Today I’m feeling extremely happy and fortunate that years ago I decided I wanted to write romance novels. Back then, I wanted to write books that had happy endings, and I wanted to write in a genre that celebrated women’s goals. Of course, romance novelists (and book buyers) are overwhelmingly female, as are many of the editors, designers, and others who produce them, so it’s a female thing right down the line. That gives me a good feeling (although of course I also read books by male authors and enjoy those, too).
Usually at the Eight Ladies we talk about writing, but today I want to talk about publishing because we’ve all had our ups and downs with submissions, contests, rejections, and wins. The other day I read an article about Catherine Nichols, who wrote a literary novel and wanted to get it published. So she sent it out to 50 agents and received two manuscript requests. Yay, right?
Not so fast. Then she tried an experiment. She set up a new email address using a male pseudonym and submitted the same cover letter and pages to a different 50 agents using her male name. This time, she got 17 manuscript requests.
Agents said that Catherine Nichols’s work contained “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?” However, responses to her male name, even when the manuscript was rejected, included adjectives such as “clever,” “well-constructed,” or “exciting.”
Nichols avoided sending her submission to the same agents, but in one case, an agent who’d rejected Catherine’s book asked to read the book by her male name, and then asked to send that book to a more senior agent. The 50 agents, Nichols reports in an essay she wrote for Jezebel, were both men and women. “[B]ias would hardly have a chance to damage people if it weren’t pervasive,” she writes.
The literary world has been scrutinized for its anti-woman bias. The 2014 Vida survey shows that there are both far fewer female reviewers and female authors reviewed, and author Nicola Griffith recently surveyed novels featuring male protagonists and learned that they’re more likely to win literary awards.
Does this story have a happy ending? Would I be a romance novelist if it didn’t? Nichols has used the comments she received as her male counterpart to rework her novel and now has an agent. That’s great news.
But in the worlds of romance, women’s fiction, and young adult novels, female authors rule. We’re the vast majority of the writers, reviewers, and prize winners. That’s one of the reasons I started writing romance novels in the first place. And today—knowing that I’m in such great company—makes me very happy.