The scent of bias ink…

by Gina Burgess

In 1998 Harper’s published an essay by Francine Prose called Scent of a Woman’s Ink. In it she expounds on the disparity of publishers’ perception between women’s writing and men’s writing. She suggests that it is the male readers who don’t precisely align with metaphors that women use – house, garden, madness – or that women tell us things we don’t want to hear. Or, perhaps, it is that women writers just don’t write anything important. That was 20 years ago. Have things changed since then?

Maybe not as much as we’d like to think. In 2015, Catherine Nichols sent out 50 queries under her own name (completely acceptable) and 50 queries under George’s name (skating on the edge of acceptable). All totaled, George received 17 requests for the manuscript, but Catherine only receive two. That means that George was an eight-times better writer than Catherine, or rather, that was the perception of the agents queried. “My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me—Catherine,” she said.

All this was after her writer friends had sent her manuscript to their own agents extolling the work. The rejections all mentioned the wonderful writing, but no real, coherent problem with the book were outlined.

The rejection letters written to George were full of constructive comments, and no one said anything about the main character not being “feisty.” They used words such as “clever,” “well-constructed,” and “exciting.”

The problem is that when writers receive these rejection letters that use words such as “dislikable” and “not very plucky,” or a yawning silence returns, the whole can affect the writer’s self-confidence. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Is it really a gender problem? Back in 1870s, George Eliot must have thought so. Her real name was Mary Ann. And George Sand must have as well. She was known as Lucille as a little girl. And A. M. Bernard was really Louisa May Alcott.

Let’s not forget that many male authors wrote under pseudonyms as well: Mark Twain, George Orwell, Lewis Carroll. Publishers thought no respecting reader could possible swallow how prolific a writer Dean Koontz was so he published under three pseudonyms so he could publish four books per year.

But getting back to why women have assumed obvious male names. This apparent publishing industry bias comes from agents and publishers both male and female. It is geared toward both male and female writers if they are not famous people who do famous things, or who don’t have thousands of dollars of book sales, or who don’t (or can’t) market themselves and their books.

As I see it, it isn’t wholly a gender problem.

Catherine Nichols raises some good questions. Is it unconscious bias? Is it a conditioning that people in the industry consciously or unconsciously absorb from their industry mentors?

I have a few myself. Is this truly a pervasive bias that insidiously works its way into the fibers of not only newbie authors, but also chips away at the mental health of veteran authors? Do we authors allow someone else’s considered, or perhaps not so considered, opinion to affect our thinking?

I had this bias myself mores the shame. I was so wrong. It was not gender related. It was newbie writer and debut author related. More than a decade ago, I cannot tell you how many struggling-to-be-noticed debut authors I quashed with my harsh criticism in reviews and manuscript critiques. “I didn’t know,” should never be an excuse. I should have known because I suffered from that yawning silence and those harsh rejection letters. I suffered zero encouraging words. I even paid $400 for a critique that was so discouraging, I set the whole thing so far aside I still don’t know where that manuscript is. But I learned from that. While working for seven of the most taxing and exacting employers (local government board members), I learned how debilitating discouragement is. While working for a chamber of commerce, I learned how a bruised and aching soul responds to zero encouragement after putting heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears into various projects.

Rejection is hard to take even when it is served warm and friendly with good constructive advice. Rejection is worse when dished up like cold oatmeal. There is also something to be said about the gushing review that just retells the story, but has no meat that addresses why the story is good. How do authors learn from that? Is there a happy medium somewhere?

There is always something worthy in a manuscript. Out of the hundreds of books I have critiqued and/or edited, I’ve only read one that was unsalvageable, and that was because it was completely incoherent. The person must have just drained a fifth of Jack Daniels… in the space of a couple of hours not days. Nothing exactly wrong with consuming alcohol while writing, but sobriety does lead to coherency.

What’s a writer to do?

Take heart.

Alice Walker’s manuscript in 1981, The Color Purple, was rejected because she used too many exclamation points. In 1928, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, was rejected because he referred to Youngling Beer too many times. In 1953, J. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was rejected because the entire novel is in quotes and is attributed to “some old dumbass in a porta-potty somewhere.” You can read the rest of these rejection letters here.

Acceptance and rejection are purely matters of opinion. Remember one young writer’s experience when she copy/pasted one of Jane Austin’s books into manuscript form and sent it to an agent. She promptly got a rejection letter, but not that the book was classic Jane Austin, nor a reprimand for plagiarism. No, the manuscript was too staid and old-fashioned. That manuscript would never sell. Insert a shocked expression here.

That is why we should choose the agents we send our work to carefully. There is a website that lists which agents represent which famous authors. That gives a legitimacy to the agents, and it helps you understand what genre and type of writing the agents are looking to represent. Check out Query Tracker.

For those who are already published and already have some reviews, check out the reviewer who explains why they like or dislike your book. Ask them if they’d like to be one of your beta readers, but explain to them exactly what responsibility a beta reader has. Or send them links to Can Beta Readers Replace Editors? and Meet Your New Best Friends: Critique Partners and Beta Readers.

What in the world does this have to do with publishing industry bias?

Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and since acceptance and rejection are matters of opinion, why not submit the best possible manuscript anyway? Take to heart the encouraging words from a developmental editor, a beta reader, a reviewer. That means constructive criticism is necessary. You need someone to see the big picture and make sure it makes sense. You need someone who will tell you honestly if something in your book might be too offensive. You need someone to tell you what is working and what needs some work. Developmental/substantive editors are an investment, but well worth the cost. They are professionals, and they will catch a multitude of things that the non-professionals won’t. Beta readers are a second best necessity for suggestions on the coherency of your work. Reviewers are priceless, but come after your work is ready to be published or is already published.

Never take rejection personally. If you believe in your work, and your development editor and/or beta readers agree with you that it is a worthy manuscript, don’t stop at the 75th rejection. Keep on.

Or, publish it yourself.

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14 thoughts on “The scent of bias ink…”

  1. Indeed, it’s not a gender problem. It’s a publisher’s problem. They’ve made publishing an allusive dream for writers. All the “encouraging” articles, like this one, do not change the fact there is a limit to the number of closed doors and brick walls we writers can encounter. As long as those old dogs refuse to learn new tricks, writers will change the face of publishing on their own.

  2. This past August, I shared with a woman who was attending the same writing conference I was that I had a hard time getting acceptance from a certain magazine. Her reply was, “You know why don’t you? You’re a woman. I also read several years ago to not mention or dwell upon our age. Yes, the article said that editors did practice ageism.

    1. I’ve heard that, too, Cecelia.

      I’ve also heard: One way to recognize an older author is the “old-fashioned” words used.

      It is actually that wordsmiths use lots and lots of words. The average teenager knows and uses approximately 800 words regularly. The average college student should be using at least 1,200 unique words regularly, but sadly they don’t. It isn’t that we’re old, it’s that we use lots and lots of different words–and yes, that might require using a dictionary once in a while!

  3. Dear Gina Burgess,

    This is a good essay. Women get discriminated against in jobs, in publishing, in nonprofit organizations, in government, in medical care, in religious organizations, etc. There are literary journals that focus on work by women, such as Calyx, Earth’s Daughters, Iris, etc. that we can submit our writing to. We need to believe in ourselves and find constructive critics who will foster the strengths of our work and help us to revise the weaker aspects.

    Best wishes for the spring!

    Janet Ruth Heller
    Author of the poetry books Exodus (WordTech Editions, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012) and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011), the scholarly book Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (University of Missouri Press, 1990), the award-winning picture book for children about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006; 4th edn. 2014), and the middle-grade fiction chapter book for kids The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015).
    My website is

    1. Exactly, Janet. I think there is a lot of truth to what Francine Prose suggests: things we don’t want to hear such as feminists’ viewpoint, women’s perspectives might be focused too hard on the homefront for some other women’s taste. You want to kick up a tidal wave, then expound on the joys of homemaking and child bearing/rearing. Men yawn and feminists go ballistic. Hmmm it’s such a big world, why do we have to conform to what society deems?

  4. I’ve never really understood bias; I either like a story or I don’t. Plus, and I’m ashamed as a writer to admit this, I have a bad habit of not paying any attention to the author’s name when I pick up a book.

    I suppose the opposite bias happens too, for a male romance writer like me. I’m told most guys who write romance go under a female pen name–but they are getting published, at least some of them. And, much to my surprise, my first publisher didn’t ask for a female alias. In any case, I do like the idea some magazine publishers have, of separating a manuscript from any identifiers and judging it by its merits alone.

    1. Mark, I was notorious about not checking the author name, so I had a hard time finding more books by the same author. I’m going to check out your books. I quite like Nicholas Sparks’ male perspective. I’ll check out yours 🙂 I wrote numerous articles for journals and did what most academic authors do (used initials) because academics try not to judge according to gender. Amazingly, I did get published using my real first name (Regina). So go figure…

    2. I like that too. I want my name on my book eventually. But if it can get past the front door as a no-name, then so be it. Stephen King and others have been rejected when they were anonymous. Just goes to show, you can’t judge a book without a name — ultimately:)

  5. I’ve actually been proceeding with the view that the opposite bias is in place, although I have no scientific study to substantiate it. My thoughts: 1. Research does show that the vast majority of readers are women. 2. Research shows that the majority of readers prefer authors of their own gender. 3. The majority of literary agents are women. All of these things point to an advantage of being a woman if you’re an author. It’s interesting that the above article contradicts this. It’s also interesting that the queries generated something other than form letter rejections, which is what the vast majority of queries get. I’m very happy to be wrong. For the top NYT bestsellers this year so far, 5/8 authors were women. Bottom line is: what do you do about it? Use initials instead of your first name? Use a pseudonym? Don’t include a photo of yourself? I think many of us would be willing to not identify our gender if that made the difference in attracting a large readership. Thanks for the article!

    1. Ya know, GH, I know there is tremendous bias in the Christian publishing arena because even my pastor told me not to get discouraged because other pastors would not recommend my book because 1. I had no Divinity Doctorate, 2. I was a… you guessed it, a woman, 3. without both–I probably would not sell a lot of books. I thought, well, what about Beth Moore, Joyce Meyer, Anne Graham Lott, and Priscilla Shirer? Some have Master’s, but I don’t think a one has a Doctorate. Then I realized, actually God is in control and He will put my non-fiction books in the hands of those who need them, and if my sci-fi takes off, it will be because God wills that, too, and has lit a fire under me to market them LOL. I agree, I’d rather not identify my gender.

  6. I’ve enjoyed the article and the comments. And perhaps ageism is a greater barrier than sexism. I’ve tried to use my age to advantage with the “Grandma’s Bookshelf” idea. Grandmas are an important part of my demographic.

  7. Cicely van Straten

    I’ve found great amusement over this in my 40-year writing career in South Africa. Initially I wrote for children then for youth and now, a late maturer (hope I never fully get there!) I’m writing for adults with ‘A Missing Madonna’ that celebrates the resilience, recovery and laughter in the country I grew up in, Uganda, which went through hell but is now a different place. This book was awarded at one of our indie publishers fests last year – but in the YA category! Oh well! As a children’s author, when accosted by some `big man’ in a publishers’ gathering, I was often asked what I wrote. When I said I wrote for children the reply was usually ‘Ai toggies!’ (Afrikaans for ‘Oh, that’s sweet!’) We were and still are a patriarchal society. But, look at individuals: my late husband was an Afrikaans-speaking author who was also fiction editor at a prestigious SA publisher. His personal encouragement, respect and immense and patient critical input for his women authors made me quite jealous. I didn’t get the same treatment! Once, when I asked him to check out an Afrikaans translation of one of my books, he asked to see the original English text and sadly, but gently shook his head and said, `Jy skryf nes ‘n vroumens! (You write just like a woman.) I am one, I said. What he meant was I used too many words. Description and atmosphere were major for me and I learned over the years to cut, cut, cut. His own writing was known for brevity. Now this veteran author is suffering from a decade of sorrowing rejection – but not for gender reasons! In the last 20 years South Africa has seen an appalling decline in educational standards for our indigenous children – those I wrote for for many years. Literacy levels have dropped dramatically. Our local publishers (all dependent on major outputs into education in order to survive) have been reduced to one third of their number. I’ve written on an upward trajectory for ‘my’ children and ten years ago completed an epic trilogy depicting the initiate’s journey, plus the feeling of indigenous people faced with an alien, hi-tech, invasive `civilisation’ desecrating their land and lives. I also write very ‘green’ for youth. The north and west has much to learn for the traditional African reverence for nature . The books are fantasy with sci-fi elements. One rejection has followed another because: `Though the writing is beautiful etc… we can’t market this now because it’s at too high a level for our readers.’ `Fantasy is out in South Africa now.’ ‘This book will not make money for us now.’ And more of the same.
    The point I make is: do we, today, not suffer as much from the ‘This will/will not make big bucks?’ bias as from gender bias? When my husband was a fiction editor, his firm published the good money-spinners but kept a special and prestigious place for poetry (much treasured by the Afrikaans community) which, with its small print runs, never made money. But, for the love of fine work, it was subsidised by the money-spinners. Does this attitude still operate globally?

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