book launch events, readings, went to ten conventions in the UK and US, the kind of thing most SFF authors do these days. I wrote over fifty short stories set in the world of the novels and gave them away online for free. I run an email subscription service so people can get them delivered to their inbox if they prefer.

I felt it was my responsibility. Responsibility for my own career, responsibility for the success of my books. I knew my efforts couldn’t guarantee that, but I wanted to know that I had done all I could to give my books some decent modifiers on each roll. I love my publisher, and they have done a huge amount to support my efforts and my books were promoted through their channels too. I felt so lucky. So privileged. And I was and I still am.

Then I saw this. Foz Meadows drew attention to a leaflet produced by Waterstones and still in circulation in the store she went into in 2012 (and she has been told by others that it is still in circulation in some branches), designed to point people discovering fantasy via the Game of Thrones phenomenon towards more books they might like.

Out of 113 authors there were, wait for it, 9 women.

Nine. Women. And you won’t be surprised, I fear, to learn that all of the men they suggest are white. This is what Foz details:

“So, to be clear: of the one hundred and thirteen authors listed in the genre-specific sections, there are a grand total of nine women and, as far as I can tell, zero POC. In the final two pages – the “If you like this, you’ll love-” section, things are little better: of the ten authors with suggestions after their names, two are women; but of the 101 authors recommended as comparisons, only twelve are women – and, tellingly, of those twelve, a whopping eight are listed as being similar to another female author. As far as this list is concerned, women have essentially become a speciality category, almost exclusively recommended because their work resembles that of another female author, and not because of their contributions to various other genres. As for POC authors, as far I can tell, there’s not a single one on any of the lists.”

There’s been a tonne of sexism in SFF scandal online over the last week. I didn’t feel the need to add my noise to it all. But then I started to think about all the times over the past few years that I have been so furious about the way women are treated – not just in SFF but all over the fucking world. Last week I sobbed at my husband that I was part of the problem because I was too scared to speak up. Too scared I’d lose my quiet life behind my computer keyboard. Too scared that confrontation would find me. I have an anxiety disorder. I am terrified of any kind of conflict and confrontation. But the longer I stay silent, the longer I am part of the problem and the longer the noisiest, most bigoted, ignorant, sexist and quite frankly, disgusting specimens take centre stage.

I did an interview last year in which I said that writing Cathy, one of the main characters in the Split Worlds series, was almost like having a dialogue with myself. She is flawed and at times, deeply annoying, but in the end, she stands up and fights this sort of bullshit, at great personal risk.

And what do I do? I write novels. I cry in private, I shout at my computer and I confide my self-loathing to my husband for not standing up.

Even writing this is hard. Just writing one word after another in my safe, privileged life, is making me feel scared. And that is exactly why I have to do this.

What I want to see

And what is the first thing I thought as I typed that? “Who gives a fuck what you want to see, Emma?” I have internalised all of the behaviours society demands from me as a woman.

Well, this is my space, it says so at the top and everything, and so I believe I can write what I like here.

I don’t want to ask my readers to go into Waterstones and tell them they loved my books in an effort to battle this sort of promotional bias. I don’t want to ask those same readers, again and again, to shout about my books, to leave reviews and star ratings and all that stuff. If they want to, I am so delighted I could weep. All I want is for them to enjoy them and I have no right to ask anyone who has given up their time and money to read my work to do any more for me.

I don’t want to see a women’s prize in speculative fiction. I understand the arguments in favour, but fundamentally, if there are any prizes going I want everyone who is eligible to be so because of what they’ve written and not the gender they identify as and certainly not anything to do with their reproductive organs. I did not, at any point, consult my ovaries or breasts in the writing of my novels, therefore I do not want them to be a variable in relation to anything they might be eligible for.

What I do want to see is is TOP-DOWN change.

I want Waterstones to publicly commit to promoting male and female writers equally in all promotional materials written from now on. I don’t want all of them to be white. I want national newspapers and magazines and journals and major reviewing outlets to commit to reviewing male and female writers equally. I want libraries to commit to compiling recommendation lists with equal male and female representation. (I know that a friend of mine in America who is a librarian says this is a core policy of theirs. It should be the same everywhere.)

I’m not talking about book bloggers; people who give up their time for the love of books. I’m talking about organisations and companies who pride themselves on being ‘authorities’ and leading mainstream readerships to discovering new authors. I am especially directing this to those amongst them who make money from selling books.

You know what I want?


This affects my livelihood and countless other authors

People have asked if there will be more Split Worlds novels. I have two more in my head that are getting louder by the day, but the simple answer is that my publisher would be delighted to commission more if the sales of the first three justify it. They published three books back to back. It was a huge up-front investment. I understand this.

Now I have done all I can, and of course, I still try to promote them without being ridiculous (it’s so much harder when they are not new and shiny). The thought that Waterstones and so many other sales and/or promotion outlets are this heavily biased towards men makes me feel like there’s no fucking point. It makes me fear that my books didn’t get the same crack at the whip beyond the areas I can reach directly.

And this isn’t restricted to my tiny niche in this world. Sexism is real and damaging in all levels of society, in all walks of life. Even now, I am annoyed at myself for being upset about this when there are women being beaten, raped, abused, sold, tortured, oppressed. It’s everywhere.

It has to stop.

Tagged as: , ,

{ 38 comments... read them below, or add one }

  1. Paul (@princejvstin) says:

    Change needs to come from both directions, agreed.

  2. Morgen Rich says:

    I’m glad you found the courage to share your thoughts and feelings on this topic. Speaking out is intimidating, particularly when one fears repercussions that can further affect one’s life adversely. What you say is true, though. Discrimination stemming from biases (sex, race, gender identity, sexuality, and more!) is already adversely affecting the livelihoods of writers. And yes, there are women who are suffering atrocities you and I aren’t likely to suffer. That’s all the more reason to give a cheer when someone speaks up about unjust practices. Thanks for chiming in!

  3. JMB says:

    Well done. Well said.

  4. Jon says:

    If you really want to go to the top in an effort to level the playing field, I don’t think you should stop with Waterstones; publishers, especially the majors, have a lot to answer for.

    Some of the indies and smaller presses are doing okay, I grant that, but in truth the lack of representation for female and minority authors in genre fiction especially, while obviously terrible, is really just a symptom of a deeper malaise characterised by timidity, lack of imagination and general laziness amongst publishers.

    Materials such as the ones you have highlighted are produced with a great deal of assistance from publishing houses and their sole objective is to maximise sales of those titles that they can make the greatest margin on. This is going to include an awful lot of repetitive old white men, and most of the majors have no idea how they would even begin to launch a genuine alternative to those (often admittedly seminal) titles.

    Why yes, I am having a bit of a crisis of faith in my profession at the moment.

  5. UrsulaV says:

    I never get any crap. I never get any hate mail. And I have started to think that it’s A) dumb luck, but also B) that I’m not yelling loud enough for anyone to notice.

    And that kinda scares me, too. Because I should probably fix that.

    I understand your fear.

    Err…nervous fistbump of solidarity?

  6. Louise says:

    If one has ordered, reasoned, evidenced based thoughts one has a foundation. No matter how many trolls come floating on the river under your bridge, that bridge, that foundation will never fail you nor fall. People shoot at the people they know are right and are endangering their own bridge which may not be built so well, nor with such good cement. Arrows don’t hit home if they’re made of paper.

    And so. Yes this will probably result in difficult. But writing Cathy was a gift to every woman who wants to wear jeans and trainers and gets forced into heels and a dress so people will take her seriously and she will fit. Maybe the way to deal with the difficult is to ask what Cathy would do. Shoot right back with arrows made of steel, I suspect.

  7. Thank you so much for posting this.
    Susan Jane Bigelow recently posted..Two guest posts today!

  8. Absolutely and well said. We’re not looking for any special favours, dammit!

    And readers making it loud and clear that this matters to them as well will be one of the things that really helps make a change.

    So let’s hope we see that change sooner rather than later…
    Juliet E McKenna recently posted..Why the SFWA Shoutback Matters

  9. David Bishop says:

    Well said. I’ll be sharing this with my Writing Genre Fiction class tomorrow, as part of their MA Creative Writing studies at Edinburgh Napier University. [Shockingly, it’s a postgrad course that loves and embraces genre fiction!] All but one of our 15 current students are women.

    We have gender parity for guest speakers [for example, this trimester we have 2 women and 2 men for genre fiction; 2 women and 1 man for graphic fiction; 1 woman and 2 men for the narrative practice module].

  10. M. Fenn says:

    Thank you for writing this.

  11. Emma says:

    Thank you, so much, everyone. I am feeling a tad overwhelmed right now, but when the anxiety subsides I’ll reply properly. x

  12. Crispy says:

    One bookstore does one thing and now the entire industry is sexist. All the while female authors dominate several genres such as romance and constantly fetishize homosexual men.

  13. John Tate says:

    I understand where you’re coming from, but I have a few thoughts.

    1) Are there that many People of Color writing sci-fi? It’s always seemed a White Folk genre to me, mainly. But perhaps that’s the problem.

    2) A “if you like this, then…” list for GRRM seems to me that it WOULD mainly consist of white males since he is also one.

    Just my thoughts.

  14. Lee says:

    Crispy – I fear you are missing the point. Well, several points.

    “One bookstore does one thing…”
    Well, it’s the *only* major bookchain in the entire country, so it’s not *one* bookstore – it’s hundreds.

    “and now the entire industry is sexist.”
    Again, no. Sexism is rife throughout the industry, but it’s not *because* of that one major bookchain – the issues highlighted are examples of how unfairly under-represented women are, where genre publicity is concerned.

    “All the while female authors dominate several genres such as romance…”
    That’s possibly true, but them it’s also completely irrelevant, because male authors do not dominate SF&F – they’re simply more visible. There are as many good female authors in these genres, as there are men.

    “and constantly fetishize homosexual men.”
    What the actual fuck?

    • Gaie Sebold says:

      Lee – thank you. I was trying to work out how to respond to this, you showed more patience than I am currently capable of displaying, because, dammit, I am getting *so tired* of having to have these same conversations over, and over, and over.
      John Tate: you might find this a good place to start: a list of POC writers in SF http://www.carlbrandon.org/resources.html
      And there are many, many writers who are white and male and write nothing like GRRM – from Ian Banks to James Joyce to Shakespeare, while there are quite a few women and POC who *do* write epic fantasy.

  15. Jo says:

    *stands up and applauds*

    I’m with you, and I know that I, personally, should be doing more. We’ve always tried to have gender parity at BristolCon, and we’re trying to do similar with the Fringe. I read as many books by women as I do by men, and I try to review equally (I actually have a feeling I review more books by women, because I do have a policy of reviewing things that I think are a bit more under-the-radar. Or that are by people I like and want to promote 😉 ) I’m just not sure what else I can do, and that makes me 🙁

  16. Roisin says:

    Wow, I’m disappointed in Waterstones – especially as they are pretty much the only big chain bookstore left in the UK. And there are so many amazing female authors out there! Robin Hobb, Tamora Pierce, Kate Griffin, Ursula Le Guin Frances Hardinge, Anne McCaffrey is about a big a name as you can get, Naomi Novik, Susan Cooper… I certainly don’t think only men do epic fantasy properly.

  17. Cheering section here!

    Women writers do what they can. Women writers produce good solid stories–good science fiction, good fantasy–in every category and subcategory. But the playing field is not level until publishers, critics, reviewers, booksellers…the people behind the publishing industry, the ones whose choices and expressed opinions affect a writer’s career…start treating women writers as writers, not a category within writers. Until book design for women-written books isn’t separate for book design for men (just so you know, women writers too often get covers that shout “woman writer, romance inside” when there’s not any in the book.) Until strong female protagonists are not routinely called “kick-ass” (because that’s not the only kind of strong woman.) Until newspaper articles don’t talk about writers (men) and women writers (women) in different sections of the same article or in different articles. Until conventions do not have any panel items on “Women in SF” or “Can Women Write Epic Fantasy?” Until reviewers do not judge men’s writing and women’s writing by different standards (they may not know it, but praising a man’s book because it includes complex characterization with characters having emotional depth and the hero has to deal with family issues and it’s not all just nonstop action…and then criticizing a woman’s book because it includes complex characterization with characters having emotional depth and the hero has to deal with family issues and it’s not all just nonstop action is…biased reviewing.)

    It’s the structural tilted playing field that causes women writers the most grief, because writers don’t control the structure of publishing, and “just write better books” is not enough.

  18. Antonia says:

    It isn’t because of a lack of influential and award-winning SF writers from other demographics – Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-winner James Tiptree Jr http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Tiptree,_Jr (“Harlan Ellison had introduced Tiptree’s story in the anthology Again, Dangerous Visions with the opinion that “[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man.””) and Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Nancy Kress are among the authors mysteriously missing from lists.
    The past Nebula best novel awards list on wikipedia has plenty of women named, but press and bookshops don’t always highlight the range. Ursula K. Le Guin has won the most nebula awards of any author.

  19. @Murf61 says:

    Thank you Emma for a very well-written and heartfelt piece. Is it too much to ask for a level playing field? No, it most certainly is not and you put the point across very eloquently indeed. Good for you!

  20. Antonia says:

    At random (most recent post on blog found when looking for SF and sleep deprivation as I’d blanked on Nancy Kress’s name and series title earlier) http://scienceinmyfiction.com/2014/02/17/close-encounters-of-the-sexual-kind/ – three major authors mentioned in the first paragraph, two are female, one POC. See, it isn’t hard work to be more representative.

  21. wendy says:

    Thank you for speaking up.
    I remember when you did the SF Squeecast and you said that your greatest fear was ‘that the fear will win’.
    You are braver than you think.

  22. Hear, hear. Emma, this needs to be said by women, and men, and people of non binary gender, by white people and brown people and all the other colors we humans come in. The field must be leveled. In the end, the quality of the writing must be what matters, not gender or ethnicity or any other variable of the writer. At FASA, I’ve been developing a new game line that shows how racial and gender parity could have been achieved in the Victorian era. We’re putting our credits where our polityical stance is. Half the writers for this game line are women. Our lead creature artist is openly transgender. We’re not collecting varieties. These are simply the people who were best for the job, and we’re delighted that we haven’t had to institute quotas or any other artificial mechanism to enforce diversity. In the process, we’ve acquired a broad spectrum of viewpoints, and when yuou’re creating a world, you need that. Tghe industry needs that. And yes, I signed up for the Insect Army. Pardon my typos. Tablet not conducive to correction.

  23. Cragfeatures says:

    Well said, Emma. I completely understand your fear in speaking out but you have very good reason. Trolls will come but eventually the sensible and less outspoken majority will win, i believe. At least… I really hope so especially as i WANT those next two books of yours in Split worlds! So excited to hear they are in your head.

  24. Steve says:

    I’m happy to say I’ve enjoyed the work of many female authors in SF and fantasy. I don’t know what coloured skin my favourite authors have. Should I? But equal treatment should be in place, and it’s not. Thanks for speaking out.

  25. For those who can’t really see it as clearly in the books as we do (thank you, Emma), here’s an example from Silicon Valley for you (in the area I live in and in the field I’m job hunting in).


    Now, I should add, this is a company that is sponsoring an event at the Grace Hopper Conference (for women in computing). So it’s not like they’re not trying to have a clue. Clearly they have a ways to go yet.
    Deirdre Saoirse Moen recently posted..Fodera Apologizes

  26. Alex F. Fayle says:

    Your books speak for you, Emma. The series had me so angry at the institutionalized sexism in the Split Worlds and it wouldn’t have if the real world wasn’t that far off from what Cathy had to put up with.

    Just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll help advance the cause.
    Alex F. Fayle recently posted..Drabble: Vindication by Maggie Denton

  27. David says:


    Well said. Thank you for introducing me to the Split Worlds. I want to read more and if it doesn’t happen because of stupid prejudice and unchallenged assumptions about who reads and writes what I will… do something very dramatic. But if all those other SFF books by and about women don’t even get published because of said stupid prejudices – that is even worse. This is the 21st century, not the 19th.
    David recently posted..Review: A Different Kingdom by Paul Kearney

  28. […] So, genre and gender is still making the SFF industry look ridiculous, now sufficiently so to catch the derisive attention of reporting well outside the genre, and at the same time as the ripples from that farrage(1) were still crossing the water, (NK Jemisin has a good take on it here) we got Foz Meadows' report that Waterstones' SFF primer is, well,  skewed demographically in a way that does not represent the actual body of writers it is choosing from(2). Emma Newman has a very sound commentary here. […]

  29. I’m glad you found the courage to speak out and hope you, and others, continue to do so. It is sort of strange that so few women would be highlighted, when I look at our bookshelves easily half of the titles were written by women.

  30. Anni Telford says:

    They say feminism is now outmoded and unnecessary, yet sexism still reigns over so many areas of women’s lives. Well done for finding the courage to speak out, now you ‘ve found your voice in the matter never be quiet.

  31. Hey Emma,

    Hello from a fellow SFF author (also repped by uber-talented Jennifer Udden of Donald Maass Literary!) I am also the proud owner of ovaries, which makes me a minority in my chosen genre.

    You’ve just stumbled over one of my triggers, the world of sexism. This is s very real problem, even today when most young women don’t remember the attitudes, the jokes and the stigma that went along with being female and non-traditional. It’s been a battle for the last century and most women don’t realize that the fight is not over. The discrepancy in the literary world is just the tip of the iceberg for women all around the globe but it is a very real and rather dark tip and is probably one of the easier areas to address.

    I blogged about this myself last fall when I received a review for one of my novels, saying in a nutshell, it was a very good book – for a girl. Seriously! Here’s a link if you’d like to read it: http://ow.ly/tVJFv

    I applaud you for overcoming your fears to post this. You were not wrong, you were not emotional. As a storyteller, you feel the deep-rooted need to correct injustice wherever you find it. It’s how we’re wired. So you tell this story, which can become a part of YOUR story. Make it a good one!

    Chat soon,

    H. Leighton Dickson (or Heather, ’cause I’m a girl!)

  32. Velma says:

    Thank you. I am a spec-fic fan, a woman, & I have been following the absurdity that is gender inequity in the publishing industry for long enough to be demoralized by the tenacity of this particular form of discrimination. I’m a loudmouth, & my friends are tired of listening to me rail against sexism. Thank you for adding your voice; at least now I can start pointing out that I’m not alone in my frustration.

    Also: I’ll be looking for your book series now.

  33. Gideon says:

    Emma, great podcast and publishing efforts.

    Why can’t we all be published like Soviet era scientists: V I Eshnikov, P Z Pulnik …or J K Rowling.

    I think one leaflet should not upset you overmuch, still less flashpoint you into a rant at the Injustice of It All. I don’t mean “Calm down, dearie” , what I mean is that Waterstones *do* stock and promote female SF writers – went to a Susan “Dark is Rising” Hill event at Waterstones Piccadilly earlier this year. There have been plenty like it.

    Me, I don’t want to have to consider and confront my own gender/sex bias before reading a work. I enjoyed Delany before knowing he was black, but can conceive of having been put off should any well meaning do-gooders have insisted I must read so as to subvert my assumed prejudice.

    Same for Tiptree (Alice Sheldon, the George Eliot of SF).

    Same for all fiction, ever. I am free to dislike Octavia Butler’s work without fear of being called rascist

    Aside: actually, I just checked and it turns out I havn’t read any OEB. The novel I thought was hers, was a retake on the US South set on a Savannah world where planters rode mounts that were hidden telepaths, and worked the will of the mounts to kill the more intelligent life that were the mounts next development stage. And it wasn’t actually bad. Does anyone know what it is. Darn. Anyway, that’s beside the point, which is….

    .. your various works are wonderful, keep them up. It’s nice to be on a list, but not to be so is not always to be excluded. Quotas suck more than crap listmaking. Make all the fuss you like …. but don’t get reduced to frustrated aching gibbering frustration at the unfairness – because if that leaks into your work, it might not taste the way it should.

  34. Kate says:

    Great piece Emma, thank you. I work for Waterstones, and while I can’t speak for the company, let alone my store, I can speak for myself and the little bit that I run. I’m in charge of the children’s section, and spend a lot of time trying to balance my displays to cater for all types. This is harder than it sounds, as it’s not just about balancing male/female named authors, but also trying to balance by type. Trying to stop my 5-8 table being nothing but Beast Quest and Rainbow Magic, 9-12 being nothing but Wimpy Kid or Jacqueline Wilson, Teen being nothing but Hunger Games or John Green (these all being our biggest sellers). I don’t have much control over what is stocked, that’s pretty much all decided at higher levels and based on historical sales. But there are passionate SF&F booksellers out there who do try to do the same thing, it’s just these days they may have to juggle looking after three other sections as well.
    But thank you again for posting this.
    Gideon – I was at that Susan Cooper event too, wasn’t she just brilliant?! Also, the book you’re thinking of is Grass by Sheri S. Tepper, one of my favourite authors. Read more, Grass is part of a (very loose) trilogy.

  35. Gideon says:

    Kate – thanks for the Tepper tip. Yes Susan Cooper was super – I remember the bit about how she was taught by both Tolkein and by C S Lewis, but Tolkein could be a bit of a mumbler.

    BTW in retrospect, part of my response came from me associating Waterstones with family book buying trips and feeling that they do a pretty fair job of displaying and promoting SF. The store in Bromley has comfy chairs and a TinTin rocket in the kids section for them to sit in. The store in Piccadilly is a booklovers’ dream. Albeit one from which you wake up much poorer bit with a bag full of shiny crisp new books. Oh dear, I feel the yearning.

    My two teenage daughters are past that point but are both devout readers, thank Providence.

  36. Gideon says:

    By a mere two weeks, I missed this fabulous kickstarter :


    Ten times overfunded. Shows the demand is there.

    Thanks Emma for writing on this topic. Been mulling the justice/injustice of it all day, in between cooking watching bad movies and other life churn.

Leave a comment to Gaie Sebold

CommentLuv badge