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Old 19th January 2012, 03:16 AM   #1 (permalink)
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The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

The following questions and answers were derived from the portion of an article about Nat Sobel, the literary agent. Credit goes to Jofie Ferrary-Ader as the writer.



Interviewer: "People in the business talk about how eight out of ten readers, or whatever the number actually is, are women. I think it's very difficult for young male writers to get published, especially today. I wonder what you think about that and how you've dealt with that in your career."


Sobal: "I certainly think it's very difficult for male writers who are not writing thrillers. They have a much tougher road. We've read a number of pretty good novels by male writers that we know just won't go. Male coming-of-age novels are impossible to sell. We've already talked about how it's getting more and more difficult to sell fiction. Let me give you a better picture of it by looking back on last year. Five of us in the agency read submissions, everyone downstairs and Judith and myself. Five of us. We have an editorial meeting on Thursdays. I never talk to Judith about what I've read except at this meeting so it's all fresh for all of us. We generally read partial manuscripts, or complete manuscripts. Everyone averages about two of those per week. So, in an average year, that's more than five hundred manuscripts. Last year, from those five hundred books, we took on three new writers. And we were only able to sell one of them. Remember that much of what we get is from writers I've written to after reading their stories in the literary journals?we get very little over the transom. So look at those odds.

They're very tough."


Interviewer: "Damn right. We've spent a lot of time editing through second and third drafts and finally abandoning books because we don't think we can get the writer up to the level we want. We have to give up on them. Occasionally those books will get published too. But the odds are really difficult, and for the male writers it's even harder.


Is there anything they can do to make their odds better?"


Sobal: "I'm always looking for the unusual. I think it may require writing something of a historical nature, with a historical setting. They have to be able to get an idea of what's on the best-seller list today and see that, outside the thriller genre, there aren't too many male fiction writers who are succeeding. And I don't think that's going to change for a while."


"But isn't that troubling?"


"Sure it's troubling. I think it's troubling for all literary fiction writers today. But particularly for the male writers, who are only gradually becoming aware of how limiting that audience is. But I think you can find good male writers who can write from the woman's point of view, too. I remember a first novel I sold years ago. The writer himself was in his early thirties, but the novel was a first-person novel from the point of view of a sixty-two-year-old woman. It was entirely in first person, and it was a terrific story. It began his career. So if a male writer can write from the female point of view, or has a story that will interest a woman's audience, I think he has a better chance than somebody who's writing the kind of Hemingway-esque stuff we read in school."
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I've been aware of this industry condition for the past three years. Painfully so. So has my male agent. And now Nat lays in on the line. I'm seeing, via my own group's stats and those of Publishers Market Place, reported sales that are approaching 70% female-centric, for debut authors. Given the fact that the largest reading and purchasing group are women, this is not surprising at all. Sixty-five percent of all books purchased are by women. I think women might account for as much as 70% (my high figure) of the entire fiction reading public. Most of these new releases are penned by young women--sometimes, very young gals, as is the case with YA titles.


This is not sour grapes and I'm not intending to start a gender flame war. But the fact of the matter is, is that the male debut novelist is becoming somewhat of a literary dodo. Due to best-selling current trends, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and YA in all of the sub-genres, we're finding that female writers have really staked their claim out in these areas and their readership is almost entirely other females.


Truly, I had to give up SF for the simple fact that nobody, and I mean nobody, was buying it, other than the well-known trade publishers, who signed with established name authors in the business. SF, as we all know, is predominently penned by male writers, except for the new emergence of SF romance. There are some wonderful females SF scribes out there, but how many debut female authors are writing hard SF or space opera?


Nat claims that males might have their only chance in the niche of thrillers. The NYC houses are run by nearly all female editors and, young ones, whose tastes are almost collaborative. From a psychological standpoint, it is not very hard to understand that a female editor is less likely to be endeared to a male MC written in a male voice. Gawd knows there are exceptions, and some male-centric books get through and go on to print.


Let me make this clear: I'm not talking about midlist or bestselling male authors who are appearing on the NYT list, or who are great backlist sellers. I'm talking about debut authors in the past three years. Just exactly where are the contracts going? That's my question. I've had J.K. Rowling thrown up in my face for evidence that this just wasn't true, since Harry was a male lead, and the series has been the most successful in popularity and sales ever. But I am talking about adult fiction--not YA. YA fiction is dominated by female authors. And HP did start out essentially as Young Adult.


I also believe that Joe Konrath, writer of the Jack Daniels mystery series, might not have been published if not for the fact that he made his MC a female detective, and scratched his male name from the book's title. What does that tell you? He admits to to failing to sell nine books prior to his popular JD series. (He's a wonderful writer, by the by)

I know of some publishing houses that state implicitly that there will be only female leads used in the storyline, and that sex and romance must weigh heavily in the plot. Juno is one of them.


Techno Books (The packager) has just announced that it is discontinuing their entire spec fiction line. They are leaving only mysteries open for submission, plus their Impressions line--which is all romance, covering ALL sub genres, including paranormal and fantasy. Now, does that make sense? Once again, evidence of a major industry shift. There's no question that readers rule, and the readers are women. BTW, women rule too!


I've always heard and believed that if you write a great, compelling story, it will find worthy publication. And this is true, and women do admit to reading a ton of male-oriented books. So what's really changed? I'm going to toss this one on the bean counters--marketing. The demographics support the math equations--it's numbers There are exceptions, but they are so far, few and in between that they are not worth mentioning.


What have I learned? The only control I have over this is to employ some empowered females in all of my stories from here on out. I sincerely believe Nat when he says that the male writer will have to learn how to effectively write female lead characters into his storyline if he is to stand any chance of publication.


I never thought that writing could get any harder than it is.

What's the solution? GUYS, get your butts out there and purchase your favorite books--support your genre. Okay? Then read those books and spread the word, blog about it, tell everybody you know about what a wonderful story it was. And the next time you're standing in line with your wife at K-Mart, Cosco, Wal-Mart, or any other retail store, make a bold move and buy a book. Your wife is very likely to pick up that romance book on the rack right next to the checkout counter. Oh, yeah, you did't know about that sales tactic? Get smart...expand your genre horizons.

Turn me over, I'm done.


Arguments, comments welcomed. What do you think, gals and guys?
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Old 19th January 2012, 07:23 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

It's complete rubbish. In science fiction, women are definitely in a minority and find it harder to be published and reviewed. There was a huge discussion on this last year, and a number of people published numbers to back up this assertion.

Any claims to the contrary, irrespective of genre, sound to me like sour grapes.
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Old 19th January 2012, 07:58 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

I agree with Ian. In romance, certainly, and in certain subgenres of SFF like paranormal romance, female writers are more numerous. Everywhere else, women writers are in the minority. It's the huge, huge popularity of romance and women's fiction amongst the predominantly female reading population that skews the overall statistics.

What I am seeing in SFF of late is women doing well in awards. Maybe it's because we have to be superlative to get noticed in the crowd of male writers? Anyway, it's gratifying...

But yes, if you can't get published, that's just a reflection of how tough it is for anyone to get a contract these days. It's got nothing to do with your dangly bits, dude

I'm aware that I'm saying this as a female debut author with a three-book deal - but in the same year I and a couple of other women were signed by Angry Robot, at least twice that many male debut authors were signed - and that's by a publisher who's actively looking for books that will appeal to women readers, because of the afore-mentioned demographics. Some of the guys are writing tough urban fantasy a la Jim Butcher, some write more epic fantasy, some write SF. The point is that they're all writing in commercially viable subgenres.

Last edited by Anne Lyle; 19th January 2012 at 08:10 AM.
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Old 19th January 2012, 10:22 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

I suspect the original article is half true. But certainly, as ever, it shows how tough this business is.
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Old 19th January 2012, 12:26 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

I have a question - what would happen with a female pen name? Or does that happen already in fact? Of course it did used to happen in reverse with women authors publishing under male names, but I wonder if there are any male authors masquerading as females in name at least, in order to sell books of a certain genre to a certain demographic?
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Old 19th January 2012, 01:16 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

I know there are male romance writers who use female pen names, though often the fact is an open secret. I guess it's thought that a male name might put off a new reader. I don't think it's prevalent outside category romance (Harlequin, etc); there's no reason for it.

Going back to the original post, I do think that male writers in all genres could do with creating more strong female characters, though. There's been a certain laziness, especially in, say, epic fantasy - a tendency to pander to the young male demographic with stereotypical damsels and wenches rather than real people. Female readers are turned off by these kind of books - we want to read about women whose role is rather more than rape/kidnap victims!
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Old 19th January 2012, 05:37 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

Going back to the original post, I do think that male writers in all genres could do with creating more strong female characters, though. There's been a certain laziness, especially in, say, epic fantasy - a tendency to pander to the young male demographic with stereotypical damsels and wenches rather than real people. Female readers are turned off by these kind of books - we want to read about women whose role is rather more than rape/kidnap victims!

This is exactly my point. I said said/meant guys would do well to develope and introduce empowered females, ones who have significant, meaningful roles in the storyline. The industry shift is upon the male writer to adjust, and you can't say that nothing has changed in the last years, or even the last decade. You can take my commentary completey out of the original post and still remain with a stark truth offered by a leading A-list agent. My last agent also backed up Sobal's views after his last visit to the BEA. My agent didn't advise to me to run for the hills, throw up my hands and quit. It was suggested that I try my hand at some paranormal fantasy or some heavily based romance tomes, featuring strong female leads, which I did. It worked for me. My next three books featured female MCs in thriller and adventure settings, with romantic subplots. Bam! I can tell you there was a dramatic change in my acceptance level, for the better from agents and publishers.
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Old 19th January 2012, 06:32 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

That female demographic is hard to ignore, it's true. I just think that this is so contrary to the experience of SFF writers that you ain't going to get much sympathy on this particular forum
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Old 20th January 2012, 10:03 AM   #9 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

Been doing that since I got published...
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Old 22nd January 2012, 12:54 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

Quote:
Originally Posted by Stephen Palmer View Post
Been doing that since I got published...
Writing empowered female characters?

From what I've seen, I would agree that you are very good at that.
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Old 22nd January 2012, 03:06 PM   #11 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

Quote:
Originally Posted by Triceratops View Post
... a tendency to pander to the young male demographic with stereotypical damsels and wenches rather than real people. Female readers are turned off by these kind of books - we want to read about women whose role is rather more than rape/kidnap victims!
Hmmm. I'm not sure anyone ever expressed sentiments of this sort to David Gemmell. Which will be why my wife isn't keen on his stuff.

If I think of my favourite male authors (Guy Gavriel Kay, for example) they're very skilled with a female POV. Although good writing wins out. Joe Abercrombie, for example, has certainly lacked compelling female POVs, but the work is so good it's still been a great success.

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Old 22nd January 2012, 03:39 PM   #12 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

If you want to write to the market, there's no denying that paranormal romance, urban fantasy and steampunk are doing well commercially at the moment. But to write to the market you have to be, well, a bit of a hack - you have to knock out what everybody wants in quick-time. Paranormal romance and urban fantasy generally have female protagonists, though whether that's because of its reading demographic or simply an unquestioned given of the sub-genre, I wouldn't like to speculate. Certainly, male authors across all modes of genre fiction need to start writing more female characters - and not just that, they need to write female characters with agency. They should also start putting some diversity into their fiction. But that's an argument for another day.

Male authors can mansplain and "oh woe is us poor mens" as much as they want, but the fact remains that women writers have a much tougher time of it, and even when they are published they are much less visible - thanks to, er, men.
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Old 22nd January 2012, 04:33 PM   #13 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

I'm interested in whether any other men are slightly afraid or nervous about trying to create a female character?

I am not one to cast females in roles of victims or weakness, but I find in myself a tendency to stay away from them because I am concerned I may be bad at writing them! Would my female character really be a female, or would it be a male-distorted view of what a female is? Even if I am making them capable and potent as characters, would there be some essential "femininity" that I am missing, or over exaggerating, or even making up?

Or are people just people, whether they are male or female? Thus one shouldn't worry too much about it, and just make them a good character? Should an author worry about whether a reader will think "Rubbish! No woman would think / say / do / feel that!"

And do women have the same concerns about writing male characters?

As a note, the second most major character in 'Undercurrents' is indeed female, and on many levels more potent and decisive than the main character. I am not sure though whether she could have just as easily been male, and I am not sure whether that's a good thing (no sexism in turning her into a particular thing due to her sex), or a bad thing (isn't developed enough as "a woman")

Ok so it's kind of off the original topic, but it's some of the thoughts that have arisen for me in reading this
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Old 22nd January 2012, 06:14 PM   #14 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

I suppose, if you really are unsure of writing females, you could give yourself writing exercises to improve them, and get women to tell you how you are doing.

I haven't yet decided if I am stronger at writing one or the other, or about equal.
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Old 22nd January 2012, 07:02 PM   #15 (permalink)
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Re: The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

To all the guys out there, I would suggest making your female characters real people first and foremost, and then worry about whether they are "female enough" later. Women are very variable in their "feminine" traits - for example, I'm pretty assertive and have minimal interest in babies, in fact I prefer hanging out with guys in order to avoid tedious conversations about handbags

Get a female beta-reader if you're really worried, preferably a couple of different women. Also, odd as it sounds, resource websites for transsexuals are a goldmine of information on how to fit in around the "opposite" sex!
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