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I’m not an expert on the current state of SF publishing. Twenty-plus years ago, a distinguished New York editor told me, “Given the current state for publishing, Eleanor, your career as a novelist is dead.”

I think now I shouldn’t have listened to him. But my experiences with the New York houses had not been good. My book covers ranged from mediocre to ghastly. There were problems with editing, especially copy editing and especially the copy editor who had a nervous breakdown while working on one of my books. He was apparently picked up by the cops, wandering through the streets of New York, either naked or with a gun. (I no longer remember which.) The publishing house realized the only copy of the manuscript was in the guy’s apartment, and they couldn’t get to it. Rather than contacting me for another copy, they hunted around the office and found an earlier version of the novel and typeset that. When I got the proofs to go over, I found serious problems, which had to be solved by me reading changes over the phone to an editor in New York with a pen. Of course mistakes were made and appeared in the published version.

As this story suggests, there were problems with communication. Some of these were due to me, though not (I think) the novel typeset from the wrong version of manuscript. New York was entirely responsible for the god-awful covers. One featured a character that wasn’t in my novel, holding a skull, which was also not in the novel. “Who is this woman and why is she on the cover of my novel?” I asked. The editor said they couldn’t put the actual heroine on the cover, since she was of Chinese descent, and covers with non-whites did not sell. They knew the cover was ugly as well as wrong, but they couldn’t afford to commission another cover. So they went with the sultry Southern European holding a skull and falling out of her dress. A staff person at a women’s bookstore told me she had to beg women to buy my novel, because they were repelled by the cover. Since I am a feminist writer, this was a problem.

My experiences with short fiction editors had been fine, and I knew nothing bad about independent presses. I decided to focus on short fiction and non-New York publishing. That’s what I have done for the past 20 years. You don’t build the reputation you would as a popular SF novelist coming out from a New York house, but the stress is far lower.

This brings me to Liz Williams, a wonderful SF writer. I really like her Detective Inspector Chen series, which is a combination of near-future science fiction and fantasy based on Chinese folklore. The books are cop buddy stories: a middle-aged Chinese police inspector is paired with a demon vice cop from the Chinese hell, and they have to learn to get along while solving a supernatural mystery. (A demon vice cop promotes vice, of course.) I find the books charming and funny. E-versions are available from Open Road. Check their website and begin with Snake Agent.

Williams wrote a blog post on the problems faced by midlist novelists and especially woman writers as they age. This is Williams on the midlist:

Money people run the (publishing) industry and there have been significant goal-post moves over the last few decades—e.g., the demise of the mid list. I think that publishers do, in fact, give novelists a half decent chance in terms of the numbers of books they commission (you usually get an initial 2 or 3, then probably a 3 book deal), but they’re one of the few industries which won’t, overall, actively promote new products.

This is really amazing. Most businesses make a big deal out of launching new products. Publishers more or less drop new books over the side of the ship and wait to see what happens. If the book sinks, that’s the end of that author. If it floats, they may buy another novel or a trilogy. This may actually be practical. It may cost less to publish many authors and see who succeeds without help rather than to do market research and serious marketing. But it’s hell on the writers.

It used to be most authors were midlist. They sold adequately. Their books made money, though not as much as a best seller. The publishers kept them as long as their books were not an actual loss. Everything I hear now says this is no longer true. Instead, publishers are looking for breakout novels, novelists who can become best sellers. A Harry Potter or Twilight novelist.

This is a problem for both male and female authors. One male acquaintance sold a four book series to a New York house. The series did fairly well. The books made money. But the house dropped him. His editor said, “We thought you were going to be a breakout author. You aren’t.”

It’s a problem for readers as well. Your favorite author may not be a best seller and thus may have trouble getting published. When this happens, you lose the pleasure of reading that author.

In addition, women have extra problems, as Liz Williams says:

  • we’re not as visible as male writers—e.g. in the news media
  • we don’t tend to sell as well as male writers
  • we don’t feature in anthologies as much as male writers and this is in part due to the selection process (men tend to think of other men, but not of women)
  • there is a Highlander trend when people talk about women SF writers: the past “one” is currently Ursula LeGuin, and the present “chosen one” tends to vary from year to year
  • older/middle aged female writers get pushed off the penultimate rung of the visibility tower: when the lists of women in SF appear, most of us who are 50+ do not feature. Writers of the 70s show up, and some of the younger writers (thankfully), but we do not

Not all writers of the 1970s remain visible. I usually don’t find my name on lists of women SF writers, though I was first published in the 1970s and pretty clearly belong to the Second Wave of Feminism in SF. Women writers tend to vanish, except for a heroic few.

I was part of an online discussion among SF writers about the problems of midlisters. The conclusion was: women have more trouble than men if their career stalls. They are less likely to be able to start again. In addition, older women writers are very likely to vanish completely. Men get more breaks.

This is anecdotal, of course. It’s hard to verify any of this. How do you prove that sexism influences what SF gets bought and sells? A lot of editors are women. You’d think they would be interested in fiction by women. Maybe the audience for SF is still largely male, though that doesn’t seem to be true. The audience for fiction in general is largely women now, and women seem to enjoy SF movies and TV shows. So why do women sell less well? Why do they have more trouble restarting their careers? Why do they vanish as they age, except for the wonderful Ursula K. LeGuin?

There are websites that track how much fiction by women appears in magazines and anthologies vs. fiction by men. There are websites that track awards. As a rule, women are underrepresented.

Then there are stories . . .

A couple of fine women writers I know got green covers for important novels at a time when publishers believed the green covers did not sell. I have no idea why. Maybe the publisher was testing the idea of green-spells-death-for-books.

Melissa Scott’s terrific and important novel Shadow Man gets my pick for the worst cover ever, though it wasn’t green. Instead, it was an unpleasant shade of brown. There is a crudely drawn human figure in the middle distance, partly hidden by the book’s title. An SF editor once told me that covers are what sell SF books, not advertising or reviews. A cover like this one is not likely to sell many books.

I can’t believe that publishers deliberately sabotage covers. I’m not sure what the problem is. But they make a lot of mistakes. Women writers may be more vulnerable, if—as Williams says—we are less visible and sell less well than male writers. When we get a bad cover, it harms us more seriously.

Everything I’m talking about happened a long while ago. Maybe publishing has improved, though Williams—who has more recent experience than I do—says no; and she isn’t optimistic about attempts to deal with the problem:

A lot of people have addressed ways of dealing with all this, and they range from:

  • lists of women writers
  • actively canvassing for more women to be included in anthos (this attracts the usual arguments about positive discrimination)
  • recommendations for self publishing, Patreon and Kickstarters
  • blog posts

I think we’re now in danger of reinventing the wheel. Canvassing for anthos is working, up to a point. The Kickstarters tend to be a bit circular, in that we all end up supporting one another with limited outside input. The recent Nebula list was encouraging. It’s all “up to a point.” But what I want to look at is when you have to go beyond that point, and the stage at which you quit.

If you can’t make a living writing, then you have to get a day job, and that will reduce time for writing. As you age, you have less energy, so getting up early or writing late into the night becomes more difficult. It’s easy, really easy, to become discouraged if you can’t sell what you write. Quitting becomes tempting.

I’m going to stop here, rather than talk about alternatives to quitting.

One final comment: if an author you like vanishes, look around to see if she is now with a small press or self-publishing. The best place to start is Amazon. You don’t have to buy there. Once you know the book title and the publisher, you can go to the publisher’s website.

Eleanor Arnason published her first story in 1973. Since then she has published six novels, two chapbooks and over thirty short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People, won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Mythopoeic Society Award. Her fifth novel, Ring of Swords, won a Minnesota Book Award. Her short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Sidewise, and World Fantasy Awards. Her most recent book, Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens, is available from Aqueduct Press. You can find her blog here.
2 comments on “Me and Science Fiction: Women Writers and the Current State of SF Publishing”

The entire publishing industry is becoming more difficult with authors like New York Times bestselling author Sean Williams losing his Big 5 contract and having to find another home for his books.

However, your comments about visibility — reviews in mainstream media — featuring mostly books by male authors are a statistical fact that disadvantages women authors.

Your comments about women's book covers is concerning: it seems that publishers may dump male authors' rejects on unsuspecting women authors with the expectation that 'women wouldn't sell as well anyway'.

If publishing houses are going to undermine women's efforts by not supporting their novels and dumping rejected covers on women's books, it's time to develop a collective.

For the past few years I've pondered putting together a collective of writers, editors and artists to publish novels with each person involved in the production process receiving a percentage of profits instead of an up-front fee, publishing ebooks first with kickstarters to fund print publications. The reasons I haven't launched it are that I'm aware that, being a disabled woman, my efforts will not be taken seriously, and certain authors have been rather aggressive about my inability to pay them when they want free publicity (eg for guest blogs). Perhaps some nondisabled man can take point. Different rules apply to the menz. >:-]

I believe a publishing collective could be the answer, evolving into a respectable small press publishing only good-quality well-edited stories with attractive appropriate covers.

Oh, yes, I remember that sultry skull-fondling cover well! And I am very glad that even back then my experience with SF/F publishing had trained me to ignore cover art entirely.

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